How to Get Very Good at Being Pretty Good at Everything

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In a previous post, I wrote that generalists are more marketable, more employable, and maybe more happy than specialists. Pat Flynn, author of How to Get Better at Almost Everything, says that becoming a generalist has made him both successful and happy. “When I specialized in guitar, I was always comparing myself to others and feeling awful and inadequate, and then as soon as I felt I was doing something special, somebody would swoop in and be like, Nah, dude, you suck. Here, let me show you how that should actually be played. As a generalist I don’t have that problem anymore; I’ve gotten away from wanting to be better than other people, and now I just focus on being good myself.”

Flynn has developed four principles of being a successful generalist (“the principles behind getting better at getting better at things.”)

They are:

  • ​Skill Stacking is better than Specialization
  • Short-Term Specialization
  • ​The Rule of 80 Percent
  • ​Integration is better than Isolation
  • ​Repetition and Resistance

Skill stacking is his primary key to success. He writes, “Simply put, it’s better to be better (than most people, at most things) than to be the best at any one thing. Skills in combination are more powerful than individual skills by themselves, even if they aren’t as fully developed.” He says that no one should ever aspire to be the best at anything – that way lies madness. If the best in the world at something is 100 percent, he writes, no one should need to master more than 80 percent of that level, because that’s specialization territory. (That’s his rule of 80 percent above.) Eighty percent is still masterful, and your effort to get higher won’t produce worthwhile return on investment. Get to good enough, then move on to another skill.

In order to get to 80 percent mastery, though, you’ll need to invest in short-term specialization. Flynn says that when you run into a skill you want to acquire, you’ll have to focus intensely –maybe even exclusively – on it until you get to where you want to be. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s necessary to move ahead as a generalist. If you’re learning the guitar, for example, you’ll have to practice a certain fingering technique over and over until you’ve mastered it; then you can move on to the next technique or chord or skill. You’ll never get good at any one thing if you don’t focus on it for a while.

Integration over Isolation means that you’re more likely to learn something quickly and well when you do it in the context of something you’re trying to achieve. “Practice only the things you need to get good at, as they pertain to the task at hand,” he writes. Learn the chords of the song you want to sing. Learn enough French to order food, get around Paris and find a hotel. Save other, more esoteric skills for later. Flynn writes, “Specific practice produces specific results, so practice only the things you need and nothing more.”

Finally, his principle of repetition and resistance says that you’ll only get to 80 percent mastery by making the task harder and harder to do. “It’s not enough to simply do something; you also need to make that something difficult for yourself.” I’ve written about the concept of deliberate practice before. Doing something over and over again will not produce progress; you’ll need to add resistance (extra weight, more challenging assignments, aiming for more efficiency or speed) to get better.

In another post, we’ll discuss the skills needed to master skills.

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