Sometimes we need to give up on things — projects, jobs, relationships, and dreams. It’s important to know when to stop. But more often than not we need to resist temptation to give up when the journey becomes difficult, otherwise life can become just a series of abandoned projects, half-learned languages, dropped out courses, and never realised expertise.
If we want to get good at anything and feel confident about it doing it, we need to keep at it , particularly when it’s difficult; whether it’s public speaking, learning a new language, establishing a career, writing a book, painting, or playing the guitar. We need to (1) practise, (2) apply what we’ve learned in a way that stretches us, (3) assess the results, (4) modify our skills as needed, and then start again at step until we’ve reached where we want to be.
1. PRACTISE THE SKILLS
If we want to get good at anything and feel confident about it, we need to practise. Keeping this in mind helps us to overcome the mental barriers to practice — the things that stop us from starting to learn, or force us to give up relatively quickly. These mental barriers include:
- Feeling anxious or fearful when trying something new
- The desire to give up when progress is slow
- The tendency to quit after an initial failure
- Extreme self-criticism.
So whenever you’re practising a new skill and come up against one of those mental barriers, accept what you’re feeling is normal, but understand persevering will help you to get past that barrier and on the road to confidently performing a new skill.
2. APPLY THEM EFFECTIVELY
Practising the skills is important, and it’s the place we must start at, but we need to do more than that if we want to feel confident about doing something well. We also need to step out of our comfort zone and apply our practised skills effectively — into real life challenging situations.
In my time as a university lecturer I quickly realised that students hate doing presentations. They make the seemly most confident students quake at the knees. After putting they had put their presentations together and practised in their own time, I always used to give my students the opportunity to practise in front of other students in purposely arranged sessions. Those who practised in front of others nearly always performed better in the real presentation assessment.
Leaving our comfort zone makes us feel uncomfortable, so we need to practise our skills in real life uncomfortable situations. By doing this we can learn to focus on what we are doing rather than getting caught up in our thoughts and feelings. This is called Task Focused Attention. We need to think of uncomfortable and challenging situations as an opportunity to learn.
3. ASSESS THE RESULTS
After applying our skills in a challenging situation, rather than burying our heads in the sand, we need to reflect on the results. We need to consider what did and didn’t work, and what could we do differently the next time to improve our performance. There are some key points we need to keep in mind when reflecting on our performance:
- Firstly, it’s important we reflect in a non-judgemental way, and remember we are in the process of learning. So we should avoid being extremely self-critical. Harsh self-judgement is rarely helpful and often pushes us in the direction of quitting; discouraging us from learning further. When we were toddlers learning to walk, if we stumbled and fell, we didn’t think‘Well, I’m not doing that again, I felt like a right idiot! I’ll never be able to walk properly.’ So when you assess the results, always keep in mind that learning is a process, and be compassionate and encouraging in your self-reflection. Self-compassion increases motivation and willpower, brings greater perspective, and boosts decision making. This all makes us more resilient — making it easier to bounce back in the face of failure and learn from mistakes.
- Secondly, avoid comparing yourself to others, especially when assessing your results. It’s helpful to have an expert training or teaching you, someone with a higher skill level, but look only at how you can improve against your own performance. Focus compassionately on your own results. It’s fine to aspire to those who perform the activity better than you, but too much emphasis on the performance of others during the learning stage can have a negative impact on motivation.
4. MODIFY AS NEEDED
The next step is to modify what you are doing. Do more of what is working well and change or modify what isn’t going well. During the presentation practice sessions I arranged at the university, I would instruct the students in my class to write down a list of what went well and what didn’t go so well, and how they could improve. It’s the only way to develop and get better. As Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
After you have modified what you are doing, you repeat the cycle until you get good at what you’re trying to learn. Confidence will follow. The actions of confidence come first, the feelings of confidence come second.
In the words of Eric Bibb, ‘Just keep Going On.’