Natural Talent

One of my best trombone teachers gave me a great insight into how to get better at something. She was a very, very good trombonist; she made her living teaching and playing trombone. I was lucky to study under her. Most of her students were high school kids with dreams and the potential of going pro. I was in my mid-twenties and willing to work hard and pay more than was probably reasonable.

At one point, reflecting on her life and her career, she mentioned what she thought made her good at teaching. "The people in the Boston Symphony are all amazing musicians, but they're all naturals. None of them has had to struggle with their embouchure, or needed to motivate themselves to practice four hours a day. So they don't know how to help those who are struggling."

There's an underlying wisdom here that's not about playing an instrument, or being an elite orchestral musician. It isn't about the Dunning-Kruger effect either. It's about knowing how you do what you do.

Getting better at a skill involves practice and self-evaluation. When your talent is strong enough, you tend to forget the self-evaluation. There are things we get "good enough" at, or things we're talented enough at to not really need to understand the underlying details of how we do what we do.

A good example is typing. When is the last time you've really thought about your typing habits? Every once in a while, I try to take a step back and evaluate how I'm typing, and see how I can tweak my typing.

What's something that's important, but so easy you take it for granted? Think about big things in your life, as well as small things. What's something you've been doing effortlessly for so long, the state of the art has changed?

Back up, examine it, and try to figure out how you could improve it. You'll likely get in your own way at first, but the only way to get better at anything is to do it, and evaluate how to do it better.