Practice (supposedly) makes perfect, but who among us has never spent hours upon hours practicing something they didn’t even come close to perfecting? I, for one, played a LOT of tennis as a teenager and wrestled with a clarinet for many years in many bands, and guess what? I was never more than solidly average at both.
It’s too bad software developer David MacIver’s “Fully General System For Learning To Do Hard Things” wasn’t around back then to help me. He created this step-by-step system to help us learn how to do hard things.
The “hard thing” might be anything from learning to play chess to running a marathon; it doesn’t really matter what hard thing we’re talking about. He explains his process this way:
The system “always” works in the sense that “eventually” either you will find out why the objective is impossible for you or you will succeed, but it’s very much the unhelpful kind of eventually where there’s no guarantee that it won’t take an interminably long time. The more likely outcome is that either you will succeed relatively quickly or get bored and give up, but that’s OK—the system is designed so that you will have gained benefit from following it at every step along the way even if you do not achieve your final goal.
So it’s not a guarantee but rather a structured plan to follow if you’re not sure how to start mastering the hard. He offers two approaches—one process if you already know what success looks like and one process if the definition of “success” is more subjective. In both cases, you’ll follow these steps:
1. Find something that is like the hard thing but is easy.
2. Modify the easy thing so that it is like the hard thing in exactly one way that you find hard.
3. Do the modified thing until it is no longer hard.
4. If you get stuck, do one of the following:
Go back to step 3 and pick a different way in which the problem is hard.
Recursively apply the general system for learning to do hard things to the thing you’re stuck on.
Go ask an expert or a rubber duck for advice.
If you’re still stuck after trying the first three, it’s possible that you may have hit some sort of natural difficulty limit and may not be able to make progress.
5. If the original hard thing is now easy, you’re done. If not, go back to step 2.
The idea is that, instead of focusing on improving everything about the hard thing all at once, you can pick apart the problem and, piece by piece, master the challenging aspects of it.
Or you discover it’s just too hard for you, but hey, at least you tried.