Personal Development and the SAID Principle

By Duff McDuffee on July 30th, 2010 1

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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25 responses to “Personal Development and the SAID Principle”

  1. Gwen says:

    I have some issues with this.
    People who mastered one musical instrument can relatively easily learn another – because lots of the abilities could be used in the new context.
    There is such thing as general fitness – good aerobic conditioning and muscle reflexes. This means that my marathon running friend was instantly better than me when we started mountain biking.
    Core strength can be improved with specific exercises and will lead to improvement in almost any sport you choose to practice – surfing, ballet, you name it.

    Perhaps there is a general "facing your fears" skill that can be improved by learning to walk on coal , but can then be used when asking for a raise?
    Unless there is real research indicating that fears are specific – you just don't know that this is the case.

    • People who mastered one musical instrument can relatively easily learn another – because lots of the abilities could be used in the new context.

      Yes, there is positive carryover here. The point of SAID is though if you have 1000 hours to practice and you want to become good at guitar, put all 1000 hours into playing guitar, not playing piano.

      The SAID principle challenges the notion that there is something called "general fitness," but does allow for positive carryover. When Lance Armstrong decided to run a marathon, he got a time a little over 3 hours—not bad for an amateur, but Armstrong has one of the biggest VO2 maxes on the planet, has won multiple world championships on the bike, but wouldn't even come close to placing in competition in the marathon. Notably, he also said it was one of the hardest things in his life.

      Perhaps walking across fire would have positive carryover to jumping out of an airplane, but from my direct experience I know that it has little-to-no carryover to confronting other life challenges, and for me had a good deal of negative carryover.

    • To be fair, I should say that ordeals like firewalking can be useful as metaphors (although in this case I don't think firewalking as lead by Tony Robbins is an effective metaphor). But one should clearly distinguish between a metaphor and a practice—the first is to be done once, the latter regularly.

  2. DesireEngine says:

    A fun post to read, with much truth to it! Of course, practicing something can have multiple BENEFITS, but this is different from an across-the-board gain at a range of disparate skills.

    For example, going into meditation and then imagining effortlessly executing soccer plays WILL most probably help your soccer game (studies have shown this with other sports, like basketball, though I don't know if there is documentation on soccer). At the same time, it will harmonize brainwave activity, lower respiration & heart rate to restful levels, help adjust endocrine activity, and provide some nice overall health benefits.

    In general, meditation, for me, is not something to get "good at," but is a healthful practice that assists with my resilience, often provides unique insights, and gives my active brain some much needed rest—even a "reboot" at times. These benefits appear to support other worthwhile activities and my life in general, though I can't prove that they do.

    I agree with you that practice at what you want to get good at is the way to get good at it! On the other hand, peripheral benefit seems possible (to me) depending on the thing you're practicing (maybe) . 🙂

    • I do think visualization can have positive carryover to doing the thing visualized, but if you only have an hour a day to practice your sport (or whatever you want to get better at), it is much better to practice the real skill rather than visualize the skill.

      Visualization helps improve a skill primarily when a) you are physically too tired to practice anymore, b) you are stuck somewhere where you can't practice like on a plane, or c) you are too emotionally freaked out to just do the activity (like something you are afraid of). Otherwise, visualization primarily makes you better at visualizing!

      That said, meditation has a host of other benefits that make it a useful activity, as you mentioned.

    • I should add regarding the benefits of meditation that I think the reason most meditation teachers emphasize taking the skills learned on the cushion into daily life is that you are then practicing continuously. Continuous practice means you are getting better at whatever you're meditating on in all contexts, not just in sitting on a cushion in silence.

  3. Evan says:

    Well, I think walking across hot coals could be practising facing your fears. Presuming you fear hot coals (as I do). I suspect there is some generalisation from one fear to the other(s).

    I think there also will usually be the need for reflection and change as part of practise – not just doing the same thing. I guess you presumed this anyway.
    My recent post Time to Move

  4. Gina says:

    Ha Ha …this post spoke to me and hit the nail on the head!
    I woke up just now to the fact I spend much too much time reading the marketing instruction manual (the endless array of websites on how to do it) to my nutritional consultation business than actually jumping in and simply doing and learning.
    This comes as a big surprise to me because 18 years ago when I opened my first health food store I knew nothing about business but I loved natural products and wanted to bring that to my community and make a living doing it.
    Easy …no! Successful…you bet!
    A 12 year success story of 2 physical shops and an online supplement business back when the web was new follows and I closed only due to divorce.
    So why do I now read and ponder read some more …when I learned so much so fast and with relish back in 1993?
    Ahhh once again Duff has me thinking….Mahalo!

    My recent post Relationship with Food- how do we change it

  5. Great article. I consider myself to be a fledgling Cultural Theorist. I really want a professional website, yet reading this article got me to thinking that my present Blogs are my "Lemonade Stand" So by the time I complete my MA or Phd, I'll be ready for the full deal?! Thanks for informing us about the SAID principle!

  6. An insightful post! Per Gwen's assertion that once you've mastered a musical instrument, it's relatively easy to pick up another. That's not necessarily true as it depends on which instrument you want to master next. If you've mastered music theory then it does make it easier to understand a new instrument, but mastering the technical aspects of the instrument will take almost as long as your primary instrument. Case in point: I started out on drums and moved to keyboards, quickly mastering both. As a rhythmic person, both of these percussive instruments came easily to me. The same could not be said about the guitar. For my short, fat fingers, it is an uncomfortable instrument to play as my fingers could never quite reach all the frets. I find it easier and more comfortable to play the ukulele as it has a much smaller fretboard. It is not easier to learn the ukulele. I have to learn a new dimension and get my brain to think in a new way. With the piano, it's up and down the keyboard. A stringed instrument is up, down and sideways with open and fretted strings. In a sense, it's a much more complicated instrument which is probably why I'm attracted to it in some tortuous way! Either way, I really enjoyed the post. Keep up the great work!

    • Excellent personal example Ryan. So from your experience, there was more carryover from drums to keyboards than from drums and/or keyboards to guitar. I've also learned multiple instruments as well (violin, piano, drums, trumpet, voice), so I know what you mean!

      Music theory is almost it's own skill that is related to playing, as is relative pitch recognition, rhythm, etc. If we break musical ability into these subskills, then Gwen is right in that there is a lot of positive carryover between these less instrument specific skills. But if we measure time-to-mastery, I think your points are more important. And of course if you learn piano, organ will be relatively easy, or guitar and ukulele, etc. because of lots of positive carryover given the similarity in instrument.

      Again the SAID principle would say that the best way to improve at guitar is to spend nearly all of your time playing the guitar! Seems almost "duh" obvious, but I think often times when we try to get better at something, we end up spending too much time doing unrelated activities in the hope that they will give us some special edge, like training our fingers to be stronger with a gripping device instead of just playing our instrument.

  7. "Fears are specific—facing your unique fears is the best preparation for facing your fears! "
    i really liked that sentence and i think it summarizes well what i need to do! thank you!
    My recent post My Personal Development Course-Daily Choices

  8. the dude says:

    SAID makes sense. Maybe too much sense. There are some really irrational aspects to mind and body. As an artist, I know that years spent NOT painting, while studying Zen and making sculpture, made me a much better painter. I know that with my students that introducing different artistic techniques and skills and disciplines makes them not only better at their chosen fields and disciplines, but in other aspects of their lives. Just like all the studies that show kids who play music are better at math etc.
    This argument is a neat billy club for further eliminations of art and music programs in schools – who needs those unless you are going to be a professional artist or musician, right? WRONG. Why exercise if you are just going to be a cubicle rat? This could go on and on. I think this premise is right in one way, and wrong in a lot of others. It has some serious dangers and flaws. It suffers from some of the same "acquisitive", positivist problems this blog posits itself to counteract.

    • This argument is a neat billy club for further eliminations of art and music programs in schools – who needs those unless you are going to be a professional artist or musician, right? WRONG. Why exercise if you are just going to be a cubicle rat?

      The SAID principle certainly has it's limits and those are worthy of discussion, but SAID does not imply which skills one should value. One could easily make the opposite argument also using SAID, that we must have music and art programs in schools because no other discipline will ever teach these skills! And also that since the body adapts to being a cubicle rat, it is of extreme importance that corporate rats run through a maze at least once a day before getting their cheese, for this will improve the health of the rats and thus boost productivity.

      As far as taking time off from painting and studying Zen to get better at painting, all SAID would say is that your technical skill isn't going to get better sitting on a cushion vs. holding a paintbrush, but your inspiration may become far deeper and more profound making for better art overall.

    • The argument can also be made in terms of positive or negative carryover, which we could read into this wonderful defense of the humanities by Martha Nussbaum:

  9. Constance says:

    I like this post, very timely as I just so happened to be contemplating this very issue!

  10. Joy_Livingwell says:

    Great post, Duff! I've noticed this phenomenon myself, especially in this form:

    I want to achieve tangible goal X… but to "take action" on it, I do something symbolic that does nothing to move me tangibly closer to my goal.

    For instance, if I decide to get in shape, joining the gym is a symbolic activity. Only actually doing exercise will help me achieve my goal. That doesn't require gym membership; I could walk to the store, go up and down stairs, ride my bike, swim, use canned goods for free weights… Having a gym membership might or might not help me actually exercise. For many people, gym membership is a symbolic substitute for doing the tangible exercise that would help them toward their fitness goals.

    Often the best way out of this bind is to quit doing the symbolic substitute. Now whenever you think about task, project, or goal X, instead of telling yourself "I'm doing it!", you notice that you're not doing it, and that tends to inspire action. Give away the paints, model railroad track, or engine rebuild parts you've been hoarding for years, and you're actually more likely to paint, build a model layout, or tweak that engine. Go figure.

    My recent post Powerful persuasion technique used by successful companies- individuals

    • Great example, Joy! The number of productive exercises one can do in a small space at home without any equipment is huge. I quit the gym several years ago and sought out bodyweight exercises precisely to cut out the excuses (and the cost).

  11. kuraptka says:

    There is several exceptions to this (sorry if I am commenting on an old blog post, just found ur blog through Raptitude)… and one is language learning. If you want to get better at say Chinese, you can improve tremendously simply by listening to audio over and over, input improves your output. Of course u're gonna have to eventually start speaking, but you *will* get better by putting as much input as possible into your brain.
    My recent post Choosing the right diet program

    • I wouldn't say that's an exception. Listening to a language you want to speak is a subskill of speaking that language, for in order to converse in a language you have to understand what the other person is saying. Another way of saying this is that listening to a foreign language has high carryover to speaking that specific foreign language. Where SAID comes in is in saying that listening to French has little carryover to speaking German.

  12. Julia says:

    I'm loving reading all of this. I'm developing a new fitness format for sports professsionals and just looked up S.A.I.D. Principle.. which I've known about for 15 years, for references to my website.. Of course it makes so much sense. Practice makes perfect.. or as near perfect as we can ever hope to get bottom line.

  13. […] addition, anything other than just working on your habit is not working on your habit, and fundamental changes simply take time. While it can be helpful to learn a few things about […]

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