Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Problem Solving

Repetition Opens Up Elegant Solutions

This is the fourth and final article about using repetition toward deep mastery. So far, we have explored discipline and expertise and expression. Repetition can take us to an even deeper level when we integrate it with problem solving.

LEVEL 4 – REPETITION CREATES ELEGANT SOLUTIONS

It’s easy to be expressive when things are going right. Things are flowing. We’re in a rhythm using our skills, connecting it to how what we want to express.

Then shit happens.

Have you logged enough repetitions that you can adapt? Level 4 is about getting past challenges.

At first, simply continuing when problems arise is hard. We don’t even know what to do when things go wrong. We get confused. We panic. Most of us need to experience an emergency to know how to get out of one. Pilots use flight simulators for this. They use traditional classroom and book instruction to learn the solutions in different scenarios. Flight simulators make the scenarios real. Their repetition is about learning to stay calm under pressure. They fail and learn from it. In some ways, it’s a repeat of Level 2 – learning the skill of fixing things.

Becoming adept enough to find solutions is good, but the beauty of problem solving is when it goes beyond fixing to elegance and creativity.

Being calm under pressure is valuable. Being creatively calm is invaluable. It’s what lets you land a plane in the Hudson River.

Raw, undirected talent dismisses mistakes. At Level 4 we notice their potential. Creativity is the goal of repetition here. Turning accident to advantage.

This is where Picasso decides it’s a problem to draw a bull the same way over and over again and reduces it to 9 brushstrokes.

This is where Bode Miller skis himself off the downhill race course and uses the netting on the side of the course to ricochet back into contention.

Without comparing myself to Picasso or Miller, I’ve been fortunate to experience this area of Level 4 often. In fact, the entire idea of freestyle at its highest level is to create the biggest problem for ourselves to see if we can elegantly get out of it. Sometimes there is an elegant solution, other times a clumsy mess. The more I give myself big problems to solve, the more elegant solutions show up.

When my team prepares for the world championships, I’m on the lookout for fortunate mistakes. Some of the most memorable planned moments start as mistakes. “Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen, but it would be cool if we did it on purpose.” We shift course and use repetition to create something fresh out of the mistake.

Many people are uncomfortable in chaos. Most businesses have low tolerance for chaos. They want clarity, a focus on the known, predictability. And they are rarely the businesses known for innovation. Innovative businesses leave space for chaos. Allowing staff to fumble around with new concepts and search for better answers includes a risk of failure and also opens up space for big breakthroughs – seeing new markets, inventing new approaches to treating disease, finding better ways to talk to one’s customers.

The deepest mastery is courageous in its curiosity and experimentation. It doesn’t settle or shy away from the unconventional. It’s about uncharted territory. It is both discerning and playful. While engaging in this level of repetition can feel terrifying, it’s just as likely to be exhilarating and fulfilling.

If discipline is where we become skillful. Expertise is where we become solidly competent. Expression is where we become memorable. This territory of problem solving transcends all of them. This is the level where we have a chance to be legendary.

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Expression

Repetition Creating Expression

In this series, we are exploring different ways repetition can lead us to mastery. So far we have looked at discipline and expertise. This time we go one step deeper, to expression.

LEVEL 3 – REPETITION CREATES EXPRESSION

Level 2 of DEEP mastery – expertise – is about fixing flaws. It’s about pursuing perfection. Learning new facts. Acing the test. Putting our skills to work in different circumstances.

Level 3 is where we set aside perfection.

By the time we get here, we know we can be nearly perfect. We also know perfection is not where the real growth is.

In the hands of masterful talent, flaws can be magical. Listen to the best violinists. Their precision is so amazing that they can create intentional imperfection in the performance. Waiting a fraction of a second longer for one note. Rushing another. Stretching the tones. Their imperfection has another name: interpretation.

Our Level 2 repetitions let us perform perfectly. And we don’t want that. Perfect is boring. Perfect is sterile. Introducing variations or flaws makes our creation more compelling.

The aesthetic of wabi-sabi is about appreciating the beauty of the imperfect.

The beauty in imperfection

A basketball player might notice he has enough airtime to dunk the ball with style instead of make a utilitarian score.

Athletic Expression

A project manager might be so versed in timelines and process that (s)he can find quality, cost savings or efficiency by refocusing on the individual strengths of the team.

Casting Perfection Aside

At first, it’s about doing it right. Am I showing up? Am I doing my reps? Am I performing this skill well? Perfection matters. And then it doesn’t.

In Level 3, we put our personal touch on the skill by letting it stray from perfect – and in doing so we might just redefine perfect. Here, creativity is paired with repetition. We add personal expression, and our distinctive style emerges. We become memorable.

The biggest learning comes from failure. We can refine and refine through repetition, but it only gets us so far. We might become perfect, but we lack distinction. We might be consistent but perform far below our potential. We may even be seen as the best in the world but be sacrificing an opportunity to expand what’s possible.

I struggle with that borderline between expertise and expression. While my team has won the last two world championships in the Pairs division, I would love for there to have been even more risk and expression in our performances. We nailed the consistency we needed to win, and in doing so sacrificed expressing ourselves through a wider variety of catches. I am proud of both performances, and the level 3 part of me yearns for more expression in each performance.

When repetition is in service of expression, we pursue perfection so we can embrace chaos.

The errors, the goofs, the rough sketches, the failures. Those are where bigger breakthroughs lurk. In fact, the farther we take our skills, the more we scoff at perfection because it holds us back. Being exceptional happens by finding the spaces that invite expression and in seeking out chaos.

Creating Deep Mastery from Repetition: Expertise

Repetition Creates Expertise

In this series we are looking at how repetition can create deeper and deeper layers of mastery. Last time, we looked at discipline. This time we go one level deeper, to expertise.

LEVEL 2 – REPETITION CREATES EXPERTISE

While level 1 of DEEP mastery – discipline – is about going beyond expectations by practicing, level 2 is about becoming an expert in your specialty.

When we repeat, we build skills. We learn techniques, then refine and sculpt them through repetition. This is the level where the raw talent become reliable. At this level, our repetitions throw roadblocks at us – fundamental errors, odd mistakes, anomalies – and we learn what the fixes are.

Know how to manage a small team? At his level we discover how leadership is different with larger team sizes.

Know how to give a speech at an intimate gathering? At this level, we learn how speaking differs for big audiences or noisy venues or when we incorporate visual aids.

In my sport, it might be about learning a new catch, then discovering how different the skill feels in high winds or a confined space or when I need to make the catch off a pass from a teammate.

Imagine this level as college. We choose a major, then look at that topic repeatedly from different angles. We expand our knowledge, and along the way we conquer misunderstandings, get smacked down a bit by professors when we trip up, and learn the established connections between concepts.

This is the level where we use failure to make our skills rock solid. It’s where we learn the limitations off our skills, then expand and adapt them. At this level, we learn to apply our skills confidently in a wide variety of conditions. We become experts.

Where might you take your expertise further? Have you put in the reps to become competent but not yet an expert? How might it change your career if you expanded your expertise? How might it impact your life outside work to take something you’re familiar with and develop mastery?