A tennis coach once asked me: “What’s the difference between you and Roger Federer?”
About a billion dollars was my first thought but I sensed that wasn’t the response he was looking for.
Fortunately, he didn’t wait for my reply and gave me the answer: “Practice”
At some point, you have been a beginner at something: walking, playing a musical instrument, skiing, driving a car, Tetris …
But if you practised, invariably you got better.
What is it about repeating an activity that enables you to do it better – and how does understanding this help you to become more flexible and productive?
The answer lies in your brain.
Your every thought, feeling and movement is the result of brain cells, neurons, becoming active, or ‘firing’, and connecting with each other. The process is described succinctly by Hebb’s Rule:
neurons that fire together, wire together
If you were to pick-up a tennis racket for the first time and start playing, there’s a good chance that very shortly, you’ll be asking a stranger if you can have your ball back (please) after it skyrockets out of the court. In your first swings of the racket, your brain is consciously trying to adjust your movements – your head, arm, hand, feet – all while tracking a moving ball. That’s a lot of information to process and your conscious brain has a limited capacity, so it’s no surprise that you make a few mistakes.
Gradually, however, you begin to improve. You start to get your feet in the correct place and you’re timing the swing of your racket. The right neurons are firing and your brain is connecting them. But these connections will dissolve very quickly unless they are reinforced. By continuing to practise, the connections become more stable as they are insulated by a substance called myelin. (I’ll say a little more on how you can accelerate this process shortly.)
When there are stable connections, the corollary of Hebb’s Rule comes into play:
neurons that wire together, fire together
What this means in practice is that if a neuron in a connected cluster fires, then the other neurons in that cluster will also fire – automatically. There is no need for conscious thought. For the tennis stroke, the basic movements happen unconsciously, leaving your conscious mind free to focus on shot selection. The neural connections that constitute a good forehand stroke have become your default.
Neuroscientist Sebastian Seung compares these default connections to a streambed. When the rain falls (the ball comes over the net), the water could flow in any direction (your neurons could connect randomly) but the presence of streambeds (stable neural connections) means that the water is likely to flow in a particular way. And the more rain that falls (balls hit), the deeper the streambeds become and the less chance there is of other connections.
“In the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome [the total neural connections in your brain].” Sebastian Seung
Neural Connections and Success
One final mention of tennis. As you see a ball come over the net, that information passes from your eyes to your brain and neurons are activated and, automatically and unconsciously, connections are made to the neurons associated with your backhand. It’s the equivalent of a program running on a computer. It’s an IF, THEN routine; IF this happens, THEN do that. It’s incredibly efficient.
And you have thousands of such programs waiting to run in your brain. In the words of Professor Timothy Wilson:
“humans possess a collection of modules that have evolved over time and operate outside of consciousness.”
Neuroscientist Christoph Koch refers to these modules as ‘zombie systems’. While MIT Professor and Turing Award winner Marvin Minsky prefers the term, ‘mental agents’:
“Each mental agent by itself can only do some simple thing that needs no mind or thought at all. Yet when we join these agents … this leads to intelligence.”
We are, to a large extent, a bundle of programs.
Consider your personality. You didn’t wake up this morning and consciously decide to be an introvert or an extrovert; you just are. Your default neural connections predispose you to think and behave in a particular way: social and talkative or quiet and thoughtful. You may be tidy and systematic or chaotic and spontaneous.
But we have seen that we can rewire our brain when developing a new skill. So can we change the more ‘fundamental’ modules; can we change our personality, our emotions, our habits?
Sebastian Seung believes so:
“There is reason to believe that we shape our own connectomes by the actions we take, even by the things we think. Brain wiring may make us who we are, but we play an important role in wiring up our brains.”
She’s attending a public training course and arrives early for the pre-course coffee. Within minutes she has introduced herself and is laughing and swapping stories about the weekend with her fellow participants. Meanwhile, Mike is sitting at a table alone, scrolling through the news on his phone. He knows that this could be a valuable networking opportunity but he’s settled into his default pattern when meeting strangers.
How can Mike rewire and become more sociable? First, let me stress. I am not suggesting that introverts should become extroverts. As an introvert myself, I feel that the world is already noisy enough. However, the more flexible Mike can be, the greater value he will be able to extract from each situation.
The key to increasing flexibility is to intervene consciously before the program begins to run. Returning to Seung’s streambed metaphor, once the water is cascading down the deep grooves of your personality, it will be hard to divert it down a barely visible alternative channel. By identifying the triggers for his behaviour pattern, Mike can prepare in advance to act differently. Will this be easy? No. But, as we saw in learning a skill, new connections can be developed. And, the process of developing skills provides an insight into how we can increase our flexibility and develop the kind of habits that support our success.
Anders Ericsson conducted extensive research into skill development and concluded that the major factor separating the best from the rest is not raw talent but deliberate practice.
“Deliberate practice is about changing your performance, setting new goals and straining yourself to reach a bit higher each time.”
Deliberate practice requires intense focus because, as Cal Newport says:
“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits – effectively cementing the skill … avoiding distraction is … the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.”
Therefore, increasing your flexibility will take effort. If you’re an introvert like Mike, reading an article with a title like “5 Ways To Become The Life And Soul Of Any Party” is unlikely to yield positive results. There are 5 steps to increasing flexibility:
- be clear about the value of any changes – will the effort justify the rewards?
- identify the triggers for your current behaviours and your thought patterns at the time
- decide on how you would like to think and behave
- if appropriate, develop skills to support the change – to be a better networker, for instance, active listening is critical
- then think and act and think and act and think and act … until you create new streambeds
This is a process that I have been through. For the last 20 years I have delivered training courses, presenting to groups of leaders around the world. When I began, I was terrified. It felt so alien to an introverted bookworm like me. I was so concerned about remembering what to say that I came close to scripting and memorizing word-for-word an entire 3-day program.
But once I had overcome my initial nerves at the start of a course, I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that I gained from working with intelligent, enthusiastic leaders. So I changed the way I thought about presenting, I learned from other trainers and then I deliberately practised.
Now, I confidently stand in front of hundreds of people with barely a trace of nerves. I’ve created new neural pathways. The other pathways still exist and while I may talk the most during the day on a training course, I am likely to be the quietest in the evening.
Your brain’s ability to restructure itself, neuroplasticity, means that you do not have to accept your current limitations.
“If we have no permanent, unchanging core, then it follows that who we are is not just a given. Rather, we become who we are in part through our actions and choices. Being you is an exercise in constant self-creation …”
This is incredibly liberating. But there is a downside.
There are no more excuses.
“I can’t” must be replaced with “I choose not to”.
If you have developed new streambeds, I would love to hear from you.
 Prof. Timothy Wilson, Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
 Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind
 Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments, K Anders Ericsson
 Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
 The Shrink and the Sage by Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro