Topic: Learning

Reaching Your Peak Through Deliberate Practice and Deep Work

I started reading Peak, a book about deliberate practice yesterday. If you haven't heard of deliberate practice, it's practice to get better. As opposed to staying where you are. At least, that's how I think about it.

Let's unpack that. Imagine you wanted to get better at playing the guitar. You have two options:

  1. Play songs you can play over and over; or
  2. Learn new skills/song

The second option is moving closer to deliberate practice. Playing songs you can already play again and again is just practice. You won't improve.

But when you break new songs into skills, find which skills you're bad at and practice those. That's getting closer to deliberate practice. Add in being mindful when you're practicing those skills, that's deliberate practice.

Mindfulness seems to be a requirement. You need to be aware of what you're doing, to know if what you're doing is right.

And once you can play that new song, you'd pick a harder song and repeat. Always playing just outside your comfort zone. That's why the 10,000 hour rule in Outliers isn't 100% true. To be an expert you need 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. If you're not practicing outside you're comfort zone, those 10,000 hours mean shit.

That requires Grit. But what I love about deliberate practice is that The Brain That Changes Itself in response to deliberate practice. Just like your muscles can get stronger if you use them.

So, how do you get your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

I think it comes down to four things:

  1. Building up your mental picture of what something is;
  2. Finding the parts you're bad at;
  3. Being mindful when you practice; and
  4. Getting rapid feedback to see if you're improving.

That's hard. Once you get to a certain skill level, you want to cruise. It's nice, you've learnt the skill. You feel like you're really getting somewhere.

You're probably suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect. You think you're better than you are because you don't know how bad you are.

It sounds weird. But I know it happens to me all the time. It's common for me to think that a skill is easy. Then the next day, I realise how hard it is.

I realise how far I have to go, how much I don't know.

That's good, my mental picture of the skill has improved and the clearer the picture, the better my practice becomes. That's why teachers are so valuable. You can borrow their mental picture until yours is good enough.

Then, the question becomes how can I develop internal feedback loops? For me, Josh Waitzkin is world class at this. His book, The Art of Learning is a great view into how someone like Josh can become world class at three different skills in a lifetime (Chess, Tai Push Hands and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). Hint, mindfulness and deliberate practice.

My skill of choice now is writing. I read a lot of develop a clearer picture of what writing is. But as I improve, I'll likely have to do more than just read to improve. Hopefully, I'll have developed a clearer idea of what good writing is so I know what to work on.

So, if you're hitting a plateau or feel like you're getting worse, think the Dunning-Kruger effect. It's not that you're getting worse. You're mental picture has just got better.

Ira Glass put it best.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Don't quit. Find what you're bad at and practice. That's what athletes do. They spend most of their time practicing, long before they ever step onto the field.

But we forget that we it isn't sport. Most us (knowledge workers) never practice. We leave getting better to chance.

We get stuck in the homeostasis, in the land of good enough. As K. Anders Ericsson wrote in Peak,

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut

Progress isn't supposed to be comfortable. Maybe it's time we put down our phones, stopped scrolling Facebook or Twitter and put in some Deep Work.

A deep life is a good life.