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.
42 thoughts on “Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy”
This is absolutely fascinating! I’ve been wondering what I could do by way of deliberate practice to improve my own writing. (I’ve been a professional writer for 30 years.) John McPhee illustrates ONE way — changing the formula/template. But surely there must be others.
McPhee is not a great writer simply because he jams four people into a profile instead of one. He has all sorts of other techniques. His writing voice is extremely interesting, for one. Voice is really hard to measure — I think part of deliberate practice with respect to writing MUST relate to the question of voice, don’t you think?
Great post bringing it back to good ol fashioned Deliberate Practice.
Honestly, I think writing is one of the easiest fields to apply DP to- exercises can include summing up long passages, writing stories using as little adjectives as possible, writing using the 300 most common words, etc…
Great post as always, Cal.
Based on your description of Mr. McPhee’s writing process he seems to be simplifying the essay procedure to a single component to which he applies hard focus. This hard focus on this one variable (number of protagonists in his essay) allows Mr. McPhee to concentrate and go deeper and farther than he could have otherwise had he been distracted by the many other variables.
It is in digging deeper within this single variable that the deliberate practice takes place.
In many ways this is akin to your own suggestions on living a remarkable life by doing less but accomplishing more: take excel in fewer classes rather than be mediocre in many, become a superstar in one extracurricular rather than merely a participant in many, etc. Your blog is full of similar examples of pruning away distractions and simplifying your work so that you can excel in a few and become remarkable.
In my own field of the visual arts I have sought to simplify my task to a a few or a single critical areas to explore. Often this is the hard stuff like anatomy, structure, etc. Sometimes it is a concentration on rendering halftones with more subtlety.
Often this means simplifying my task by limiting the colors I use, or eliminating color completely. It can mean working on smaller paper, or even concentrating on only a specific anatomical part of the body. The purpose is to reduce these distractions so the all my hard focus is upon the one difficult thing I want to deliberately practice.
I agree that voice is important in writing. However, I disagree that this should be a part of deliberate practice; voice is what happens when the writer concentrates on clearly or beautifully communicating her thoughts.
Voice can be found: voice can be cultivated: voice cannot be practiced.
Like a false accent, a practiced voice is little more than affectation.
A really good book on deliberate practice is Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.
Interesting post as always, and John McPhee is an absolute ledge. I have yet to find a way of incorporating practise as a non-fiction writer though. As a journalist I don’t really know how to write every day, like a fiction writer would. In some ways this article is a little disingenous because deliberate practise as the name suggests is a daily exercise in improving skill, while John McPhee was playing with structure as long-term fixed goals.
Interestingly, a comment I left yesterday on Hacker News ties in with this.
You can think of ways 2 through 4 just as well as directions to extend your practice. Practicing the same thing, once you get proficient at it runs into diminishing returns; worthwhile, if you want to be the best at an extremely narrow field (like tennis) but less useful for real world value.
Deliberate practice in some of the contexts you have discussed requires not just stretching one’s abilities but focus on process rather than product, a way of measuring progress, and coaching. McPhee’s method for expanding his reach is interesting to me as a writer. But I am wondering what the difference is between deliberate practice and other self-designed methods for skills-improvement.
Thanks for the insight! I can’t wait to derive a method for improving my fiction writing out of this.
Another article along the same lines:
This is true. There are lots of different strategies (some explicit some implicit) that helped make John McPhee a great writer. This post is about one. The goal is to give people a sense of what these type strategies are like.
Another great case study of deliberate practice at work in new fields.
I second that. I found it more useful than THE TALENT CODE.
McPhee was also a non-fiction writer. Also, writing every day isn’t mentioned in the article as a useful strategy…
The experts would probably say something like: (1) it focuses on a specific area you want to improve; (2) it stretches you past where you are comfortable, making it demanding and unpleasant (i.e., it’s not flow); and (3) you have clear feedback on how you are doing so you can keep redirecting your energy toward stretch and improvement.
I haven’t read it yet, but doesn’t “Talent is Overrated” describe a method used by Ben Franklin to improve his writing? He essentially tried to rewrite texts he admired from memory, after a couple iterations, he would get to a point where he would try to improve the original using his own style. Steve Wozniak used the same method to improve his system design skills (by copying electronic schematics from memory and making improvements), which is likely the reason the first Apple systems had such good engineering.
As far as McPhee’s method, Jonah Leher had an article on Wired recently about using constraints to improve creativity. In a way, this makes sense. One problem people often have is choice overload, constraints should reduce the amount of choices available. By having constraints, you can focus on creating the best work that fits those restrictions. Also, I think most forms of practice are essentially artificial constraints on the skill you are trying develop.
Indeed. I find that some of my favorite things I’ve written in the past few years came out of analyzing the number of a type of object in a recent piece (source, tips, arguments, whatever), and then editing it down to the same size as the previous work. The results were tightly written, better organized, and better sourced–and I feel like some of that quality boost was maintained, even when under time pressures I relaxed my approach somewhat.
In any event, the formulaic approach has a lot to recommend, and not just as a way to see where to add complexity. Without reducing what you do to its elements, it’s hard to make any deliberate manipulation–to have more or less of anything.
Excellent example. Now that you mention it, I vaguely remember that.
I’ve used similar approaches in my own writing.
Re: Ben Franklin example
That’s interesting. Still not sure how that’s applicable to journalism however. For example how could you re-write a quotation-heavy article from memory and then re-write with your own quotes?
@Busy Signals – your method intrigues – care to go into it in more detail?
I wonder if this can be applied in school to paper-based classes. An English class, for example, might require several close readings–perhaps the best way to improve is to follow a similar formula (pick a similar passage, analyze a similar element of the passage, and structure the essay in a similar way) with each paper.
in the book Dracula Mina discusses the idea of trying to reproduce conversations you have heard in the day as a way of learning to write. Basically this was Bram Stoker giving his mothod. After a while you learn to be able to reprodice or visualise things accurately. This is something like the Benjamin Frnaklin method.
You guys should look up the “Oulipo”. They are a group of writers/artists who push themselves by constraining ther art in pretty interesting an extreme ways (like writing a novel without using the letter e, for example).
there’s a neural science version of deliberate practice
“Game of Japanese chess reveals how experts develop their capacity for rapid problem-solving”-Phys.org
Of course personally I denounce chess but it’s fun to have a biology version of deliberate practice
It’s David Brower, not David Bower.