Grow Hard Skills

A fear: the performance plateau
most individuals who start as active professionals…change their behavior and increase their performance for a limited time until they reach an acceptable level. Beyond this point, however, further improvements appear to be unpredictable and the number of years of work…is a poor predictor of attained performance. put another way, if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better. (Ericsson)

The Difficulty: deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable
“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands…Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate,” as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.” (Geoff Colvin)

This difficulty of deliberate practice is what pushes people beyond the performance plateau. For the same reasons, it is also what prevents so many from pushing past it.

In a practice regime, strain and feedback remain central. Strain, to a certain degree, has to be accepted as coupled with intellectual growth. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a sensation to avoid, it has to be understood in the same way that a body builder understands muscle burn: a sign that you’re doing something right.

“The burn of lifting weights would be excruciating if it were a symptom of terminal illness. But because it is associated with health and fitness, most people find it enjoyable. Here we see that cognition and emotion are not separate. The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.” (Sam Harris)

For example, In statistics, this could look like programming every concept you learn on three different data sets. Programming is the best way of validating your understanding of a statistical technique.

Another part is embracing honest feedback–even if it destroys what you thought was good. It will accelerate the growth of your ability.

Another part is Spaced Repetition, which is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. Although the principle is useful in many contexts, spaced repetition is commonly applied in contexts in which a learner must acquire a large number of items and retain them indefinitely in memory. A tool for leveraging spaced repetition is thought saver.

Another fear: distractions
The final step for applying deliberate practice to your working life is to adopt a style of diligence that is less about paying attention to your main pursuit and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you.

A counter-point to distractions are Exploratory Projects, or cheap experiments. These are projects that (1) are small enough to be completed in less than a month. (2) Force you to create a new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before). (3) Produce a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback.

Maximize the impact of technical projects: Think Small, Act Big
Advancing to the cutting edge in a field is an act of “small” thinking, requiring you to focus on a narrow collection of subjects for a potentially long time. Once you get to the cutting edge, however, and discover a mission in the adjacent possible, you must go after it with zeal: a “big” action. In general, deep over wide learning provides more total skill development in the long run.

Effective work habit: Pomadoros
“This type of skill development is hard. At the first difficulty, I faced immediate internal resistance. It was as if my mind realized the effort I was about to ask it to expend, and in response it unleashed a wave of neural protest, distant at first, but then as I persisted increasingly tremendous, crashing over my concentration with mounting intensity.

“To combat this resistance, I deployed two types of structures. The first is time structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour,” I would tell myself. “I don’t care if I faint from the effort, or make no progress, for the next hour this is my whole world.” But of course I wouldn’t faint and eventually I would make progress. It took, on average, ten minutes for the waves of resistance to die down. Those ten minutes where always difficult, but knowing that my efforts had a time limit helped ensure that the difficulty was manageable.

“The second is information structure: a way of capturing the results of my hard focus into a useful form. I started by building a proof map that captured the dependencies between the different pieces of the proof. This was hard, but not too hard, and it got me warmed up in my efforts to understand the result. I then advanced from the maps to short self-administered quizzes that forced me to memorize the key definitions the proof used. Again, this was a relatively easy task, but it still took concentration, and the result was an understanding that was crucial for parsing the detailed math that came next.”


Content and quotes are from “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport

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