Drifting vs. Deliberately improving


`I’ve been playing guitar for over 25 years — but I still suck at it.

I spent my first ever bonus I got (~RM2,000) on a brand new Norman Guitar, and now I’m the proud owner of multiple expensive guitars and amps … but all that expensive gear hasn’t improved my playing one iota. Even though I used religiously change my guitar strings every month.

The number of years spent doing something, and the amount of money invested into an activity is very(!) loosely correlated to how good you are at it. Someone who just picked up guitar yesterday, won’t be as good as me. But those who spent 6 months deliberately improving themselves in the art, are going to be a better players than I ever was — even though I have 25 years experience.

Experience is necessary, but not sufficient for being good at something.

I didn’t fail at becoming a better player — because I didn’t even try. I was drifting in guitar-land, with no direction and no purpose, just playing for fun, but never putting the effort and hard work required to actually improve.

Deliberately Improving

In contrast, I took up road cycling 2 years ago. In 2020, I consistently cycled 40km every weekend. For a while, I did improve, but that improvement quickly stagnated. My speed remained the same, no matter how hard I tried every Saturday morning, I couldn’t go faster.

Like everything else, I opted for a simplest solution — spending money.

So I bought a better bike.

But even after spending thousands of dollars on frames and gear, my speed still didn’t improve. More expensive stuff is rarely creates the improvements necessary. It’s nice to go shopping, but don’t believe you’d magically get better because you spent money — the true currency for improvement is time and effort.

So I purchased the ‘right’ stuff … and spent the time and effort improving.

Instead of buying expensive bike parts to help me gain some speed, I bought an indoor bike trainer and subscribed to a training app. After just one month, my speed increased, and 3 months in I’ve made significant strides in both speed and endurance. An indoor trainer is the best investment one can make to go faster outdoors — who knew?!

The indoor trainer and the app not only improved my body, but also my skill. With the app I learnt how to pedal at a higher cadence to help boost my endurance, I worked on my long aerobic workouts that felt easy — but were important exercise to improve stamina. I put in more time every week — the end result was a boost in performance I wouldn’t have gained even if cycled the same 40km every week for next 10 years.

Here, I wasn’t drifting, I had with purpose, a training plan on the app, I was learning new aspects of the sports, and measuring and evaluating my performance on every single ride. In short, deliberately improving.

Mindlessly practicing and Drifting

Drifting, is the opposite of deliberately improving, and it is dangerous. You think you’re getting better because you’re putting in the time to practice. But the data says that isn’t true. This blogpost covered data from an online chess platform, measuring players performance against how many games they regularly played. The conclusion was:

…there does not seem to be a clear 1:1 linear correlation between improvement rate and number of games played. There’s maybe a slight upward trend with rating gain vs games per month, but it seems to be a weak trend. ….. Regardless, the data does not give any indications that bingeing chess games like it’s a full time job is going to make you a stronger chess player any faster than playing a few games per day on your lunch breaks.


Mindlessly practicing something is wasting time. It’s OK if you enjoyed chess, but if you want to improve, you need to be deliberate about improving.

But how?

I found this post very informative. In order to learn, you need to first understand what the components of learning are, sometimes you lack knowledge, other times you lack the experience, and most times you lack both. Having a specific goal in mind, getting a mentor and/or coach, logging your performance over a long period of time and reflecting on the outcomes are all important aspects of deliberately improving.

But I guess the most important thing is identifying which aspects of my life was I drifting, and coming to terms with those.

I don’t deliberately improve my driving, cooking or typing. But I’m ok with those skills remaining stagnant. I’m also fine with just basic chord strumming on the guitar, or my singing, drawing, swimming, or the hundred other things we do in life. Drifting through my daily tooth-brushing routine is perfectly cool with me.

But how about more important things?

Choosing what you improve

What about parenting? Am I getting better as a Father?

What about my skills at work, if we’ve established that doing the same thing every day doesn’t mean you get better, am I drifting at work? Productively delivering and executing, but not improving in a real sense. You can be really good at something, but at the same time not improving. There’s always the risk of career stagnation if that continues.

The dangers of drifting are that you wind up 25 years down the road wondering what you’ve wasted your time and effort on…for me it was staring at my guitar case, wondering why all those years and money spent never improved my skills beyond playing More than Words.

At least now I know.

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