Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (or SAID) is a principle from exercise physiology. SAID basically says you get better at what you do—whether you do something intentionally or unintentionally, formally or informally. It also means you get better at the specific thing you do, not something else. There may be positive carryover, or there may be negative carryover, or there may be little-to-no carryover at all to other activities.
If you run long distances slowly, your body adapts, making you better at running long distances at that speed. If you sit in an office chair all day, your body adapts to that too, making you better at sitting in office chairs all day (and worse at other things, like running long distances).
SAID also implies that running long distances slowly is not a good way to become better at running short distances quickly, nor lifting heavy weights a few times. There may be some positive carryover to sprinting (but not much), and there may be negative carryover to lifting heavy weights a few times, but primarily if you run long distances you’ll get better at running long distances.
One implication of SAID for personal development generally is that if you want to get better at something, practice that thing—not something else. To get better at soccer, play more soccer. You can of course also break the skills of soccer into small chunks, like passing and cutting and practice those micro skills too. But will lifting heavy weights make you a better soccer player? Probably not, unless being physically bigger would help your game. Lifting may even have negative carryover in adding new muscle skills that compete with the ones you need most, and in the potential for injury to joints, tendons, and ligaments.
The worst negative carryover tends to come about when you change the skill slightly, for example if you were to play soccer with a heavy medicine ball. This would make you much worse in terms of accurately judging where the ball would go, creating confusion in your motor skills. One should be especially wary of practicing the wrong things with the aim of getting prepared. I’ve done this a million times. I joke with my girlfriend that I like reading about exercise much more than actually exercising.
If you want to be better at business, reading business books isn’t necessarily the way to prepare—this will make you primarily better at reading business books! Better to open the equivalent of a lemonade stand—something with minimal overhead and thus low risk, but dealing with real customers in a business setting. Better yet would be to do a small version of the Big Thing you want to do. If you want to be a web designer, design something small—a 1-page website for yourself, or a simple site for a friend. Yes, books and web tutorials on web design can help, but the positive carryover is small unless you actually are designing things, improving the real skills that count for your goal. Meanwhile, getting a job as a secretary for a big name web design firm is the fastest way to have your skills atrophy.
The SAID principle also explains why achievers in one area are not always ethical or kind. Sitting and meditating for hours at a time does not necessarily have positive carryover to being kind and compassionate, nor avoiding power trips or corruption, unless perhaps you were meditating on compassion or how to behave ethically when tempted. Playing a consistently great round of golf isn’t good preparation for avoiding the temptations of sleeping with as many beautiful women as you can, as we found with Tiger Woods. There may even be some negative carryover between practicing something in an intensely disciplined way and ethical behavior outside of practice. Having spent all of one’s willpower in practice, little self-discipline remains for avoiding ethical temptation.
This principle also explains why for instance walking across burning hot coals barefoot is not good preparation for “facing your fears,” but really just for walking across hot coals. Fears are specific—facing your unique fears is the best preparation for facing your fears! If that’s too much, vividly imagining facing a specific fear of yours, seeing yourself with the resources you need is also good preparation (although it has less positive carryover), as is chunking down a frightening task into something so small it is easy to achieve.
SAID also implies that we become what we do—and don’t do. Or as Chogyam Trungpa put it, “the path is the goal.” To become a compassionate person, the path is to practice being compassionate. To become out of shape, sit around all day without getting your heart rate elevated or putting any stress on your muscles. And most importantly, to become great at reading blogs about becoming great, read lots of personal development blogs on greatness….
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