Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy

November 16th, 2011 · 41 comments

The Mathematical Logic of John McPhee

In the nineteen-sixties, a young John McPhee had made a name at The New Yorker as a profile man. As McPhee explained in a recent essay, writing a profile is an exercise in the peripheral. You interview everyone who can “shed light on the life and career of [your subject]” until “you meet yourself coming the other way.” Then you’re ready to write.

McPhee was really good at this process.

He was also really quite bored.

“I was a little desperate to escalate,” he recalls.

In search of escalation, McPhee complicated the formula. If the standard profile focuses on one subject, why not, he thought, try to profile two subjects who shared some peripheral connections? That is, go from A to  A + B.

This challenge lead to “Levels of the Game,” a dual profile, published in The New Yorker, of two American tennis stars who met in the semifinals of the first US Open.

“The double profile worked out,” McPhee recalls, “and my aspirations went into vaulting mode.”

So he complicated things again, pinning onto the bulletin board above his desk a card with a new, more daring formula: ABC/D.

His idea was to profile four people. The first three, A, B, and C, would all be connected through the fourth, D.

For his D, McPhee choose famed environemntalist David Bower, and then went searching for enemies of the environment to fill the roles of A, B, and C.

These efforts led to Encounters with the Archdruid, which was promptly nominated for a National Book Award.

The Deliberate Practice Hypothesis

I’m telling this story because it provides a sample answer to a question many of you have asked.

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

The natural follow-up question, of course, is how does one apply deliberate practice if you work at a desk?

McPhee’s strategy provides one possible answer out of uncountably many. He reduced his work to a formula so he could then purposefully complicate it. This approach stretched his abilities more — I assume — than if he had simply set out with a goal of “writing better.”

More generally speaking, my guess is that once you start looking closer at the lives of true craftsmen, these types of deliberate strategies will be common.

Perhaps its time to start looking…

(Photo by tnarik)


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:


If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers

November 11th, 2011 · 296 comments

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long,Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…


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