In this post, we’ll have a quick discussion on the power law of practice.
The area of self-improvement has done a fairly good job of delivering certain important messages with the purpose of changing the mind and life of an individual. Among the most popular is the idea that one should first believe in itself, and its ability to achieve the things we can’t see yet. The second and just as powerful is the idea of working on oneself, making the self better with the passage of time, such that if mother luck does knock on the door, we’re prepared to receive the keys of opportunity.
Hand in hand with the idea of working on oneself is the idea of practicing. Through practice, we expose our imperfections and weaknesses, and if we are courageous enough, we use the time we have to improve on the found weaknesses and imperfections. If we practice for long enough we eventually get to the point in which we can call ourselves competent, and if we can endure the same demanding training we eventually earn the right to call ourselves masters. There is just one problem with this logic, and that is the power law of practice.
The power law of practice
The power law of practice simply states that the return on your training tends to decrease with proportion to what has been learned/mastered.
What does it mean?
This means that at first, the gains on your training will be greater and that these gains will decrease the longer you go about your training. The same effect is observed in the area of bodybuilding. The first few times you lift weights the gains come quicker and more easily.
This is probably the reason why few of us attain the status of mastery in their fields. Results are among the most powerful motivator that exists. For the brain results are a sign of progress in our quest. They are a sign that given a finite amount of time and effort we will get to our prize.
You’ve probably heard that dopamine is the chemical behind our feelings of pleasure, but according to recent science, the chemical is manifested with the greatest strength the closer we get to our desired goal/prize. This is to explain that as the number and impact of gains decrease with practice we feel less and less motivation to keep going.
What are the societal effects?
The effects of this law in society can be observed if one pays enough attention. If for most skills the law applies, then it’s easy to see why there is a higher concentration of people who are somewhat proficient and a much lower number of masters. If something requires willpower to be overcome, chances are that it won’t. So we find ourselves in a world of people in which most are somewhat good at something, but very few very good.
How to minimize the impact of the power law of practice?
I guess the next intuitive question with regards to the power law of practice is: How to minimize its demotivating effects? Below are a few suggestions.
Expect the law to be free of exceptions
The first thing you can do to minimize the impacts of it is to assume the law is and will remain true under every condition. This means to avoid falling for the trap that this one case is different and that the constant and fast improvement you’ve been getting on your training sessions will remain. Chances are that at some point in your practice the return will become increasingly smaller, at least in comparison to the return you were getting at the beginning. When you know what’s to come, the knowledge is most of your defense. Because the surprise along with the lack of preparation can also have a mentally paralyzing effect, which makes it harder to adapt to the current demands of the situation.
The next way to overcome the effects of the power law of practice is to embrace mastery. To chase is with all you’ve got. To learn to be more excited about how you can and will be, as opposed to how much progress you’ve made in your first few practice sessions.
The drive for mastery forces us to look into the future constantly even as our peers keep reminding us of how good we are. It forces us to want to improve. When you have this idea internalized deeply enough, the diminishing results from each practice session become motivation in their own way, in the same way, that for some people the harder the problem they are dealing with in their field, the more focused and motivated they become.
Detach yourself from the results
Another solution to the same problem is to detach oneself from the results. To just practice because you want to practice, and not because you expect something to come out of it. When you all you care about is the results and not the craft, frustration is more likely to be the reason why you will likely quit. I equate this with a relationship. Meaning that there must be something really strong and deep keeping you in the relationship. Here you are in essence in a relationship with your craft/skill, and if there is something deep holding you together, it doesn’t matter how soon or late you begin to experience the power law of practice. Your interest in what you do will still be there.
I personally have this feeling with coding. It’s been a few years now since I first learned how to code, and still today, I find myself having the same level of interest I had when I wrote my first line of code.
I definitely found that as time passes there is less and less I find completely new, but my passion for the subject is the driving reason for my sustained interest in it.
The power law of practice and school
At school, more specifically any higher-level education the power law of practice can be observed on a year by year basis. When you first start, virtually every book you can set your eyes on has something brand new to teach you. Something you’ve never heard before. As time passes, each year you stay in school, and each course you pass, the smaller that library becomes. The number of books didn’t change, but you just know more now. This means that when once all it took for you to learn something new was to pick up any book, now you have to make sure you remove everything you’ve already learned about before you can start learning something new.
The same effect can be observed in any field. You begin with lots to learn, but as time passes the number of new things you’ve learned decreases. This is, of course, assuming you focus on only one field.
Knowing how skill acquisition and learning works is a part of the battle. When you become aware of the power law of practice you become better prepared for what’s to come. The biggest take away from this post is that we shouldn’t base our motivation for practice solely on the results we get from our first sessions. If we want to take our skill to the next level this can only be done if the driving force behind it has to be deeper.
It is all about knowledge and experience 😉
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