For decades before 1954, it was assumed that no one would ever run a mile in under four minutes. Like the speed of light or the force of gravity, the fabled four minute mile was an immovable barrier within our collective human consciousness. Then in 1954 Roger Bannister broke through that barrier, making headlines around the world. One would have thought he would hold the record for ages. But instead, only weeks later, John Landy ran the mile a full 1.5 seconds faster than Bannister. Within years four minute miles were commonplace; today the world record is down all the way to 3.43.13 (by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco).
Barriers to improvement, or plateaus, happen in any field whether it’s running, typing, surfing, or yoga. When a process becomes familiar and easy it runs the risk of also becoming unconscious. Once we turn our conscious attention off we’re running on autopilot, and running on autopilot leaves no room for improvement. Consider your typing skills. Most people probably spend much more time typing that they did ten years ago. But are we any better at it? Chances are you long ago reached a plateau, a level where you felt you’d gotten “good enough,” an acceptable level of performance, and at this stage the process became autonomous: you’re running on autopilot.
My yoga practice asks me to return again and again to a single focal point as a way of developing mindfulness. It turns out this kind of conscious attention and awareness is crucial to becoming an expert in any field. Stay tuned for three techniques for improving your ability to remember…
This series was inspired by Joshua Foer’s bestselling book about the art of remembering: “Moonwalking with Einstein.”