I used to ride motorcycles really fast on country roads. (Foolishly, but that’s another story.) One day I was slicing through a sweeping blind turn, back tire sliding and front tire on the edge of traction, when for some reason I backed off the throttle.
I didn’t think about slowing down. I didn’t decide to slow down. I just did.
Which meant, seconds later, I was able to dodge two cars sitting crumpled and smoking in the middle of the road.
As we waited for the state trooper to arrive I half-listened to the drivers argue about who was at fault and thought about how lucky I was to have slowed when I did.
But I couldn’t figure out why I had slowed — until the state trooper who investigated the accident showed me a scattering of gravel on the edge of the road and a few faint skid marks.
“He lost traction there,” the trooper said, pointing. “Then he over-corrected there… over-corrected again there… and wound up up crossing the center line a hundred yards or so around the turn.”
I didn’t remember seeing those clues earlier.
But I had seen them. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman says, “Intuition is thinking that you know without knowing why you do.”
Practice and experience had allowed my brain to match a pattern and respond appropriately without conscious thought. I knew. Not by prescience, but by a form of intuition that isn’t intuition at all.
Chess grandmasters sometimes perform exhibitions where they simultaneously play — and win — multiple games of speed chess while blindfolded. Clearly they can memorize each board.
In a famous study, Adrian de Groot asked expert and novice chess players to view a position for a few seconds and then reconstruct it from memory. When the position was one that could occur in real games, the experts performed significantly better than novices.
But when the position created by placing pieces at random, the experts performed no better than novices.
Why? The experts had seen and analyzed countless chess positions. They knew and recognized patterns and instinctively connected a new pattern to ones they already knew.
But they couldn’t relate a random pattern to anything they knew.
In short, chess grandmasters aren’t necessarily better at memorizing positions. But they are definitely better at recognizing positions. They’ve taken advantage of what neuroscience calls chunking, parsing and grouping information in the most efficient way possible.
As Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University and whose Learning How to Learn is a hugely popular online course says, “Chunking is the mother of all learning… when you know something so well that it is basically a snap to call it to mind and do it or use it. Creating neural patterns — neural chunks — underpins the development of all expertise.”
In short, extensive practice and deep experience help experts make what appear to be instinctive decisions. They know — without thinking about why they know.
That’s why experienced doctors can often, within seconds, arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Why experienced investors can make quick decisions about a trade or position. Why experienced leaders can quickly read a team and grasp the interpersonal dynamics and conflicting agendas that took years to form.
And that’s how Steve Jobs could walk back into Apple and immediately decide which products to cut in order to save the company. Jobs had spent years engrossed in design, usability, quality, branding… through deliberate practice and extensive experience, Jobs had become an expert in technology strategies, consumer behavior, and branding.
The results? He could make quick, seemingly instinctive decisions about a product’s value. He knew, without having to know why he knew.
And so can you. The ability to make quick decisions isn’t a skill you either do or don’t have; it’s a skill that results from extensive, ongoing practice.
One way to create neural chunks is to follow Adam Grant’s simple three step process:
- Learn something, then quiz yourself. Quizzing helps you practice retrieving information (and makes it “stickier.”)
- Teach someone else. Research shows that even just expecting to teach helps you learn more effectively.”
- Connect what you’ve learned to something you already know. “Associative learning” not only creates context and meaning, it also allows you to only need to remember differences and nuances. (Which is how chess grandmasters can play blindfolded.)
In my example, I had ridden hundreds of blind turns. I had spent hour after hour riding a motorcycle near — and occasionally over — the edge of control. I had spent countless hours analyzing the outcomes: What worked. What didn’t work. What worked here, but didn’t work there. And most importantly, why.
The result? Neural chunks that helped me make good decisions, at speed.
When Jobs returned to Apple, Walter Isaacson’s biography Jobs describes the company as a “paragon of dysfunctional management and fumbled techno-dreams, back in crisis mode, scrambling lugubriously in slow motion to deal with imploding sales, a floundering technology strategy, and a hemorrhaging brand name.”
Jobs needed to make decisions. Fast. And he did.
But he wasn’t born with the ability to imagine and create great products.
He developed expertise and experience. He relentlessly thought, explored, practiced… and analyzed the results so he could continue to build mastery.
Which allowed him, when he needed it most, to know… even though, in the moment, he may not have known why he knew.
But not because you’re lucky, but because you put in the time to practice and gain experience that allows you to know why, later, you knew you were right.