Competence is activated after preparation.

When we perform, what we know kicks in.

That’s why time spent on nailing that ‘guitar lick’, strengthening those runs, and targeting the weak areas in our musical performance is time well-spent.

Then, when it’s time to perform, that which has been practiced in private is made public.

The difference between practice and performance is the degree to which we surrender the execution of the endeavor to the realm of unconscious effort. When we practice, we are targeting every step our foot lands on, so to speak. When we perform, we trust that when we take a step, it will land as expected and as we practiced. The activity moves from the explicit to the expected.

An often-used analogy (and an effective one at that) is the toddler who transitions from crawling to walking. When we were toddlers learning to walk, every step was a big deal. We stumbled and fell, got back up, stumbled again. Each step was contributing to our understanding of the process. After some time, as toddlers, we stopped deliberating and doubting that each foot would follow the other. We just knew what to expect.

Certainty is about knowing what to expect. I like to think of spaced practice as raising my degree of certainty that I will demonstrate competence during performance.

Sure, we didn’t do a good job of walking at first, but we raised our competence to the level of the challenge by allowing ourselves to do a bad job at first and adjusting our technique as needed. And all of the encouragement we received from our parents seemed to help, too.

Now that our competence is sufficient, we walk spontaneously and with certainty. We don’t think about each time we fell. We rarely have misgivings about walking, unless a new challenge presents itself, like walking a tightrope or walking on ice. At some point, self-doubt and internal deliberation no longer hold our attention. Walking now has a high degree of unconscious execution.

When we operate on a high level — and enter a flow state — our concentration becomes acute and directed towards the activity (like musical or athletic performance) and less on the kind of self-consciousness that derails us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Steven Kotler have conducted years of research into flow states and it’s worth looking into if you want to understand how it works.

So if this is the case with musical performance and motor/athletic skills, what about the rest of our lives? What about being a father or student or photographer or teacher? We play many roles. Each present their own challenges and require a specific skill-set. How can we trust ourselves to spontaneously make the best decisions possible?

Competence is activated after preparation. Nothing rises to the surface if there is nothing below the surface. That’s why it’s important to stay well-read, to target the things for which we are ignorant, to live an examined life, to strengthen ourselves, to remain truthful, to clean our room.

If “all the world’s a stage,” then we must be performers. And if we are performing, then our competence is continually being demonstrated. However, if what is being demonstrated is incompetence, then we need to raise our competence with appropriate preparation, by engaging in endeavors that increase our degree of certainty and by targeting the weak areas.

Then when we perform, what we know kicks in. Any preparation we’ve made in private will be made public.

There are fewer things more satisfying than watching an amazing jazz guitarist improvise a solo on stage. It would appear that he’s making it up as he goes along. He acts spontaneously and with certainty because of everything he’s worked on in private, everything he’s practiced or targeted up to that point. If he is like most people, he didn’t do a good job of soloing as a beginner but raised his competence to the level of the challenge by allowing himself to do a bad job at first and adjusting his technique as needed. Oh wait a second, that’s what we all do as toddlers learning to walk!

Have you ever handed a guitar to a non-guitarist? Most times, they begin flailing at the strings and making a horrible sound, prompting immediate regret for allowing them to hold it in the first place. Some appear to have the motions correct since it’s no mystery what a rockstar stance looks like. So what’s the problem? They seem to be playing spontaneously and with certainty.

Herein lies the difference: You can’t expect anything to rise to the surface if there is nothing below the surface. Competence only kicks in if there is something to kick in to begin with.

As in music, so in life.


o learn more about the science behind this, read The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler