The 365 Commitment

Repetition is the Solution

There are several innate skills that we all have being born as humans. Skills inherited from thousands and thousands of years of genetic conditioning. They are part of the brain that we call our subconscious, primal, or instinct. Perhaps one of the most powerful ones that we have is that of pattern recognition. Humans have this incredible ability to recognize patterns and condition a response which allows us to perform at profound levels and achieve marvelous things. However, how does one expose this fundamental skill? Is there something you can specifically do to train or improve this part of our hidden selves? How can you get better at pattern recognition? I have a theory that is often overlooked, yet simple. So simple that those of us that think of ourselves as intellectuals will look past the concept searching for something more meaningful to explain the phenomena. The simple theory is that pattern recognition is improved the most by repetition. That is it, repeat, repeat, repeat and the human brain will become exponentially better at recognizing patterns in the area of repetition. We look for all these hidden solutions to improving ourselves, when the entire time the greatest secret is lying just under the surface and that is you will get better mostly by repetition. Seems obvious, but it is not. We will dodge, distract, distance ourselves from repetitive actions looking for shortcuts or other explanations for success. The simple truth is that if you want to improve one of the greatest human skill sets, just simply repeat something over and over again. Pattern recognition is improved by repetition.

I was listening to this great podcast by Simon Sinek and his guests Brene Brown and Adam Grant. All three of these people are great thinkers, with amazing messages and I have listened frequently to their material over the last few years. On this latest podcast, Brene Brown asks a question of the team about what improves pattern recognition? The conversation delved into the relation between pattern recognition and creativity and that is a fun concept to debate about, but the three of them seemed to reach the conclusion that pattern recognition is improved by exposure to diverse experiences. This might be true, but I was thinking that perhaps it is not diversity per se, but rather just the repetition that matters most. So, you are exposed to different people, opinions, topics but the point is that if you are repeating the same process or analysis or methodology over again you are improving your ability to recognize patterns not because of diverse exposure, but rather just shear repetition. Is this just too simple of a response? Perhaps, but there is a lot of truth to it. All three of these individuals are incredibly successful, brilliant, and creative. However, how have they become so good at recognizing patterns on a given topic? I would proffer because they have been repeatedly writing and speaking on a given topic every day over and over again. That repetition has increased their ability to see, detect, and ferret out patterns. Simon sees optimism everywhere, Adam seeks habits everywhere, and Brene sees ways to overcome shame. Sure, exposure to different people, experiences and backgrounds helped, but what really lit the human subconscious into action was the constant repetition. I decided to take some time today and examine some areas that could demonstrate this point with more clarity.

The first is in the game of chess. I happen to be enthralled by the game, which is why it was the first example for me to think of. A few years ago, I took lessons from a Grand Master in the United States, Varuzhan Akobian. He is a fun person, with a great passion for chess and I really enjoyed my time learning from him. During one of our lessons, we were playing a game and he stopped the game in one position and asked me, “what do you see?” I offered a bunch of ideas, which he acknowledged but dismissed as amateurish. He then pointed out that the position was at a point where a serious decision needed to be made and walked me through the thinking. I asked him afterward, how did you know that this moment was so critical? He said he did not really know, he supposed that it was “instinct.” This made me really think about how he developed this instinct for the game of chess. What is instinct in this situation? It dawned on me that it was quite simple, pattern recognition. Here was a man that had probably invested way over 50,000 hours playing and analyzing chess games. During that constant repetition he was able to build a repository of patterns that he could instantly see and recognize what to do. Over time, that repository became highly organized in his mind and consequently was playing at what we would call a “grandmaster” level. Effectively, it was time playing that was the single greatest contribution to this ability to see patterns and recognize them. Most people do not understand this about chess. They see these amazing young people becoming chess phenoms and they think “wow, this child must have a great natural talent to see hundreds of moves in advance.” This is not true at all. They have the ability that any human has, the ability to see and recognize patterns. They have just spent far more time recognizing the patterns associated with that 64 square board than anyone else.

This pattern recognition ability of the chess grandmaster emphasizes the point Malcolm Gladwell was discussing in his book Outliers. The idea that anyone that spends a certain amount of time in practice over a given thing will become an expert in that thing. Chess proves this theory perfectly. Sure, certain people will be better than others at the game of chess after spending 50,000 hours playing. However, 50,000 hours will almost definitely put you in that grandmaster category. Repetition was the key. Now I will admit that the right type of repetition is important. If you play the same basic beginners repeatedly, you will never improve. However, I argue that when you commit time to something for an extended period it is inevitable that you will push harder, take on more skilled opponents and seek challenges above your ability. By the time you commit to 5, 10, 15 thousand hours you will migrate your way into competitive chess. I started running a few years back. At first it was a mile or so around my neighborhood. However, after a year of running every day, I found myself registered for a half marathon. Then it was a full marathon, then it was a 50K, then it was a 50-mile ultra-marathon. Now I have 14 pairs of running shoes and an entire closet dedicated to all my running paraphernalia. Yes, I now have more shoes in my closet than my wife does in hers, incredible. The point is that exposure and repetition will inevitably cause you to seek greater challenges. It is the way. It is human.

My second example is something that we all experience. Driving. I have the great and humbling experience of teaching my daughter to drive. She is doing great, but I noticed something during the process that directly fed this idea that repetition improves pattern recognition. We were driving one day, and we were on a four-lane highway. We were in the left lane of a two-lane unidirectional traffic. A car with tinted windows was a head on the right side. I told my daughter to be careful, that car was about to change into our lane and to slow down. She did so, and sure enough the car pulled quickly into our lane. After the experience, my daughter asked me, “how did you know the car was going to change lanes, they did not signal?” I thought about it for a moment and replayed the events in my mind. Here is what happened. I noticed the car swerve slightly to the right and then immediately correct. I knew that pattern would produce a lane change. I knew that because I have seen it thousands of times before on the freeway. When a driver looks over their shoulder to the left, their arm naturally pulls the wheel slightly to the right. I did not know that I knew this, but I did. I knew it so well, that I instantly recognized the pattern and was able to warn my daughter in advance of the sudden lane change. To my daughter it appeared as if I was able to read the other driver’s mind. However, what was really going on is that I was tapping into this incredible human power called pattern recognition. I started driving around 14 or so, how many hours have I spent driving? A lot. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. Patterns learned.

Pattern recognition is a powerful human skill. I am sure that any experience looking at patterns, diverse or not, will improve the human brain’s ability to recognize future patterns. Some experiences may be better than others. My lessons with a Russian born grandmaster were probably better than my experience playing my sister when I was a child. However, both were the same activity. Both fed the machine with more patterns to evaluate. Recently, a friend asked me to look at some financial data for a company. After a few minutes, I was able to tell quickly that there was a problem with where dollars were being routed. I had seen this problem before, and I knew with nobody telling me that this company was having a problem with increasing the cost of sales. My friend was impressed that I could see that without being told the background. Was I doing something special, or superhuman? No, I was simply recognizing the same pattern that I have seen over and repeatedly. A company experiences fast growth and then starts to invest in a sales team. The cost of sales goes up and the company struggles with probability. Why? Simple, the early history of the company did not account for the cost of sales because the owners were not tracking the investment of their time. To me that was simple and obvious, a pattern I have seen repeatedly. The person that I was talking to had only seen this once. Magic? No. Just experience at seeing patterns.

I would warn against looking for a magic solution, and idea, a silver bullet. Chances are you are not going to come up with a better idea than anyone else, especially people that have spent a lot more time on the subject than you have. In our personal lives, and in our business life, we tend to spend a lot of time coming up with a better process or building a system or constructing an improved mouse trap. The reality is that we would have far more success just repeating what works, repeatedly. Stop making excuses and just start doing what you know you should. Repeat. Fail. Repeat. Fail. Repeat. That is the solution, not a new idea. You will bump into success somewhere along the path of your many attempts.

In the wonderful world of self-help and self-improvement there are a lot of people providing great advice. Simon, Adam, Brene, and Malcolm are among the best. I will continue to follow their guidance on the topics that they are experts in. However, a simple message that might provide some relief to the rest of us is that there really is no magic and hidden recipe for human success. If you want to tap into the power that you have hidden within you from thousands of years of human evolution, then you may want to consider just doing something – a lot. Everyday. Practice again and again. Keep at it until you have accumulated enough time on the subject, and you will probably be awesome at it. You will recognize and see patterns that no one else will and they will pay you for your expertise at doing so. My best piece of advice? Stop worrying about how, but rather, just pick something and start doing it and do not give up for at least 1 year. Then you can worry about how to do it better. You are a human. A Child of God. A product of the universe. You are an incredible machine at the absolute pinnacle of human experience. Spend time on anything, repeat it frequently, and you will be amazing.

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