Change Your Skills, Habits, and Addictions

It’s 1991 and two Americans fighter jets are flying over Iraq. Their pilot’s names are Cesar Rodriguez Jr. and Craig Underhill, call sign Mole. They come across two Iraqi MiG-29s who turn away to avoid them. Then, another plane with a large radar device reports two more MiG-29s coming from just 13 miles away. One MiG gets a lock on Cesar Rodriguez, who quickly dives to avoid the radar lock. Underhill shoots down the other MiG. Then, Underhill gets a lock on the remaining MiG, but experiences a computer malfunction. Rodriguez merges with the MiG and they get into a turning fight. As they descend, the MiG attempts a Split S maneuver, but is too low and impacts the ground. Rodriguez pulls up just in time and is credited with a maneuvering kill. The first of his three career kills, the most by an American since the Vietnam War. He is known as the Last American Ace.

When I first pictured this guy, Rodriguez, I imagined Tom Cruise, handsome, fit, and swaggering around. But Rodriguez actually has a soft round face, he’s short, with a chubby torso, and thin gray hair. As Robert Greene described him in our interview, “He didn’t look like a fighter pilot.” Prior to joining the military he had no interest or experience in flight. He only took the test to get into pilot training because his roommate was going. But after passing the test and some flights in a Cessna, he decided that he enjoyed the challenge of flying.

Jet training turned out to be much harder than Cessnas and despite extra time in the simulator, Rodriguez was overwhelmed and failed two consecutive flights. So, how does a guy with no background in flying and two consecutive failures just get through training? And how does he go on to become the Last American Ace fighter pilot? That’s what I’m here to write about. This is the power of how we build patterns in the nervous system, patterns that form skills, patterns that eventually form habits, and the dark side — patterns that form addictions.

Back to the story, Rodriguez just failed two consecutive flights, so what does he do next? He has a Disney moment. He reflects back to high school when, despite being short, he became the team quarterback. He’d felt unsure and failed at times, but he’d put himself in the most difficult situations in practice over and over to gain confidence for games. It was the repetition necessary for building competence that gave him confidence. Competence breeds confidence.

After reflecting, Rodriguez decided to surrender his entire life to his flight training. Instead of just putting in extra time in the simulator, he committed to triple the amount of time he trains in “the sim.” He got a new instructor pilot and asked him to work him to death. The instructor obliged and made Rodriguez practice maneuvers 10 times more than everyone else, until he vomited. He made Rodriguez continually repeat his weakest skills and provided harsh nit-picking criticism. Then one day, Rodriguez began to feel a wonderful sensation, he felt total control in flight, the whole plane was just on his fingertips and he could concentrate on the bigger picture of the event and flying in formation.

Rodriguez graduated third in his flight school class and went on to achieve great things. He did this through obsessive, constant practice. No one is born great at their job, just as no one is born a great brain surgeon. We are learning machines. The acquisition of skills is measured in the way we change our brains and the paths from the brain through the nervous system. The challenge is to amass the repetitive practice that forces your mind and body to change and automate the skills you desire. Either you’ve built the skill or you have not.

This idea is hard for most people to accept, because when we see someone highly skilled, we experience a scientific phenomenon known as the HSE — The Holy Shit Effect. When you see Olympic athletes and world chess champions perform at the highest level, you probably say to yourself, “Holy Shit!” Then you say that they are exceptional, born with freakish gifts and that you’re too weak to be that kind of athlete or too stupid to be that kind of chess player. It’s an excuse made to avoid the hard work of skill building.

If I call you stupid, what I’m really doing is defining your intelligence by measuring you on a skill you haven’t built or a concept you haven’t learned. By this definition, we are all born stupid. Stupid did not exist in caveman times. There were just people who had built skills and people who had not built skills. This takes time, and thankfully so. Horses are not born stupid, horses are born smart. The day a horse is born, it immediately springs to life and starts running because its nervous system already has all of the pathways in place. Horses are born very smart, but they don’t adapt like humans.

“A brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” -Dr. Norman Doidge

Has a horse ever learned to read? Has a horse ever built a house out of legos? Has a horse ever done a cartwheel? The things that a 5 year old child does every day are unattainable for a horse. We as human beings are born stupid, but we can change to meet a vast range of skills. We have what Dr. Norman Doidge calls “A brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” Think about that for a second.

This is our power for building skills and making them so ingrained that they become subconscious habits. Our very survival in a changing world hinges on our brain’s ability to change itself and wire our minds and bodies for new things. When we practice these skills and send signals through our nervous system, the path that the signal travels becomes insulated with myelin. Insulating the path with myelin helps the signal to travel easier the next time. Practicing a skill is just a process of insulating a path in the nervous system. The first time you perform a skill, the change is small, like a drop of water. When we amass many hours of challenging practice, the skill becomes automatic. The drops of water have carved away a nice stream. Eventually, the skill becomes second nature, habit, effortless. The stream has become a roaring river and carved an entire canyon over time. When Cesar Rodriguez Jr. began to feel the whole plane at his fingertips, the skills of flying had become easy, subconscious, habits.

If you want to learn a skill, such as playing guitar, you can do that. It will just take three things, (1) breaking it into small chunks, (2) repeating it, and (3) learning to feel it.

Number one, breaking it into small chunks has two parts. Before breaking something into small chunks, first observe the whole thing. My favorite example of the power of observing the whole is Ray LaMontagne, a singer songwriter from Maine. I like Ray’s music and I’m also from Maine. Ray was working at a shoe factory when he realized that he should be the next big singer songwriter, but he didn’t actually know how to sing or have any money. So, he decided to lock himself in his apartment and sing along with his collection of soul music for hours every day for 2 years. When Ray emerged he sold half a million copies of his first album and was met with high praise. Rolling Stone magazine said the man sounded like a church. Observing the whole is crucial, and then we break down the small chunks to fine tune each tiny little skill. Maybe I can’t learn a whole song today, but I can perfect a few notes. This is the approach used at Meadowmount School of Music. You might recognize the music from Meadowmount alumni, like 18 time Grammy Award winner, Yo Yo Ma. At Meadowmount students will examine a piece of music as a whole then cut the sheet music into tiny horizontal strips of paper. The paper is put in a hat and pulled out at random. Then each strip is played as small fragments, maybe just 2 notes at a time. The goal is to master small skills like 2 notes, then link them together as bigger skills, like a strip of sheet music, then link bigger skills, like a whole song.

Number two, repeating it, sounds so simple. If you want to slow down a great talent, like LeBron James or Michael Phelps, just stop them from practicing for a few weeks. Their muscles will be the same, genes will be the same, and mental toughness will be there. The difference is that those pathways in the nervous system are always breaking down and rebuilding. It takes constant repetition to keep those pathways up to speed for world class skill. So, without practice, even Michael Phelps slows down. However, it must be more than just mindless repetition. The most effective repetition is called Deep Practice. Deep Practice is demanding repetition at the edge of your capabilities. It is draining. Some of the world’s most skilled people only practice 3 hours per day, but it is a grueling 3 hours. If I want to master the guitar, I need to practice more challenging skills than the slow, simple strumming I learned last year.

And number three, learning to feel it. You might think that feeling it in practice refers to an effortless, flowing sensation. But in Deep Practice the idea is different. It’s about straining for perfection and falling just short, commonly called “Divine Dissatisfaction.” This is more than just picking up the instrument to play and calling it practice. It’s not about struggling per se, but seeking struggle in a cycle of actions.

It’s an uncomfortable way to work. We all like easy wins. But the most successful people practice for the struggle. The director at Meadowmount describes it like this “I think of it as a turn inward; they stop looking outside for solutions and they reach within. They come to terms with what works and what doesn’t. You can’t fake it, you can’t borrow, steal, or buy it. It’s an honest profession.” If you want to be great, ask yourself are you capable of that kind of self-reliance, humility, and Deep Practice?

In our interview, Robert Greene explained that frustration must be seen as a good thing if you want to succeed.

In the same way that we insulate a path to our muscles to learn a physical skill, we insulate a path for our thoughts. When we think the same thought over and over again we carve out the canyon through our brain of trigger and response. Add a reward and you can quickly form habits, good or bad. Does your phone ever give you a notification, you respond, and it rewards you in some way? This is how an app is designed to function. It is designed to get you hooked, to become habitual. The best is when you invest lots of time in the app and it becomes more tailored to you. That’s the Trigger-Action-Reward-Investment design theory. Imagine a videogame that invites you to play, you play, it congratulates you, and over time, the game gets customized to your preferences. It can predict what you want, and generally praises you for investing so much time. Modern games give you status, leader boards, and track the hours of your life spent playing. They are rewarding you and acknowledging your time investment to get you hooked.

Gambling is even better than videogames — the colors, the lights, the free alcohol, and… believe it or not… the losing. Losing is what drives so many gamblers from habit to addiction. When we are rewarded it’s great, but when we lose then get an occasional big reward, a much stronger connection is formed in your brain. Add a little status, like being recognized through a customer loyalty program as a high roller, diamond elite, and your investment is recognized. It’s hard to resist. When companies started to understand the power of intermittent reward, it suddenly cropped up everywhere.

Does every app on your phone have a news feed? It wasn’t always that way. The reason for newsfeeds is intermittent reward. I’m scrolling… boring, boring, exciting gossip! Reward! I’m playing a slot machine… lose, lose, jackpot! Reward! And why is internet pornography addictive? I’m scrolling… not arousing, not arousing, arousing! Reward! Masturbation! Reward! Orgasm! Reward! That’s the most powerful example of intermittent reward.

So, let’s say you want to break a habit. There are lots of ways. My uncle quit smoking by going to a hypnotist. The best way is to hack the cycle of Trigger-Action-Reward. If I’m a smoker and I recognize that my trigger is seeing Joe, my smoking my buddy, then I know my cycle. My action is smoking with Joe, and my reward is enjoying time with my best friend and the stimulation from nicotine. Now I can hack that cycle. I can tell Joe that from now on I’m trying to quit and he can help me. When I see Joe (my trigger), we’re going to grab a highly caffeinated drink (my new similar action), and I’ll enjoy time with my best friend and stimulation from the caffeine (my new similar reward). Recognizing these habit loops gives you power over whatever habits are holding you back.

Now it’s time to go practice. Practice is your best tool to build the skills you want in life. You have opportunities everywhere for challenging, Deep Practice and it’s best to get started now when consequences are probably lower than when you need the skill. Despite the boredom, day-to-day work, and even simulators are invaluable. When the simulator was first invented in 1927, by Edwin Albert Link Jr. it was immediately rejected. People asked, how anyone could learn to fly in a child’s toy? 7 years later, after a string of deaths in the Army Air Corps due to challenges flying instruments, the Army reached out to Link. He flew his instruments to an Army base, landing perfectly on a cloudy day. Then, he proceeded to demonstrate to a bunch of Generals how his simulator would revolutionize flight training. By the end of World War II, half a million aircrew had logged millions of hours in the simulator.

So, when that long, tedious practice sessions seems stupid, remember that you are perfecting your skills. Break it down small, repeat it, strive for perfection, and you’ll get it. If you want to make it a habit or even an addiction, give yourself a reward after.



Brendan Carr interviews bestselling authors and military leaders, then writes about it here on Medium.

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Brendan Carr

Brendan Carr interviews bestselling authors and military leaders, then writes about it here on Medium.