If I do something over and over again for many years, will I get better at it? Or will I plateau?
I recently read Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Anders is THE expert on experts. He's the guy whose research everyone else quotes in their bestsellers about what makes people truly gifted. Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller "Outliers", with its rule of thumb about needing 10,000 hours of practice before you can become an expert? He was talking about Ander's research.
But Gladwell had it wrong, according to Anders. More important than an exact number of hours of practice, whether it it 5,000 or 50,000 is the quality of those hours. If you are a rock band and you just "jam", you won't become the Beatles even after 500,000 hours. You will plateau.
Practice makes perfect, but only if it is the right kind of practice. No strain, no gain. Anders studied historical masters such as Mozart and contemporary masters in sports, chess, art and other fields. He found that practice only makes perfect if it has these qualities:
- During practice, you should be working on extremely specific goals. You are working on snapping your wrist as you flip the basketball towards the hoop. As you practice meditation, you are focused on the feeling of the air entering and leaving your nostrils. As you practice listening to music, you are focused on noticing the chord progressions or staying with the melody. As you practice getting through your emails faster at work, you focus on reaching decisions more quickly about whether to archive, delete, respond, or plan to respond later. Practice that is more general--I'll just play some tennis or listen to some jazz--isn't going to lead to better performance.
- Ideally, you will get timely feedback on your performance.
- You must also push yourself beyond your comfort zone. No strain, no gain.
I don't want to try to be an expert on everything. I don't want to push myself beyond my comfort zone in cooking, bicycling, reading, gardening, singing, or many other activities. Anders is clear that the kind of "deliberate practice" that yields the most improvement isn't fun. If it's fun, it isn't the optimum practice. Why would I want to do this painful practice for every kind of activity that I do? However, I think it's a good idea to do "deliberate practice" in many activities both at work and at home.
At work, I wish I could get through my emails faster. I waste SO much time getting through my emails. Could this be a skill that I master? Are there "drills" I need to go through? Specific things I could focus on at different times? How fast can I archive or delete? Are there measures I can track for feedback such as number of emails left in my inbox after I responded to today's emails?
One thing I've been changing is my approach to meditation. In the past, I've often taken the easy way out. I would "count" it as meditation if I just laid back in a "zero-gravity" chair and listened to some music. Now I'm pushing for the much harder, but probably more rewarding, practice of sitting cross-legged, fighting to keep my aching back straight, and trying to stay focused on my breath even as my mind wants to dwell on an itch on my knee or my plans for tomorrow.