By Valerie Devoy

Earlier this week, while driving to work, I heard an insightful TED Talk called, “How to Get Better at the Things You Care About,” by Eduardo Briceño. At first, I didn’t think much of it as it popped up on my podcast feed (maybe just another motivational speaker). But because I was driving, I let it play and I’m glad I did; it has stuck with me ever since.

Eduardo Briceño is the CEO of a company called Mindset Works, which was founded on the notion of helping students believe in themselves and invest in their own education. In his TED Talk, Briceño elaborates on this idea of “investing in one’s own education” by making the argument that both students and professionals need to spend more time in what he calls the learning zone and less time in the performance zone. Now this may sound contradictory. Isn’t the point of school to be in the learning zone? But Briceño argues that we often lose sight of what it means to learn (students included) because we are so focused on performance. And when we stop learning our performance becomes stagnant.

So what exactly is the learning zone and how is it different from performing? Let’s take cooking for example. When you are cooking a meal for your family or friends you are performing. You may be learning certain things while doing this, but essentially you are performing. Conversely, a learning activity looks much different: maybe you are broadening your knife skills by watching a video of a famous chef and then practicing their techniques, or experimenting with a new and challenging recipe, where the stakes are low and there is room for mistakes. Unfortunately for my family, I’m often in the learning zone while cooking. When I try new recipes they are not guaranteed to turn out and we order pizza instead. But this willingness to make mistakes, to go out of my comfort zone, ultimately allows me to get better at cooking. Surprisingly, some dinners turn out great!.

However, not everybody has a family as flexible as mine and not every situation is as clear-cut as the cooking example. For instance, let’s say you’re writing a 60-page research paper as a capstone for your graduate program (random example, I know) and it’s due in only 15 weeks. This is going to require a lot of time reading, researching, writing, and rewriting, all of which fall under the performance zone (otherwise your paper will never get done). So if, as Briceño says, “the way to high performance is to alternate between the learning zone and the performance zone” then how does one do this when time is limited and the stakes are high?

Briceño’s answer to this question is what he calls deliberate practice: “This involves breaking down abilities into component skills [and] being clear about what sub skills we are working on to improve.” This also involves “focusing outside of our comfort zone, just beyond what we can currently do.” Briceño’s research proves that “the way to high performance is to alternate between the learning zone and performance zone” and that high performance is achieved by “purposely building our skills in the learning zone and applying them in the performance zone.”

So again, what does this mean in the context of a large and demanding project like the capstone? Time is limited and the stakes are high, but even so, Briceño’s research shows that success relies on finding time to let yourself be in the learning zone. This might be taking some extra time to study the APA Style Guide, or learn a new method of research, or take a class to learn a new technology. Whatever it might be, the projects will likely benefit, long-term goals will be more easily met and, generally speaking, we’ll all be happier because we’ll be getting better at the things we love to do.

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