A great idea I learned from weight training is the concept of progressive training. Progressive training means that you keep gradually increasing the weights you lift (over a period of weeks, months, and years), so you always experience a high degree of challenge in your training. In broader terms progressive training means changing various aspects of your training to increase the challenge, including distance, speed, duration, etc. If you keep lifting the same weights week after week, you aren’t going to get much stronger. Progressive training helps ensure that you remain in the sweet spot of challenge, so you grow stronger in less time than you would otherwise.
Of course progressive training can be applied to other areas beyond your physical body. I find it especially valuable as a skill-building tool.
Here’s an example of how I’ve been using progressive training since the summer of 2004 to build my speaking and communication skills.
Deciding to Train
First, I made the conscious decision to train up in this area. I knew I eventually wanted to do professional speaking, and it wasn’t hard for me to recognize that I lacked the basic knowledge and skills required to succeed. I also had very little experience doing public speaking. I figured it would take me at least a few years and many hundreds of hours to reach the level of skill I desired. But instead of being intimidated by all that work ahead of me, I just accepted it. Those years were going to pass anyway, so I might as well emerge on the other side a better speaker.
In May 2004 I decided to kick things off my training by joining Toastmasters International. I attended local club meetings as a guest to find a club I liked, and then I joined one. A few weeks later I gave my first 7-minute “icebreaker” speech. Over the following months, I gave more 7-minute speeches. I experimented with humorous speeches, storytelling, and various delivery styles. I was less concerned about giving great speeches at this time than I was with simply gaining experience.
In the fall of 2004, I entered Toastmasters’ humorous speech contest and made it pretty far for a first-timer (2nd place at Division level). Shortly after that I was invited to attend a couple advanced Toastmaster clubs and began visiting their meetings as a guest in addition to my regular club. Six months later I competed in the Spring 2005 International speech contest and again did fairly well for my experience level (3rd place at Division).
After 10 months in Toastmasters, I had earned my CTM award (“Competent Toastmaster”). This qualified me to join the most advanced club in Las Vegas, and I joined as soon as I could. In that club the challenge was much greater. Many of the members were pro speakers, some with decades of experience. I began giving longer speeches, gradually building to the 20-40 minute range. I received a lot of great feedback and coaching. After six months in the advanced club, I dropped my original club because it was no longer challenging me enough. A few months later I presented a 90-minute workshop to a group of about 60 people, soon followed by a 90-minute Q&A session. I was well-prepared and received very positive feedback.
Stretching the Boundaries
To push myself even further, I began attending weekly improv comedy workshops to develop my improvisational skills. I performed in a live show earlier this month. I’ve found improv very challenging, but it helps me think fast on my feet. Plus it’s stretched me in ways that Toastmasters meetings never would. I get to experiment with unusual characters, do physical comedy, act out scenes with other players, and basically make a complete fool of myself in front of an audience. But the benefit is that after doing this for a while, everything else seems much easier by comparison.
Throughout this time I worked on my content, speech writing, organization, delivery skills, gestures, vocal variety, facial expressions, eye contact, blocking (i.e. movement around the stage), humor, storytelling, manner, take-home value, etc. I attended workshops and seminars and read books on speaking skills and professional speaking.
This was a lot of work over an almost two-year period, probably amounting to almost 1000 hours of my time. That’s about 6 months of 40-hour weeks. And I didn’t get paid for any of it. In fact, I had to pay for it, although the money wasn’t much.
And the Training Continues…
So am I done training yet? Not remotely. My next step is to join the National Speakers Association. I’m not qualified to join the national organization yet, but I can join the Las Vegas chapter, which just formed last year. I plan to attend my first local NSA meeting in about three weeks. Once again this will increase the challenge, introduce me to better coaches, and compel me to grow stronger and more competent.
In fact, the training will never really end. Even as I start doing professional speaking, I’ll continue the private training to keep improving.
Why Progressive Training?
The major benefit to progressive training is that as you increase the challenge, what once seemed heavy to you will begin to feel much lighter. Maybe that 20-lb dumbbell feels heavy now, but once you’ve progressed to 40-lb dumbbells, that 20-pounder feels light. It still weighs the same it always did, but your capacity has grown, such that seems lighter by comparison. You can’t always change the weight of the tasks ahead of you, but you can increase your strength to the point that those same tasks feel lighter.
When I delivered my first 7-minute Toastmasters speech in June 2004, it was a reasonable challenge for me. But the speech I gave was very dull with no stories or humor. And my delivery (using notes, standing behind a lectern, monotone vocalization, lame gestures) was unexciting. But it was the best I could do at the time. I was at the point of unconscious incompetence — I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.
Fast forward almost two years, and doing a 7-minute speech like my first one seems like a ridiculously light weight. Today I could give a better impromptu speech with no preparation, and I’d feel more confident than I did back then with plenty of preparation and notes. The weights I’m training with today are so much heavier that a 7-minute speech is feather-light by comparison. But it sure didn’t feel that way when I first started.
Progressive training is the key to growing stronger. If I’d stuck with my basic Toastmasters club and kept doing vanilla 7-minute speeches over and over, I’d still have improved over time. But I accelerated my growth significantly by progressing to longer speeches, workshops, humor, storytelling, bigger audiences, speech contests, improv comedy, etc.
After doing improv workshops, when I went back to doing impromptu speaking in Toastmasters, it seemed almost trivially easy, even though impromptu speaking used to challenge me greatly. I thought to myself, “All I have to do is speak for a minute off the top of my head? I don’t have to sing it… with a foreign accent… while making it rhyme… while pretending to be a funny character… while trying to make it funny to the audience? Oh, this is going to be easy!”
Private Training Improves Public Performance
Whether your real-world performance involves public speaking, selling, or programming, you can accelerate your growth with progressive training. Keep raising the bar for yourself, taking on challenges that are just beyond the edge of your comfort zone. These should be weights that you can still lift, but they’re going to require close to 100% effort. A lazy 50% effort just won’t cut it. 50% effort won’t help you grow. 100% effort will.
The more we sweat in training, the less we bleed in war. – U.S. Navy SEALs
That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?
Live Performance Is NOT Training
When you train, hard is good. When you perform, easy is good. A live show is not acting school. Making a sales call is not sales training. Competing in a game is not practice.
The main difference between real-world performance and actual training is coverage. In real-world performance situations, you’ll lack sufficient coverage of those elements that occur infrequently in the real world but which can still be critical to your long-term success. In the real world, situations will arise for which you are unprepared, and private training can prepare you for them, regardless of how often they occur outside of training. It’s often these infrequent situations that throw amateurs for a loop but which the pros handle competently.
For example, suppose you want to master the game of blackjack. Grabbing a deck of cards and playing sample hands is a very poor way to learn. Some situations occur very infrequently, but they can still make a significant difference in your results if you screw them up. One of those situations is knowing when to split pairs and when to double down after splitting. You can place an initial $100 bet, but with repeated pair-splitting and doubling down after splitting, you can suddenly have $500 or more riding on that same hand. (Example: The dealer has a 5 showing. You split a pair of 7s and get another 7, so you split again. On the first 7 you get a 3 and double down with your 10. On the second 7 you get a 4 and double down with your 11. On the third 7 you get a 10 and stand at 17. Your original $100 bet is now $500. And this is indeed the correct strategy.) If you play it incorrectly, the swing of that one hand can make or break your entire session, even though the probability of it happening is remote. Most beginners would play this hand too conservatively and never split the first pair of 7s, standing at 14 against the dealers 5. They miss the opportunity for a big win when the odds are in their favor because they didn’t prepare for this situation in advance. It’s an improbable situation to be sure, but if you play long enough, it’s only a matter of time before it happens.
Live performance also gives you excessive training where you least need it. Even inexperienced blackjack players know they should always stay when they’re dealt a 20 (the most common hand in the game), and there’s no point in continuing to practice the play of these hands. Private training should be used to strengthen your weak areas, especially when your live performance isn’t giving you enough coverage of them.
One of the reasons top professional speakers get paid thousands of dollars for an hour of their time is because of all the training and experience they’ve endured to reach that point. A great speaker can use that hour to permanently change the way people think and behave, and that skill will always be in high demand.
You can apply progressive training to build skill in any area of your life: physical, mental, social, spiritual, etc. I’ve found it especially useful in building my modern day survival skills. Through lots of reading and experimentation, I learned how to create systems that generate income for me (like this web site). I have no hourly rate because I don’t trade my time for money. Consequently, I enjoy an almost ridiculous level of freedom. On this Saturday morning, I’m choosing to write this article, but I could just as easily blow off the next few months and do nothing. Years of private training, which mainly involved conditioning the right mindset, made it possible for me to make plenty of money without needing a job. Traditional employment won’t teach you such skills. It’s the kind of thing that must be learned via private practice.
Be Your Own Coach
You’re the coach as well as the trainee. You decide which areas of your life you want to train.
Just don’t reinvent the wheel. You don’t have to develop your own custom program from scratch. In many cases you can get a pre-made program from someone else. For example, Toastmasters has a basic manual and more than a dozen advanced manuals, and they cost only a few dollars each. Take full advantage of books, audio programs, web sites, classes, and so on. Learn from others who’ve already done the hard work of creating these resources for you.
Don’t bother making up feeble excuses to justify why you don’t have time for training. If you have time to watch TV, you have time for training. If you have time to go out to lunch, you have time for training. If you have a CD or cassette player in your car, you have time for training.
Kick It Off With a 30-Day Trial
I recommend kicking off a new training program with the 30 Days to Success approach. Give yourself a strong push with 30 days of conscious effort, and then just allow momentum to carry you forward. For example, it took some effort for me to reach the point of attending that first Toastmasters meeting. But it was a no-brainer to show up for the fifth meeting after I’d already attended the first four. Showing up the first time is the hardest step. Showing up the fifth time is easy. After 100 times it’s harder NOT to show up.
So Let’s Get Training!
Now for your homework… Pick one area of your life that you’d like to see become a lot easier for you. Remember that the whole point of progressive training is to make yourself stronger, so the weights in your life feel lighter and lighter. The net effect is that your life will begin to feel easier.
Would you like to have an easier time performing your job? Would you like to be physically stronger? Do you want to have an easier time earning money? Would you like to have an easier time communicating with people, including members of the opposite sex? Do you want it to be easier for you to behave ethically and morally? Do you want it to be easier for you to write?
Once you’ve selected an area for growth, make the conscious decision to train that area over the next several weeks, months, or years. Remember that the time is going to pass anyway. Brainstorm some ideas for what you can do to begin training, and then immediately pick one and get started. Find a local club like Toastmasters, and add the next meeting date to your calendar. Buy a new book or audio program. Sign up for a class. Pick up the phone or fire off an email to request advice from someone who’s already ahead of you in this area. Take some kind of physical action to get the ball rolling. And once it’s in motion, keep it moving forward.
Once the ball has some momentum behind it, then and only then should you think about where you’d like to direct it. It’s OK if it’s moving in the wrong direction, as long as it’s moving. The worst thing you can do is to get stuck in analysis paralysis, thinking and planning but not actually doing anything. The time to intelligently sculpt your training program is after you’re in motion, not before — after you’ve read a book or two, gotten advice from people, and attended a few classes or meetings. The reason is that in the beginning you’re still at the point of unconscious incompetence. You don’t even know what you don’t know. So first you have to reach the point of conscious incompetence, where you at least come to know what you don’t know. Then you can begin formalizing and structuring your skill building program. Once the fog clears up a bit, you can use progressive training to work gradually towards conscious competence, and eventually… to unconscious competence, where your talent actually becomes a subconscious habit.
Now get started!