The most impressive feature of our brain is its capacity to learn. All of our most celebrated cognitive, linguistic, social, artistic, perceptual, emotional, and motor skills are the product of learning. Your brain's amazing plasticity means that you can learn almost anything. No matter how bad you are at something, you too can become an expert at it. Learning, however, does not happen automatically. To learn something new we have to confront a new challenge. Early in life everything is new and challenging and consequently we learn amazingly fast. But as we transition into adulthood we are given a choice between reaping the rewards for the skills we have already mastered or learning something new. We make this choice many times every day, but most of the time we are not even aware of it. What do you think you usually choose? Rewarding activities that you excel in or difficult challenges that make you look stupid? Most of us choose the former most of the time. This is why our cognitive development plateaus in adulthood and we get stuck in doing the same things in the same ways for many years, even though we are still capable of so much more. So what can we do to get unstuck, accelerate our personal growth, and unleash our full potential? I organized a discussion on this very topic at the Consciousness Hacking Meetup, and it inspired me to propose the following eight steps as a starting point for our personal and scientific exploration of interventions to promote cognitive growth:
1. Develop a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006): Convince yourself that you will learn virtually any cognitive skill if you invest the necessary hard work. Even talent is just a matter of training. Each failure is a learning opportunity and so are your little successes along the way.
2. Find a good target and motivate yourself by mental contrasting (Oettingen, et al., 2009): Which skills do you want to develop and why? Imagine how wonderful it will be to have perfected the skill you seek to develop and visualize the benefits. Next, think about the obstacles to developing that skill. Visualize the biggest obstacle. Do you think you will be able to overcome it? If the answer is yes, then go for it! If the answer is no, then think of a similar goal that may be easier to attain and repeat the exercise. Finally, make yourself aware that you and the world around you will benefit from any progress that you make on yourself for a very, very long time. A few hours of hard work per week is a small price to pay for the sustained benefits of being a better person and feeling better about yourself for the rest of your life. Your future self will be grateful. What would your future self advise you to do?
3. Become more self-aware: Introspect, observe yourself, and ask your friends to develop an accurate understanding and acceptance of how you currently fare in the skill you want to improve and why. What do you do in situations that require the skill? How well does it work? How do you feel? Have you tried doing it differently? Are you currently improving? Why or why not?
4. Understand the skill and how it is learned: What do masters of this skill do? How does it work? How did they develop the skill? What are the intermediate stages? How can the skill be learned and practiced? Are there any exercises, tutorials, tools, books, or courses for acquiring the skill you want to improve on?
5. Create a growth structure for yourself:
a. Set SMART self-improvement goals (Doran, 1981). The first three steps give you a destination (i.e. a better version of yourself), a starting point (i.e. the awareness of your strengths and weaknesses), and a road map (i.e. how to practice). Now it is time to plan your journey. Which path do you want to take from who you are right now to who you want to be in the future? A good way to delineate your path might be to place a number of milestones and decide by when you want to have reached each of them. Milestones are specific, measurable goals that lie between where you are now and where you want to be. Starting with the first milestone, you can choose a series of steps and decide when to take each step. It helps to set concrete goals at the beginning of every day. To set good milestones and choose appropriate steps, you can ask yourself the following questions: What exactly do I want to learn? How will I know that I have learned it? What will I do to develop that skill? By which time do I want to have learned it?
b. Translate your goals into implementation intentions. An implementation intention is a simple IF-THEN plan. It specifies a concrete situation in which you will take action (IF) and what exactly you will do (THEN). Committing to an implementation intention will make you much more likely to seize opportunities to make progress towards your goals and eventually achieve them (Gollwitzer, 1999).
c. You can restructure your physical environment to make your goals and your progress more salient. To make your goals more salient you can write them down and post them on your desktop, in your office, and in your apartment. To make your progress more salient, make todo lists and celebrate checking off every subtask that you have completed. Give yourself points for every task you completed and compute your daily score, e.g. the percentage of daily goals that you have accomplished. Celebrate these small moments of victory! Post your path and score board in a visible manner.
d. Restructure your social environment to make it more conducive to growth. You can share your self-improvement goals with a friend or mentor who helps you understand where you are at, encourages you to grow, and will hold you accountable for following through with your plan. Friends can make suggestions for what to try and give you feedback on how you are doing. They can also help you notice, appreciate and celebrate your progress. Identify social interactions that help you grow and seek them out more while changing or avoiding social interactions that hinder your growth.
e. There are many things that you can do to also restructure your own mind for growth as well: There are at least three kinds of things you can do. First, you can be more mindful of what you do, how well it works, and why. Mindful learning is much more effective than mindless learning. Second, you an pay more attention to the moments when you do well at what you want to improve. Let yourself appreciate these small (or large) successes more—give yourself a compliment for getting better, smile, and give yourself a mental or physical pat and the shoulder. Attend specifically to your improvement. To do so, ask yourself, if you are getting better rather than how well you did. You can mentally contrast what you did this time to how poorly you used to do when you started working on that skill. Rate your improvement by how many percent better you perform now than you used to. Third, you can be kind to yourself: Don’t beat yourself up for failing and being imperfect. Instead, embrace failure as an opportunity for growth. This is will allow you to continue practicing a skill that you have not mastered yet rather than giving up in frustration.
6. Seek advice, experiment, and get feedback: Accept that you don’t know how to do it yet and adopt a beginner’s mindset. Curious infants learn much more rapidly than seniors who think they know it all. So emulate a curious infant rather than pretending that you know everything already. With this mindset, it will be much easier to seek advice from other people. Experimenting with new ways of doing things is critical, because if you merely repeat what you have done a thousand times the results won’t be dramatically different. Sometimes we are unaware of something large or small that really matters, and it is often hard to notice what you are doing wrong and what you are doing well. This is why it is crucial to get feedback; ideally from somebody who has already mastered the skill you are trying to learn.
7. Practice, practice, practice. Becoming a world-class expert requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Since you probably don’t need to become the world’s leading expert in the skill you are seeking to develop, fewer hours will be sufficient. But the point is that you will have to practice a lot. You will have to challenge yourself regularly and practicing will be hard. Schedule to practice the skill regularly. Make practicing a habit. Kindly help yourself resume the practice after you have let it slip.
8. Reflect on your progress at a regular basis, perhaps at the end of every day. Ask yourself: What have I learned today/this week/this month? Am I making any progress? What did I do well? What will I do better tomorrow/this week/month.
Doran, G. T. (1981). There's a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives. Management Review, 70 (11): 35–36.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.
Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.Th. and Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, pp. 393-394.
Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
James, W. (1907). The energies of men. Science, 321-332.
Oettingen, G., Mayer, D., Sevincer, A. T., Stephens, E. J., Pak, H. J., & Hagenah, M. (2009). Mental contrasting and goal commitment: The mediating role of energization. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(5), 608-622.