Scott H Young

The Frustration Barrier – The Key Obstacle to Being Good at Anything


The climb is hard, but the view is spectacular...

I’m a fan of meta-skills. These are the skills that allow you to learn faster and master new disciplines more quickly. I love meta-skills so much that a good portion of this blog writing, and my entire upcoming program are devoted to them.

One of the most important meta-skills for becoming good at anything is being able to push through the frustration barrier. This is the early phase of skill acquisition where you suck at it. The skill isn’t fun, because you haven’t reached the level of proficiency where you can actually enjoy it.

A perfect example is learning a foreign language. When I started learning French, the process was difficult. Speaking French wasn’t enjoyable. I had difficulty understanding simple things and the effort wasn’t rewarding.

Now, I’m still not fluent, but I actually enjoy French. I’m reading my first novel in the language (The Count of Monte Cristo) and I’m currently spending my winter holidays with a Belgian family, speaking French exclusively. These are experiences I wouldn’t have enjoyed if I had got stuck at square one.

How the Frustration Barrier Cuts You Off From New Experiences

The frustration barrier doesn’t just make learning more difficult, it also cuts you off from new life experiences. When you face the barrier repeatedly in one area of skill, you may confess to yourself that you are simply not born with the talents necessary to be successful in that area.

In my life, an interesting consequence of this was dancing. When I was younger, I was a bit clumsy and introverted. Therefore I never tried dancing, and when I did I was lousy at it. I had just accepted that I might not possess the gene for uninhibited party enjoyment.

But, being the optimist that I am, I signed up for dancing classes one day. After a brief introduction (note: overcoming the frustration barrier) I found out I actually liked to dance. To the point where I love going to nightclubs and dancing.

That’s a simple example, but I think many people get in there head a false belief that, “I’m not born with the talents to do ____” simply because they never invested the initial effort to overcome the frustration barrier in that area of their life.

The Meta-Skill of Rapid Learners: Dominating the Frustration Barrier

I later discovered that most people can become good at almost anything (not necessarily spectacular, but good). The key is mastering that meta-skill of overcoming the frustration barrier. Once you defeat the early part of skill acquisition where learning is painful, you can start reaching the part where mastery and hard focus feel good.

I don’t believe there is one grand key to overcoming the frustration barrier. But I do believe there are many heuristics you can use to help yourself push through this difficult phase.

As always, practice is important. If you practice running headlong into the frustration barrier, it is easier to do it again. This is why I believe people like Tim Ferriss, Benny Lewis or other seemingly statistical anomalies in learning exist. They have mastered the meta-skill of frustration barrier ascension, so that any new skill is comparatively easier to acquire.

Here are some of my favorite heuristics for overcoming this initial phase:

#1 – Admit You Suck.

Let go of the ego. When you just flatly admit you aren’t very good, you stop trying to protect your self image and appear qualified.

This may go against the traditional confidence hypothesis, until you understand that the goal isn’t performance. It’s to embrace your awfulness and use that embrace to keep you going despite your missteps.

#2 – Surround Yourself with People Who’ve Done It

You need to believe it’s possible. The only way to do that is to be immersed in people who have succeeded in the path you are now going through.

Not only will their great ideas for success rub off on you, you will be able to face the frustration barrier knowing that, at one point, it will get easier.

#3 – Study the Mastery Process

Or, as Cal Newport would suggest, invest a non-trivial amount of time into understanding how to master your chosen skill. When you do research two things happen:

  1. You expose yourself to great ideas for improvement which shorten the time to mastery.
  2. You gain confidence in the process of mastery, making it less likely you’ll give up out of frustration.

#4 – Enjoy Being Awful

I’ll admit, it’s easier to enjoy things your good at. However, just like you can have fun on a cloudy day, you can have fun being lousy at a skill as well. Fun is mostly about creative perception, so if you learn to enjoy the intensity of the challenge you are under, you can surmount the frustration barrier.

#5 – Commit to Mandatory Practice

Sometimes the best way to beat the frustration barrier is just through discipline. If you commit to practicing a certain amount, every day, you can eventually defeat the beast just by putting in enough time. I’ve done this for numerous fledgling skills where my internal resistance would otherwise defeat my desire to become good at it.

Of course, having a community of enthusiastic people and regular follow-up doesn’t hurt either. That’s the main reason I created Learning on Steroids, to create an environment to teach these sorts of meta-skills (while at the same time employing some of the tactics above to make it easier to overcome the frustration barrier).


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29 Responses to “The Frustration Barrier – The Key Obstacle to Being Good at Anything”

  1. I love the sentence: ‘I can’t do this, yet.’ Everybody around me say the can’t do something, but I like to add the word ‘yet’ all the time, because I know I can do this if I practice.

    Brought me pretty far.

  2. This sounds almost exactly how I go about learning things. This single post has hooked me to your blog. I’ve never thought about it from this perspective. I knew I was good at self-discipline, focusing on the right things, but I never thought about the frustration barrier per se. Awesome stuff!

  3. Fiona @ BSF says:

    Manditory practice has helped me immensily in getting past the initial ‘I suck’ stage and to get to the ‘This is fun’ stage. It worked with English, now it’s working with Russian and I’m sure it will with Spanish too once I start that up again.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. giulio maraviglia says:

    the tale of edmond dantès is one of the most beautiful stories ever, and i’m pretty sure you’ll love abbè faria’s character.

    i don’t want to spoil but the old monk reminds me that another way to improve and unstuck when you suck at something is, cynically, helping someone who sucks more than you do…

  5. Ahhh! Scott! I used the same exact picture in my article What is “Difficult”? (sorry for linking myself but I thought that was hilarious. All it proves is that you have good taste in pictures for articles :)

    Making fun of yourself is the best way to get rid of the frustration barrier – while practicing over and over again of course.

    For more on the learning process, check out Mastery by George Leonard. Shouldn’t take you more than a day to read it as it’s a pretty slim volume, but is FULL of useful information on learning just about any skill.

  6. Joseph Garza says:

    Scott,

    I like the idea of “meta-learning,” but “learning on Steroids?” Are you sure this is stuff is legal?

  7. Jeffrey says:

    It’s funny that you’re reading ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. That’s the exact book my French II teacher in high school made me translate when I was put into independent study.

    On another note, you have been mentioning of Benny’s blog in every post. It’s starting to remind of that scene in Wayne’s World where they do all the endorsements. Is he paying you or something, or is this ‘I’m just helping a brother out kinda thing’? I do enjoy his blog now that you’ve recommended it, but now I’m expecting a mention of Benny in every post from now on. ;)

  8. Maureen says:

    I had been thinking there is a mention of Cal Newport in every post.

  9. Scott Young says:

    Jeffrey,

    Certainly not. Benny’s blog has just been a recent find for me and I have been able to use him as an example.

    Maureen,

    What can I say? I’ve been tapping on many of Cal’s ideas in recent posts, he deserves the hat tip.

    -Scott

  10. The letting go of Ego part is huge. If you just know you’re poor at something then there is no inner resistance to how things are and you can make some real progress.

  11. Cal says:

    Great post!

    An implicit meta-skill lurking in your description is a satisfaction with doing less stuff. Crossing that frustration barrier is hard enough that if you’re trying to do it with 5 different pursuits, you might not have the energy to make it past in any of them.

  12. Adam Welch says:

    Man, I feel you’ve shown me another level with this one. Each one of these in its self is grand. After you discussed the mastery process with us I posted it in my gym consultant office, and it is still up much to my satisfaction. I love all of these points a lot. The one that most stood out was number 4, and enjoying the intensity of the challenge. Man against nature. There is something there for sure. My favorite book Wild at Heart I think talks about that a lot as well.

  13. Anders says:

    Exciting post!

    The frustration barrier has always been one of those meta-skills that I have lacked. I have joined several sports, just to realize that I only reach the mediocre level and then quit. I suppose the same goes for school for me. I like the idea of shredding the misbelief that somebody has traits that allows them to accomplish great feats – without doing anything. They also have to surpass the frustration barrier.

    Mandatory practice, is really mandatory – but again practice can be divided into effective and efficient practice right? Because even people who practice a lot don’t necessarily benefit if there practice isn’t effective.

    Quantity versus quality or somewhere in between.

  14. Scott, could you elaborate more on what you mean by meta-skills? I like what you said about the need for practice. That does not mean I want to practice, but the alternative is a lot worse: not being able to master areas of competence.

  15. Mark Nolan says:

    Ha ha, loved the tip to “Enjoy being awful.” So true. Sometimes it helps to say “It is going to be very entertaining to watch me stumble through this.” Keeping a sense of humor can help keep frustration at bay.

    Thanks for the great tips.

    Mark Nolan

  16. Scott Young says:

    Steve,

    Meta-skills, as the recursive prefix would imply, are skills that allow you to be good at other skills. There the higher order skills, beliefs, philosophy that help you learn other skills faster.

    I think there are a bunch, some which need to be learned separately, others which can be practiced while you’re practicing other skills deliberately.

    -Scott

  17. AHA says:

    I would add the following:

    6 – Become a keyboard jockey

    Become an expert on the subject, in theory. This will create a discongruence, where you will want your in-field performance to match up with your massive e-peen.

    7 – Set higher standards

    Make exceptional performance the normal. This will make you strive harder.

  18. John Tobey says:

    Reminds me of piano lessons: hated scales, liked chords, loved being able to play pieces. By end, I saw that scales weren’t simply punishment for being non-gifted.

  19. [...] The Frustration Barrier – The Key Obstacle to Being Good at … [...]

  20. Hi Mate,

    First comment on this site but I have been following for a while. I know for myself that having a community of likeminded individuals has challenge, encouraged and ultimately played the most part in my small amount of success so far to date.

    You have a great blog here and you write with talent and realism. I look forward to following you in 2010.

  21. RvR says:

    you seem to have figured out an important aspect of human psychology,
    the ego is the core, keep on examinating :)

  22. Dodeca says:

    I was struggling with learning a game engine today and I encountered #2 – the forums were full of people who’d done it and claimed it was easy.

    It just made me feel angry at myself for being so stupid that I couldn’t figure out something everyone else claimed was easy. That’s what usually happens to me with #2.

  23. [...] at sports. Sports are a classic example of the frustration barrier. When you are lousy at a sport, it isn’t much fun to play. But as you gain skill, the sport can [...]

  24. Jo Vermeulen says:

    How did you like Belgium? :)

  25. Scott Young says:

    Jo,

    Belgium was great :)

    -Scott

  26. [...] continued to pursue it until I was sure I didn’t like it or I still hadn’t progressed the Frustration Barrier, where I have sufficient skill to begin reaping some rewards. The casual approach relies too much [...]

  27. [...] about teeny tiny steps or that I have new routines in place that keep me going and reminders to not get frustrated. Whatever it is, it’s working and I feel like I’m doing what it is I’m supposed [...]

  28. mikeP says:

    People can generally learn anything, if they have good instruction, are dedicated to the task but relax and take it slowly.

    I’m learning travis finger picking for guitar, after spending 25 years of rock guitar playing.

    I play each day and stop for a break when frustration sets in, then return to the task with a clear mind. This helps a lot and I’m progressing little by little.

    It’s satisfying when you realize that you can do something that you could never do before. Never stop learning!

  29. [...] The Frustration Barrier: The Key Obstacle to Being Good at Anything @ Scott H. Young [...]

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