Daily Prompt: What Makes An Expert?

Are some people just more talented than the rest of us?

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Good morning! Following some great feedback from the friendly bloggers I found hanging around the Community Pool, I’ve decided to start publishing the occasional short post alongside my longer articles. Responding to the Daily Prompt seems like the ideal way to do this, and yesterday’s fits right on-trend with what The Lifeshelf is all about: learning to live, and living to learn! So here we go…

What does it take to become an expert? Are the greats born or made? These are the kind of questions that a group of researchers were asking themselves in 1993, when they conducted a study of violinists at an elite music school. What they found was that the very best violinists at the school had practiced much more than those who, though still good enough to be there, were not so jaw-droppingly incredible.

They found no evidence that innate talent determined how good each violinist was – which puts paid to the idea that some people are just naturally more skilled than others and there’s nothing we can do about it – and instead concluded that the world-class examples of expertise they had witnessed were the result of, on average, ten years of committed practice. They also worked out that the optimal amount of practice to conduct in each of those years was around 1,000 hours (that’s just under three hours a day, by the way).

Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book, Outliers, popularised this finding as the ‘10,000 hours rule’. And it makes sense: ten years times a thousand a year equals ten thousand. Except, one of the original researchers didn’t think the book was very good…at all. K. Anders Ericsson pointed out that Gladwell had missed the crucial point of his research; the sheer number of hours spent practicing is important, but exactly how they are spent is more important.

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You see, in order to achieve expertise, an individual needs to conduct deliberate practice. This is practice that is difficult. This is practice that stretches us, and makes our brain hurt a bit – practice that frustrates us because we can’t nail it straight away. Deliberate practice is specifically designed to take us beyond what we can already do, and incrementally expand our abilities.

For the guitarist, this might mean trying to work out the difficult section of a new piece, then repeating it to a metronome, rather than simply strumming through a song they can already play comfortably. For the footballer, this could mean refining their penalty technique by taking hundreds of shots and aiming for a specific corner every time, rather than simply going for a kickabout in the park. It’s the level of effort required that’s the difference between basic experience, and actual deliberate practice. In short, becoming an expert takes time, but it also takes hard work.

For a more in-depth introduction to the research on expertise, I recommend you check out Bounce, by Matthew Syed. Consider that a bonus recommendation from Books on The Lifeshelf…

Thanks for reading my debut Daily Prompt response! Have you learnt anything new? Perhaps you disagree that talent isn’t what separates the best from the rest? Let me know what you think in the comments (I always reply)!

Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels/Pixabay. 

4 Ways Meditation Will Improve Your Life (…and 3 Ways it Won’t)

Meditation has been practised in various forms around the world for thousands of years. However, over here in the Western world it seems to be more in vogue right now than ever before, with books, classes, apps and spin-off products everywhere you look (mindful colouring, anyone?). Despite the products and the hype, at the core of the trend is something pure and simple – meditation itself.

But what’s the point? What’s the appeal? If you give it a go, what can you expect?

In this debut post for The Lifeshelf, I intend to answer these questions by drawing from my own experience of practising meditation for the last two years.

In short, I’m going to tell you the top four ways that I think meditation will improve your life:

1. By training you to focus, like a boss.

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It’s a common misconception that the aim of meditation is to sit down and think about nothing. Have you ever tried that? It’s not just hard, it’s impossible.

In mindfulness meditation, the aim is usually to focus on the sensation of your breath. This gives you a point of concentration, and makes the task of letting go of all those random thoughts – whether they’re anxious concerns, ideas for dinner, or the hook from that Radio 1 banger that you love to hate – considerably more achievable.

Through learning to focus on the breath, you’re training the ability to focus on a task without distraction. Clearly, this has benefits IRL; I’m no Zen master, but through meditation I’ve improved my ability to knuckle down on an article in a busy coffee shop, or to ignore the screaming baby in the train carriage when I’m trying to read. Equally, I find myself engaging properly with complex tasks such as practicing bass guitar, instead of playing on autopilot and thinking about something exciting but irrelevant, like bacon. So, if you always find yourself getting distracted by the conversations around you – or even the ones in your own head – meditation can probably help.

2. By making you more aware, of everything.

It may sound like a contradiction, but one of the most intriguing things about meditation is the hard-to-describe feeling of being focused on one thing and aware of everything else, at the same time.

You’re aware of thoughts and outside stimuli. But they don’t distract you, because you’re focused on the breath, remember? Sessions on Headspace (my personal choice of guided meditation app, though I expect others are similar in this respect) begin by encouraging you to notice the sounds around you, the physical sensations of your body, and any strong emotions you may be feeling. And when you settle down to focus on the breath, you naturally begin to notice how each inhalation and exhalation feels; how its length varies or remains consistent; where it travels to in the body; how it’s cold as it enters your nose, but warm as it leaves…all little observations that help you to focus.

In this way, meditation trains you to be perceptive and curious. Even better, because your brain after meditation feels quiet and calm, it notices things that a busy or anxious brain probably wouldn’t. You’ve seen Limitless, right? He takes the pill; everything goes super high-definition. Imperceptible details suddenly become obvious, he’s super smart and life is great (give or take all the violent complications). Well, when meditation is really working for you, it’s…nothing like that.

However, after meditating you will start to notice more of the awesome details that are built into every day, even when you’re doing nothing out of the ordinary. And if, like me, you love to travel – to witness awe-inspiring sights around the world and extract maximum value from the experience – then these little details are a big deal.

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3. By bringing you a sense of calm.

If I had any money, I’d bet that the most common reason people take up meditation is to experience a sense of calm, and to help them deal with the potentially stressful occurrences of daily life.

I’d be willing to bet, because I can personally relate. Having struggled with the consequences of anxiety throughout my late teens, I tried many different tactics to get it under control and take charge of my life (no doubt the subject of a future post, when I’m feeling brave). With those difficulties now for the most part behind me, these days meditation is the cornerstone of my strategy for keeping day-to-day anxiety in check.

Because it involves sitting still with a balanced posture, and observing the natural rhythm of the breath, meditation is a surefire way to relax the body. And sometimes, simply allowing your body to relax is enough to encourage your mind to do the same.

But the real relaxation jackpot lies in the feeling of ‘intense clarity’ that comes from ‘letting the mind be free’ after focusing on the breath. I’ve borrowed the former term from the teacher of a class I attended in Bristol, and the latter from the Headspace app; both aptly describe the little slice of personal nirvana that (for me) marks the peak of a great sitting, and leaves the mind feeling cleansed and in balance.

However, meditation’s anxiety busting powers extend beyond the sitting itself (spot the theme here, anyone?). In my experience, most anxiety is derived from negative forecasts – anxious thoughts about something bad that may or may not happen in the future – or overreactions to things that are happening now.

But through meditation, we learn to be mindful. This means that our attention is directed solely to the present moment, and when we’re doing that, we can’t be worrying about what might happen in the distant future, or even the immediate one. Ideally, we observe what is actually happening in our environment – or in our own body or mind – from a more balanced position, and can respond accordingly without overreacting.

4. By slowing down time.

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If you’ve ever wished that there were more hours in the day, meditation needs to be on your agenda. Whether you’re a student, an artist, an entrepreneur, a writer or anyone else who works to deadlines, you’ve probably wondered how you could get more done in less time. Well, no prizes for guessing which ‘productivity hack’ I’d recommend…

It may seem counterintuitive to begin a busy day by meditating – by all outward appearances you’re sitting down doing nothing, when you should be hard at work, right? Wrong. Meditation need only take ten to twenty minutes of your day. I won’t speak for others, but I know that if I’m in the wrong frame of mind when I’ve got work to do and deadlines looming, I can wave goodbye to huge chunks of time spent stressing, procrastinating or running round like a headless chicken not knowing where to start. By contrast, after meditating I experience all the goodness we’ve already discussed – greater focus, an awareness of the bigger picture and the finer details, mindfulness of the present moment – and can feed it into the task at hand.

This really does feel like slowing down time. The deadlines lose a little of their fear factor; I approach tasks more logically and achieve more in the time as a consequence, without slipping into panic mode. There’s an old Buddhist saying that says it like it is:

‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour’.

In other words, it’s on the days that you’re so busy (read: stressed) that you don’t feel you can possibly sacrifice the time to meditate, that you’ll most benefit from doing so!

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But wait! Before you rush off to meditate, we ought to discuss a few ways that it won’t improve your life:

1.By giving you a quick fix.

Meditation is not a competitive sport, so it’s not about practising to become the ‘best’. However, a certain level of familiarity is required in order to experience most of the benefits we’ve discussed, and this comes with sticking with it.

If you’re expecting your first session to be easy, with an instant payoff, you’ll be disappointed and tempted to pack it in. Instead, I’d recommend approaching meditation with the intention of laying the foundations of a new skill, in the faith that your persistence will be worth it in the near future.

2. By giving you the gift of flight.

You might have seen videos of Buddhist monks levitating. However if you want to fly, may I gently suggest that you look elsewhere? The Ryanair website springs to mind. Call me a cynic, but I’m not convinced on the whole human levitation thing.

That being said, if you’re not after actual superhuman powers, but just want to feel like you’re levitating, a course of meditation might be worth a shot. Bear with me here. On a handful of occasions, I’ve experienced a distinct feeling of weightlessness whilst meditating. I’m sure this was just a variation on ‘intense clarity’ (or maybe I needed sugar), but in the moment it did feel like levitation! Come to think of it, I didn’t open my eyes to check…

3. If you don’t give it a try.

Cheap shot, I know. But the only thing that I can 100%, hand-on-heart guarantee about meditation is that it won’t improve your life if you never try it. Apart from ten minutes, what have you got to lose?

Here’s a couple of links to get you started:

Headspace: https://www.headspace.com/

Meditation classes in Bristol: http://www.hamiltonhouse.org/events/

Thanks for reading! Follow for future content on meditation and much more. Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels.