Getting Really Good at What You Do

Introduction

I am spending a lot of time thinking about this issue, so let me try to summarize, then explore the contention, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and Cal Newport (and others) that expertise has much less with innate abilities than it does with a dogged pursuit of constant improvement by "Doing" and "Practice".

Overview

An individual's progression in any given discipline/skill follows this trajectory:

  1. Starting point - not really that good
  2. After practice - competence
  3. After even more practice - mastery
  4. After even more practice - slight improvements to mastery
  5. With Sustained and Deliberate Practice - improvement of mastery to expert level.
  6. However, not everyone can be the genius, or exceptional virtuoso merely by practice, there are some in-born qualities for a few people that makes them the best. And a certain few fields, such as basketball, indeed favor inborn abilities and genetic traits.

Once you have identified the thing you are going to do with your life. Dig in and get good. To get great, regularly work with someone who can make you better.

be so good that they can't ignore you. --Steve Martin

But a more accurate way to describe this framework would be

become so good that they can't ignore you.

Deliberate Practice

There is no way around it. To get good, you do have to simply put in the time, learning, learning, doing, learning. But at some point, just doing does not lead to learning. That's when you hit a plateau.

Regarding moving out of a plateau, the author of one of the original "10,000 hours" academic study says in a recent update to that work:

...(changes) in achievement are not automatic consequences of more experience and in those domains where performance consistently increases aspiring experts seek out particular kinds of experience, that is deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993)--activities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance..."

Cal Newport clarifies this further in a great post:

After interviewing two large samples of chess players of varied skill, the paper’s authors found that “serious study“ — the arduous task of reviewing past games of better players, trying to predict each move in advance — was the strongest predictor of chess skill.

Colvin, being a business reporter, points out that this sophisticated understanding of performance is lacking in the workplace.

“At most companies,” he argues, “the fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.”

He then adds the obvious corollary: “Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.”

It’s this advantage that intrigues me. To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.

Coaching

At the point of plateau, you must find ways to break out of the ruts and familiar patterns to which you may be blind.

Not knowing what you don't know.

Atul Gawande is a professor of surgery at Harvard. He's pretty smart. He has been talking a lot recently about the need for coaching of expert professionals (I have excerpted a lot, but there is so much worth reading. Especially the results of coaching teachers):

As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.

Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five. Surgery is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career. It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master... I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. You know, he said, you could get more power from your serve.

I was dubious... But I listened... With a few minutes of tinkering, he’d added at least ten miles an hour to my serve. I was serving harder than I ever had in my life.

Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play... even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does.

But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

... I decided to try a coach. I called Robert Osteen, a retired general surgeon, whom I trained under during my residency, to see if he might consider the idea. He’s one of the surgeons I most hoped to emulate in my career.

The case went beautifully...and I wondered whether he would find anything useful to tell me.

We sat in the surgeons’ lounge afterward. He saw only small things, he said, but, if I were trying to keep a problem from happening even once in my next hundred operations, it’s the small things I had to worry about...[long list of observations]... He had a whole list of observations like this. His notepad was dense with small print...

That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years.

Critiques

I think that the most valid critique is the one that is most obvious: Some people clearly have a knack for certain things and are better at them, right off the bat. While much of the original Erickson paper disputes this notion, with some exceptions made for basketball players, more recent work indicates that deliberate practice only accounts for 1/3 of the difference in performance between different individuals.

I am certain that this is at least partially true. Clearly each of us has an "aptitude" for one thing or another and, likewise, we have some inherent interests for one thing or another. I think that the following is true and relevant:

  1. Remember, you aren't concerned about everyone else, you are concerned about you. The difference in a single individuals performance is dependent almost solely upon deliberate practice.
  2. A general aptitude will likely determine what direction you go. But an aptitude is a fairly broad category. More importantly, where your interest lies is important to follow. This model simply tells to that once you have something that interests you, dig in, because the reward of improved skill will, in fact, make you even more interested in the area.
  3. There is a difference between becoming an expert in the "real world" and in the types of subjects in these studies. The world of professional violinists and chess grandmasters is a phenomenally intense one. Even Gladwell's example of the Beatles emphasizes not expertise but rather success relative to peers. Becoming an expert does not require being in the top .1% of practicioners in your field. It probably means being in the top 1-10%. If that is your goal, then deliberate practice should provide tremendous comfort.

Further Reading

So Good They Can't Ignore You -- Cal Newport
If you want a direct explanation of how to approach your life's work with a straightforward application of these ideas, look no further.
As I said before this book has had an incredible impact
Outliers -- Malcolm Gladwell
This book popularized the notion. It sometimes get derided, but I feel that often what is derided is a caricature of the actual book.