Why it's so hard to get really good at something

Let it be infosec, a sport, playing an instrument, or even a game you'd like to get good at. After doing it for some time, you might ask yourself why you're not as good as the top people doing that specific thing.

Whatever you want to get good at, if you would ask a professional for some advice to get better, often the first response you will get is to do it more. If you're seeking improvement, you must spend more time doing that specific thing. There is no way around it. It's in the nature of any topic or skill. The saying that you've probably heard sometime in your life is that it takes 10000 hours to master a skill.

How can it be that some people won't get better at something even after thousands and thousands of hours spent? One reason could be the attention. When learning a skill, you have resources like time, money, knowledge, and energy, but one resource that you have to think about more is your attention.

Attention as a resource

Cal Newport, in his book "So good, they can't ignore you", where he explains how you can achieve more, while doing less, just by paying more attention and being more organized. You don't necessarily have to do that thing for 10 hours straight to get better. It's possible to be more effective if you do that thing for 2 hours if you invest all your attention only on that specific thing in that period.

There is a reason that if you were doing that thing for only 2 hours a day, it would seem hard and unfulfilling. Say you wanted to get better at a game and you would play 100 games and in 60 of those games you win, of course, you still lose 40 of them, but if I ask you right now, everyone will take this deal because you're guaranteed to win 60 games, and by the end of them you will be fulfilled that you made progress. But what if in those 40 games you will experience extreme levels of frustration, and on top of that, if you would be playing two games a day, it will take 50 days to finish them, and somewhere in that time, you will have a losing streak of 8 games, such that in 4 days you only lose games. You can see how this might be tiring because all your mind will be thinking of is that you lost for four days in a row. This might be a contributing factor to why people choose to do something as much as they can in one day because they will hope they will finally get it. It's not good practice, but it feels understandable.

Your focus and attention are a sophisticated resource that is hard to understand at first, but thinking about it logically starts to come together. Nobody's brain is perfect, and our attention spans limit all of us. It's just human nature. If you had a rough day or your mind was distracted, it's almost impossible to do it at your highest level.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

It's tough to learn a new skill, and seeing improvement and getting better is a long and daunting process. It's not necessarily always fun either. One other thing that holds us human back is our cognitive biases that can get in the way of our progress. Quite a few are relevant in the topic of improvement but none other than the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Most of the people might have heard sometime about the Imposter Syndrome. Well, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is somewhat the reverse of the imposter syndrome.

In psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from the inability of people to recognize their lack of skill. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their competence or incompetence.


For example, in one study 88% of American drivers said their driving is "above average" when mathematically, of course, only less than 15% of people can genuinely be above average at anything. The reason that this happens is not that much about ego and being an arrogant person, as you might think. Usually, people are willing to admit when they make a mistake especially big ones that end up hurting other people, the issue comes that in order to recognize the error, you have to have some level of knowledge in that particular field. This is what Dunning and Kruger described as the "double burden". We don't know how much we don't know.

Result-oriented thinking

Let's say we are playing a game where I roll a die. It's a 6-sided die, so I turn the die, and you have the options of what outcomes to predict. So instead of picking a number from 1 to 6, I tell you that you have two options.

  • Option A: I'm going to roll precisely a 6. If I roll precisely a 6, you win.
  • Option B: I'm going to roll one of the numbers of 1 to 5. If I turn one of them, you win.

I roll the die, and I get a 6. Most people will look at that and say, "Okay, I made the wrong decision, the outcome was 6, so it was wrong to pick B this time, I should've picked A.". You see, even if the outcome was not the one in your favor, you still made the right decision with the information you were given. This is result-oriented thinking. If you're always thinking about the outcome, it will probably cloud your judgment and reasoning. Instead, you should focus on the process, not on the result.