How to Become Better at Anything

(ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )

There are a great many things that humans strive for, but they can probably all be summarized under a single common heading: development.

The unrelenting desire to improve—to be better, stronger, richer, happier—is the propeller behind every invention, from automated vacuum cleaners to glow-in-the-dark stickers, and it is the driving force behind every change we make—otherwise, we would just make do with what we have and everything would always stay the same. No matter what we do, we can’t help but want to do it better.

If we really want to follow this fundamental desire for progress through to its highest end, we should also apply it to itself… how do we improve (in anything) more efficiently? In other words, how can we become better at becoming better?

As a person who incessantly ponders self-development, I’ve dedicated a not insignificant amount of thought to this topic. And so, it seems, have many other very wise and ambitious people. Here are some thoughts from both their and my own experience:

Get a coach

This strategy was the topic of a very insightful TED talk by Atul Gawande, titled “Want to get great at something? Get a coach.” Gawande explains how crucial it can be—even the difference between life and death—to have a coach who can offer you feedback on your work. He gives the example of surgeons who, using coaching, were able to improve their work to such an extent that they drastically raised the number of lives of newborn babies and their mothers they could save.

This is also a common practice in many companies. At the language academy where I presently work part-time, I have been observed twice by more experienced colleagues. A few years ago, I would have been stressed out of my mind about having someone scrutinize and critique my work. However, on these last occasions, I found myself actually really looking forward to the feedback.

I’d like to see this as a sign of mental growth: it takes a really growth-minded person take full advantage of this strategy. It’s very easy to take up a defensive attitude and reject any form of constructive feedback, no matter how kindly it is worded. It’s important to keep in mind that the observations that your coach will have are things that are there whether or not someone points them out. If you listen to feedback with an open mind, you can grow from it immensely—or, you can stick your head in the sand and continue to be held back from your full potential.

Gawande has an extremely eloquent speech on this topic, so I will let him do the talking on this one. You can listen to it and read the transcript in 17 different languages here.

Be a (silent) coach to someone else

While the first strategy is an extremely effective one, equally strong is its reverse: instead of you being observed, you can also do the observing. Ideally, this should be with someone you look up to, but in reality, we can learn from anyone, no matter where we are in our careers and skills development. No other person will do things exactly the same way you will, and there’s a very good chance that your way isn’t always the best way.

I am very lucky to have had some very talented colleagues who were kind and willing enough to let me sit quietly and watch their lessons. Personally, I found this even more helpful than having someone observe me, because I could see first-hand some key differences and similarities between my teaching style and someone else’s and find some new ideas to give my own students a better learning experience.

Note that I wrote silent—this is because the worst way to repay someone’s kindness in letting you so deep into their personal sphere of work would be to start criticizing them, even if it is meant to help them. Let’s remember that you are observing because you want to learn from them, and there is indeed something that we can learn from everyone. If the person asks you for your opinion on their work, that’s a different story, but we all know what it feels like to be offered unsolicited advice, especially when it comes from someone who wanted your help in the first place. When you ask someone for the opportunity to observe their work, make sure that you make it clear to them that it’s because you would love to learn from their experience and improve yourself as a professional—and don’t forget this yourself. 🙂

Learn from different sources

In most cases, there is never only one right way to do something. For instance, there are hundreds of different English books and learning methods out there, and they could all be great in their own way for different people. (For a related topic, see my article The One Key to Learning a Language). Likewise, twenty translators could produce twenty slightly differing translations of the same text—and there have indeed been such cases—and each translation could have its own unique beauty and charm without necessarily being of lesser quality than the others.

Seeking wisdom from only one source is like carving a sculpture but only working on one side of the rock. Actively looking for new ways to learn and new people to learn from is what will really round your skills out, and fill in gaps in your knowledge that you may not even realize you have. If you’re thinking, “Well, I have already learned from everyone I possible could,” I can guarantee you’re wrong. The world is brimming with professionals, books, articles, podcasts, video lessons, courses, conferences, etc. with new ones popping up every day. The world is your oyster 🙂

Try to teach someone

There’s an age-old joke that goes, “Those who can’t do, teach.” I’m not sure what kind of teachers the author of this joke had, but I think it’s certainly not true that you can teach something that you aren’t skilled at yourself. How can you explain what you don’t understand? Teaching something is the ultimate test of how solid of a grasp you have on a concept.

While we’re all on our own journeys of self-growth, let’s remember to be kind and respectful to others around us. We can all learn from each other, nobody is the best at everything, and learning something new is both an empowering and a humbling experience.

To embrace this sentiment myself to the fullest possible extent, I’d now like to invite you to share your own thoughts below in the comments. What experiences do you have with these strategies? Do you use any others? I welcome any new perspectives 🙂

ESL Notes (33 words / expressions)

a great many things (noun phrase): another way to say “very many things”. Since it sounds a bit more formal, it is used more often in writing than in speaking. (Back to the text)

to strive for (verb): to try very hard to get. If you strive for something, it is an important goal for you. You can strive to do something, or you can strive for a thing. Many people strive for perfection, others strive to become rich. (Back to the text)

unrelenting (adj): very determined, and never becoming weaker. If it there was unrelenting rain all day, it means it was raining hard all day, without becoming lighter. (Back to the text)

a propeller (noun): a device that makes a ship or plane move. I use it metaphorically to mean the thing that pushes humans forwards in making inventions and other things. (Back to the text)

to make do with (phrasal verb): If you make do with something, it means it’s not the best you can have, or what you wanted, but you accept it and use it. (Back to the text)

can’t help but (phrase): this phrase is used to talk about something you can’t control. (Back to the text)

to follow through (phrasal verb): to continue something until it’s done. (Back to the text)

incessantly (adverb): always, without stopping. (Back to the text)

not insignificant (adj): a large amount. Sometimes double negatives are used in this way to “soften” statements. For example, “I don’t disagree” can be a softer way to tell someone that you agree with a controversial opinion, or an opinion they don’t like. (Back to the text)

so, it seems, have…: “so have” is used to say that I do something, and other people the same thing, using the present perfect. So, “I have eaten dinner. They have also eaten dinner.” = “I have eaten dinner, and so have they.” You can often insert short commentary phrases such as “it seems” or “surprisingly” in the middle of sentences. This is what I’ve done here. (Back to the text)

stressed out of my mind (adj phrase): this means extremely stressed — so stressed that I feel like I’m losing my mind. (Back to the text)

to scrutinize (verb): to look at something very carefully. (Back to the text)

to critique (verb): to give an opinion about a piece of work. (Back to the text)

take up (a defensive/friendly/etc. attitude) (phrasal verb): to start having a certain attitude. (Back to the text)

to be held back from your full potential: if something holds you back from your full potential, it stops you from reaching your full potential. My sentence uses this phrase in the passive voice. (Back to the text)

eloquent (adj): a message that is eloquent is well said and has a strong effect on others. (Back to the text)

to look up to someone (phrasal verb): to admire someone. (Back to the text)

a good chance (noun phrase): a high probability (Back to the text)

first-hand (adj) : if you see something first-hand, it means you see it yourself (instead of hearing about it from someone else, or watching it on TV). (Back to the text)

a sphere of work (noun phrase): an area of work. (Back to the text)

that’s a different story (expression): this is an expression which means “that’s something different,” or “that’s a different set of circumstances.” (Back to the text)

differing (adj): different from each other. This adjective is only used with plural nouns, and only before the noun. You wouldn’t say, for example, “This book is different” or even “These books are differing”—you have to put the adjective before the noun, as in “People told many differing accounts of what happened.” (Back to the text)

to carve (verb): to make something by cutting into wood or stone, like when a statue is being made from a rock or piece of wood. (Back to the text)

to round out something (verb): to complete something. (Back to the text)

a gap (noun): an empty space or opening. (Back to the text)

brimming with (adj): very full of. (Back to the text)

to pop up (phrasal verb): appear. (Back to the text)

age-old (adj): very old. (Back to the text)

goes (verb): this word is used in informal speech instead of “says.” (Back to the text)

grasp (noun): understanding. (Back to the text)

empowering (adj): something that is empowering is something that makes you more confident. (Back to the text)

humbling (adj): something that is humbling is something that makes you understand that you’re not as special, important, or skilled as you thought. (Back to the text)

embrace (verb): to accept with enthusiasm. (Back to the text)


Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.

  • What is there a lot of in your city or neighborhood? Use the expression “a great many...” Some ideas: trees, restaurants, boutiques, parks, pharmacies, cats, stylish people, etc.
  • Is it healthy to strive for perfection? What are some things you strive for?
  • How would you feel living in a place with unrelenting bad weather?
  • If you were shopping for coffee beans or powder (or another product you often buy) and your favorite brand was sold out, would you make do with a different brand?
  • Do you know any person who is so charismatic, everyone can’t help but like him/her?
  • Do you follow through with all the projects and plans you start? Do you know anyone who does?
  • Do you find it annoying when you’re with someone and he/she checks his/her phone incessantly?
  • When was the last time you felt stressed out of your mind?
  • When you go to a museum, do you scrutinize the paintings and works of art, or do you look at them very briefly? Do you scrutinize your photographs before you post them on social media to check if there are any embarrassing details in the background?
  • What do you think of assignments in school where students are asked to critique each other’s work?
  • Do you know anyone who always takes up a defensive attitude as soon as someone offers any kind of feedback or constructive criticism?
  • Do you think being in a committed relationship can sometimes hold a person back from pursuing the career of their dreams? If yes, is this right?
  • Which politician or leader do you know who gives eloquent speeches?
  • Do you look up to any of your colleagues? Who do you look up to in your field of work or study?
  • Where do you think you will be living next year? Do you think you will have the same job? Who do you think will be elected in the next elections? Use the phrase “a good chance” in your answers.
  • Do you think that fiction books are better written if they are about topics or events that the author has experienced first-hand?
  • Talk about something you think is unethical and compare it to a situation in which it might be more ethical, using “That’s a different story.” For example, “It’s wrong to take someone else’s words and publish them on your own blog. However, if you ask for their permission first and they agree, that’s a different story.”
  • Have you ever heard people tell very differing accounts of the same event? Have you read very differing critiques of the same piece of work?
  • Do you think it looks bad if there are gaps in a person’s employment history?
  • Is your city brimming with insects in the spring? How about flowers? Tourists?
  • In your culture, are there any age-old stories which are often told to children?
  • What is a proverb that you really like? Use “goes” to say what the proverb says.
  • Do you have a good grasp of the political ideology of the current government in your country? Do you have a good grasp of how taxes in your country work? Do you think it’s important for all citizens to have a good grasp of these two things?
  • Do you consider learning to drive an empowering experience?
  • Why do you think it’s harder for some people to embrace change? What kinds of change are harder to embrace than others?

Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.

Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!

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