Mental wealth: If you want to get really good, get a mentor

One-to-one tuition is far and away the best method of learning as it enables the pupil to rectify their mistakes immediately, according to our resident psychologist.

Nick Baylis: better yourself by finding a good mentor
Nick Baylis: better yourself by finding a good mentor

So often in life, it’s not our mistakes that most harm us, it’s our failure to put them right… hard and fast.

Allow me to illustrate this painful proposition: when was the last time you learned a skill, one to one, just you and your coach?

It’s an inconvenient truth, but almost all teaching of children and adults is in class, not because it works, but because it’s cheap.

This is a false economy and we’re fooling ourselves. We slog along through group practice in dance, yoga, martial arts and Mandarin (just like we did for every school subject), wherein we’re fortunate to attract even a minute of the instructor’s full attention.

And that’s not how learning works well. If you want to make friends, join a class.

But if you want to get satisfyingly good at something, super-fast, then find a mentor.

One to one, if both parties give it their all, is so much better than group tuition that the two methods are incomparable.

And the secret at the centre of the one-on-one ‘master-apprentice’ model is the instant, high-quality, tailor-made feedback – feedback that allows you to alter what-ever it is you’re doing wrong, so that you can make still more mistakes, prompting yet more of that super-specialized guidance, until you reliably get the thing right.

That to and fro, real-time ping-pong between rookie mistakes and expert response is the high-potency active ingredient… the magic in the potion.

It’s so transforming of mind, body and emotions that anything truly vital is taught this way. Brain surgeons and barristers, Olympic athletes and astronauts – they all receive high-intensity one-to-one tutoring.

It’s how you learned to drive (more or less); and how it would take you just 15 hours at the controls of a glider to make your first solo-circuit of the airfield.

Every arena of life benefits from this same law of learning: own up to the problems straight away and immediately work at putting them right. Internet billionaire Gururaj Deshpande cites it as an entrepreneur’s most important lesson: what’s the biggest mistake you ever made, that you rapidly put right spectacularly?

Consider how a 58-year-old captain glided his powerless airliner safely down on to Manhattan’s Hudson River in January 2009, saving 155 souls. He had mastered his craft during a decade in the US Air Force flying F4-Phantom Fighters; and his memoirs recount how he’d known pilot comrades who died because they were reluctant to admit the seriousness of a situation. So when air traffic control tried to coax him back to an out-of-reach runway, and his co-pilot followed by-the-book procedure trying to restart the bird-stricken engines, Captain Sullenberger knew what was needed: ignoring the sickening feeling as his stomach sunk with fear, he calmly but firmly radio’d the only viable solution: "We’re gonna be in the Hudson!"

Thankfully, ‘Sully’ had not learned flying as part of an intermediate-level evening class. Moreover, he’d been an air-accident investigator and had documented too many times how pride can get in the way of doing the right thing, or fear of looking foolish, or simple disbelief at how badly wrong the situation has gone. He knew human nature is prone to procrastinate and hide the problem.

The net result of what Sully had learned, and how he had learned it, is that he followed through with a fabulous remedy, in less than three minutes. Which might lead us to wonder at our own life’s most colourful crash-landings: what bold remedial action could we have taken, and how soon?

Likewise, what life skills do we wish we’d learned the hard and fast way?

Now there’s a gift idea for Valentine’s Day.

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