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Deliberately Experimenting with Deliberate Practice — Looking for Subjects to Test My Advice

April 8th, 2013 · 24 comments

The Deliberate Practice Pilot Program

I’m fascinated by deliberate practice.

I’m convinced this advanced practice philosophy can help knowledge workers rapidly pick up skills that will make them invaluable and provide control over their career. It is, as I’ve argued here, in my last book, and in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps one of your most effective tools for building a working life you love.

But it’s also really hard to figure out how to adapt these ideas to the world of knowledge work.

I decided a good way to proceed with my investigation of this topic would be to: (1) take my best shot at distilling what I know into a formal system; then (2) recruit a group of people, from a variety of different knowledge work careers, to try out my recommendations and report back what they experienced.

This is exactly what I’m going to do.

Over the past few months, I’ve worked extensively with Scott Young (a master of rapid learning), to create a four week pilot program that walks you, step-by-step, through our best understanding of how to identify key skills and then apply deliberate practice techniques to dominate them in a small amount of time.

Now we want to recruit an (extremely limited) group of participants to give this pilot course a try and tell us how it went. In other words, I want real people, in a variety of real jobs, to kick the tires on these ideas Scott and I have been writing about for so long.

Learn More About This Experiment

I don’t want to clog Study Hacks with tons of logistical posts about the experiment — more details, how to sign-up, etc. — so I created a separate e-mail list for this purpose. If you’re interested in learning more about this pilot program click the link below to sign-up for the list.

This will be the only place where you can hear more details and receive information about the first-come-first-served sign-up that will likely happen as soon as next week.

Click here to sign-up to learn more…

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

April 9th, 2012 · 59 comments

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.

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This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

March 28th, 2012 · 39 comments

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…

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This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

Beyond Flow

January 5th, 2012 · 37 comments

A Deliberate Day

Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.

This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.

Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)

After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.

Read more »

How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

December 28th, 2011 · 15 comments

The Deliberate Student

I just received the e-mail reproduced below from a computer science major who successfully applied the deliberate practice hypothesis to his academic work.

This is good food for thought for students home for Christmas break. As you think about your fall and make plans for your spring, remind yourself of the following essential truth:

When it comes to studying, there’s a huge difference between doing work and doing useful work. If you’re not putting a lot of thought into navigating this distinction, you’re probably mired in the former.

On to the e-mail…

  • “I’m a computer science major with little background in programming. I took a data structures course this semester, and scored below average on my midterm.”
  • “I actually studied pretty hard for that exam, but obviously failed to make the distinction between ‘hard work’ and ‘hard to do work’.”
  • “Last week, I decided to use deliberate practice to weed out my weak points by going over the more difficult problem sets in extreme detail. I ended up breaking the curve for the final.”[Cal: see here and here and here for more on applying deliberate practice to master technical topics.]
  • “I think the reason I failed to fully reap the benefits of deliberate practice on my midterm was that I avoided it (subconsciously), because it was mentally taxing. But that’s one of the reasons why it works.”

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This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player

December 23rd, 2011 · 83 comments

The Piano Player Confessions

I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.

This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.

Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.

“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.

I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.

As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.

Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”

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This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 2nd, 2011 · 44 comments

Bad New for Strivers?

Two psychology professors, David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed with a typically snarky title: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters. Many helpful readers were quick to forward me the link.

The authors of this piece start by asking a simple question: “How do people acquire high levels of skill?”

They note that research in recent decades — pioneered by Anders Ericsson, among others — has emphasized the importance of practice, and that these findings have been “enthussiastically championed” by popular writers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, perhaps due to their “meritocratic appeal.”

They then trip their intellectual trap: “This isn’t quite the story science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters.”

To support this view, they cite their own research, recently summarized in a paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science, which shows that people with larger working memory capacity end up better piano players.

I’m mentioning this article because we’ve been exploring what I call the deliberate practice hypothesis — the idea that applying deliberate practice techniques to a knowledge work environment can lead to huge gains in ability and value. The question at hand is whether this New York Times piece should give us reason to pause.

I read their paper, and my conclusion is that it’s not yet time to abandon deliberate practice to start searching for your innate talent.

Here’s why…

Forget About the Final 7 Percent Until After You Maximize the First 93

What struck me about Hambrick and Meinz’s paper is that it emphasized the necessity of deliberate practice for high achievement.

Consider, for example, the graph at the top of this post, which was pulled from their study. Both lines in the plot show how performance on a piano sight reading task improves with increases in working memory capacity, a trait that the authors argue is innate.

The red line shows this improvement for players with lots of deliberate practice and the blue line shows the improvement for players with less practice.

The key take away is that the  impact of deliberate practice dominates the impact of memory capacity. Practicing more makes you over twice as good. Going from low to high working memory capacity, on the other hand, yields only a minor improvement for an already well-practiced player.

When they finished crunching the numbers, and doing the proper controls for practice quantity, the authors found that this memory capacity accounts for less than 7% of a player’s ability at this task.

From a scientific point of view, this result is important as it clearly identifies a separation between innate and acquired skill.

But from a practical perspective, it’s essentially irrelevant. The fact that these findings are so rare, and that these authors are so excited about such a small effect size, only emphasizes just how small a role innate ability seems to play in achievement.

In other words, unless you are trying to become the world’s top piano sight reader, the 7% advantage of having been born with a vast working memory capacity is not going to play a major role in your achievement.

Now let’s return to the setting that concerns us here at Study Hacks: knowledge work. The deliberate practice hypothesis assumes that almost no one in this setting is working in a way that approximates deliberate practice. In the context of the Hambrick and Meinz study, most of your coworkers are therefore on the blue line from the graph above.

This, of course, only reinforces the idea that embracing deliberate practice can have a profound effect on your ability in this work setting, as this embrace will vault you to the red line. From this lofty perch, minor differences in innate talent won’t matter. Your overwhelming value has already been definitively established.

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This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Figure from Psychological Science)

 

Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good

November 25th, 2011 · 23 comments

The Perfectionism of Steve Jobs

While designing the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs became frustrated with the title bars. As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in a recent essay on industrial innovation:

“[Jobs] forced the developers to do another version, and then another, about twenty iterations in all, insisting on one tiny tweak after another, and when the developers protested…he shouted, ‘Can you imagine looking at that every day? It’s not just a little thing. It’s something we have to do right.’”

Gladwell told this story to emphasize a truth about Jobs that many found frustrating: “He needed things to be perfect.”

A Different Type of Practice

Like many in the advice community, the death of Steve Jobs drove me to a period of morbid, posthumous anthropology, seeking some insight into what made this icon who he was. In this scavenging, it was the tales of perfectionism — emphasized by many different commentators — that caught my attention.

Jobs’ quest for perfection made him “complicated and exhausting,” but it also made him and his team really good at what they did.

On reflection, this makes sense. When we declare something to be “good enough,” we are declaring that we have reached the limits of our comfort zone. A “good enough” outcome, in this respect, is a snapshot of our current ability level. Pushing something beyond this point crosses a threshold into an ambiguous and uncomfortable territory, where we need skills we don’t yet have and which might be difficult to acquire and apply.

This is a territory most of us avoid.

People in the orbit of Steve Jobs could not.

And they became the best technologists in the world.

Defusing the Dangerous Allure of Perfect

We have now entered a precarious situation. Perfectionism, I’m arguing, can be a powerful technique for injecting deliberate practice into your working life, as the quest for perfection forces you to strain and develop new abilities in a way that you would otherwise naturally avoid. Because of this, it provides a nice case study of our deliberate practice hypothesis in action.

But perfectionism is also dangerous. It’s the source of workaholism and the bane of elite college students. It drove Harvard’s happiness guru, Tal Ben-Shahar, to write a book with the subtitle, How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

To harness this technique, therefore, requires nuance.

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