1 critical skill successful people often lose over time

One of my more successful friends sent me a text the other day:

“A doctor told me once that my toddler is frustrated because she has all these thoughts in her head and doesn’t know how to communicate them — I feel the same way.”

I couldn’t help but smile. This guy is talented. Sharp. Well-connected. On his way to wealth. But here he was, feeling useless in the face of a project completely outside his wheelhouse.

James and I talk once a week about what we’re working on For every week in 2019, he told me how excited he was to make this particular project a reality. He talked about this goal 52 Fridays in a row without starting on it.

Now he’s working, but stumbling. He is timid, reserved. He makes false starts and falls down like his daughter did when she learned to walk not long ago. Imagine the disconnect he feels. During the day, James makes six figures. He juggles clients and rakes in cash like a pro.

Then, he clocks out and becomes a beginner. He is frustrated at times because he’s forgotten what it felt like to start from scratch.

He forgot how to be stupid.

What happens when you only think

James’s experience reminded me of my time in France. I don’t know if you’re aware, but people who live in France speak French. I do not. Naturally, there was a bit of a communication gap.

I would walk into the office and hear a coworker say:

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, Todd?”

I would smile and reply with the only word I knew at the time:

“Oui!”

What did I say yes to? I didn’t know. Nobody ever returned later in the day expecting me to help beat a person to death with crusty baguettes, though, so I counted that as a win.

Still, I’m a communicator. I wanted to understand French, not just fake it.

My plan was to think my way of learning French. Each day, I sat in the cafeteria reading the French newspaper. I chewed on smelly cheese and thought: “Okay, they just used the word lancé, and I definitely saw that word in another story about a software company releasing a new product. It must mean launch.”

This process continued for months.

My employer moved me to France to work, but most days I just eavesdropped. One morning my coworker Margaux came in late and furious. That was the day I learned how to curse at trains. Another day I sat in on a meeting about the company’s media bank with four people. They spoke French for the entire hour. I caught snippets here and there about mot-clés after the conversation had already moved 10 minutes ahead.

I thought and thought and thought and thought. The French language consumed me as much as any hobby ever had.

Finally, two weeks before I left the country, a reckoning.

A colleague opened the door for our meeting, looked me right in the eyes, and said:

“Est-ce que cette chambre vous convient?”

For the first time, the words instantly translated.

“Is this room okay?”

A chorus of invisible angels sang my praises. I understood! All the reading and thinking and listening quietly must have paid off. Euphoria had to be pouring out of my eyeballs. I’d never been so proud.

That lasted for about 1.2 seconds.

I opened my mouth to reply. I couldn’t. Why couldn’t I reply?

Because I still couldn’t speak French.

Ashamed I couldn’t answer more thoroughly, I just nodded and muttered my old standby: “oui.” She gave me that look you give sad puppy dogs, and said: “Faut-il parler en anglais?”

I nodded miserably.

Yes, we should speak in English.

The mind has to learn. The body does too.

When you grow out of adolescence, you start assuming you can think your way through anything:

“I’m an adult! Surely I can figure this out!”
Successful people are especially prone to this. After all, they are successful people. Most of them can’t stomach being an amateur again. They try to think their way to a new skill. That doesn’t work because your body has to figure out new things just like your mind does.

If you don’t practice a skill, you will not be able to do it. Period.

Possibly no example makes this more clear than the following: over 80% of people claim to be able to write a book. Few do. In theory, writing a book is easy. You know how to write. Why should a book be so different?

The few who sit down to actually write are almost immediately overwhelmed. Where does a book start? Where does it end? How do you organize the tens of thousands of words in between? You can’t think your way to the end of these questions. They can only be answered systematically, through physical, tangible actions. In fact, you won’t even know all the questions that need to be asked.

What happens at the beginning of your book same thing that happens when you begin to train for a marathon. On Day 1, you can’t run 26.2 miles. You don’t have the lungs, the legs, or the heart for it.

So what do you do?

You run one mile.

The next day, you do that again.

Gradually, you increase your pace. You learn to stretch. You learn to recover. You rearrange your schedule. You learn to eat better. Each day, you take physical steps to become a real runner.

Here’s what you don’t do. You don’t sit around and think about running.

Every goal worth chasing requires a physical transformation as well as a mental one. How do you go through a physical transformation? You set a 15-minute timer. You practice a little each day. You learn to love feeling stupid. You toddle forward. You grow.

One day you look up to find you are an entirely new person. You won’t remember when exactly it happened, but you’ve changed.

Thought alone can never get you there.

You must act.

This article originally appeared on Medium.