Humans are creatures of habit. We pick up nasty habits like smoking. We try to pick up good eating habits. We can have a habit of blaming each other when things go wrong. And we try to get into the habit of thinking before we speak. And, in fact, when Katie O and I teach students how to read Shakespeare, do algebra or teach themselves instead of relying on a tutor, we are training out old habits and training in new ones. We are all in the business of learning, unlearning and relearning habits. Look at Kobe Bryant shoot that basketball. He has trained some really, really good basketball habits. Was Kobe born playing this way? Of course not.
Learning comes down to acquiring better habits and so it is ultra-bizarre that so many of us have picked up the idea that we can’t learn a particular subject. You are reading this. You have picked up the habit of understanding and reading the English language and that tells us something about YOUR brain. Your automaticity works.
At first, we all suck at everything. We’re so bad at walking we literally fall on our faces. We’re so bad at talking that it all comes out as incomprehensible blather. Even eating is kind of hit or miss. As a baby, Kobe probably couldn’t even score a three pointer with putting food in the hole in his face.
Growing up is about acquiring habits. Some of them are transmitted by blindly copying what we think is cool and some are acquired by practice like Kobe’s three pointer. The key thing is that if you’ve learned one thing, you can learn anything because we know that you have acquired habits and you can therefore acquire new and more useful habits.
Your brain is full of neurons. These are like the wires in your brain. However, with practice, those wires can become wrapped in a substance called myelin. Myelin is the ULTIMATE in good fat. Myelin insulates your neurons and helps speed up how quickly the electrochemical signals in your brain are transferred. This is how you acquire habits. With lots and lots of practice, you can become amazing at any skill. How much practice? Oh, say, 10,000 hours.
Some people get super caught up in the literal number 10,000 hours. Did Kobe Bryant practice for exactly 10,000 hours? No. Did 10,000 hours of practice make Kobe Bryant 6’6? No. Kobe is a big dude. He has genes that Bryan Callen doesn’t have that give him an advantage in basketball. And, yet, it’s worth noting that Kobe Bryant has also done a buttload more basketball practice than Bryan Callen. Bryan Callen has done a buttload more stand up comedy practice than Kobe Bryant. Bryan Callen is the Kobe Bryant of stand up comedy. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the real point of this post. Bryan Callen is literally the best at what he does…and you should follow him on Twitter and Instagram. And how did he get to be the best? By automating habits. Being funny is so automatic for Bryan like shooting three pointers is so automatic for Bryant that they don’t even have to think about it.
And this is where we get to Latin. The origins of the word habit are the same as inhabit. Bryan lives comedy like Bryant lives basketball. It lives inside him. It is a skin he puts on when he walks onto the stage, court, ring. Same thing. So can you practice your way to being 6’6 or Bryan’s fast twitch muscle genome? Nope. That’s something you’re either born with or you’re not. Like this booooooooody…
…you can, however, learn, unlearn and relearn whatever habits you want. Automaticity is what scientists call your ability to make things automatic. In the 21st Century, you’re going to need to be really good at managing what is automatic for you. You’re going to need to learn, unlearn and relearn habits as required and that means having a growth mindset about your own brain and doing the right kind of practice: fix-it-focused practice.