Category Archives: Mindfulness

“Talent is Overrated” and Deliberate Practice

Just finished reading “Talent is Overrated”, by Geoff Colvin, which Ii read on the advice of Cal Newport.  It’s a great book for anyone who doesn’t have the stomach for turgid academic writing but wants to understand what the buzzphrase “deliberate practice” breaks down to.

SPOILER ALERT: For Colvin, deliberate practice, not talent or genes, is the secret to success in any field.  And deliberate practice is:

  1. Activity specifically designed to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help
  2. It can be repeated a lot (and must be!)
  3. Feedback on results needs to be continuously available
  4. It’s highly demanding of the mind and the body
  5. It isn’t much fun

The last one is kind of interesting, and answers the question of why so few people become amazingly good at anything.  But it raises a question of its own: if deliberate practice is so un-fun, why do people do it?

Colvin has an interesting answer to this, related to flow.  “Flow” (of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi fame is a rather pleasant state in which you are just buy enough to be not-bored but not so busy that you’re stressed.

Colvin’s thesis is that when you relax from a bout of deliberate practice you are in flow, and your ability to flow gets better and better the more deliberate practice you do, because deliberate practice makes you (slowly!) better and better at doing your stuff, which feels good.

In other words, Colvin believes that deliberate practice, like hitting yourself over the head with a hammer, feels good once you stop.

Themes for study and learning in January

The three themes I wanted to work on for December were:

  1. World of the Adjunct: I gave this one some thought and a little bit of study; I was able to clarify my feelings about being an Adjunct if nothing else
  2. Reaching Entrepreneurs: Just got started with this one, and most of the work so far has been practical: talking to people who work with entrepreneurs, finding out what “channels” entrepreneurs use and trust (to the extent this can be generalized about).  I’ll continue with this work in January, but doesn’t need explicit study
  3. Presence and Deep Work.  I’m still working on some of the readings I found for December, and will report on these as appropriate.

New themes for January:

  1. Continue with Presence and Deep Work (as above).  The greater my capacity to focus on Deep Work, the better things will go, and I need to augment my toolkit for engaging in Deep Work, well, Deeply.
  2. Fascism and Totalitarianism.  I had intended in any case to learn more about “Modern European Thinking” in 2017: Heidegger, Freud, Judt, etc.  But I’ll want to start with some reading on Fascism, Totalitarianism, and other forms of tyrrany.  Begin with Hannah Arendt “On Totalitarianism” and see where that takes us.
  3. The Body.  I kick off New Years (like most folks) with resolutions to have a better body in 2017, so I’ll want to read some more about this area, establish tentative comm with my body, etc.  I’ll start here by re-reading “The 4-hour body”, by Tim Ferriss.

Welcome your thoughts and comments…  Happy New Year.

Deliberate Practice is Unnatural

I’m continuing to read Cal Newport’s book on skills and passion.

He has some relevant remarks about “deliberate practice” in his Conclusion:

Here was my first lesson: This type of skill development is hard.  When I got to the first tricky gap in the [paper he was studying] I faced immediate internal resistance.  It was if my mind realized the effort I was about to ask it to expend and in response it unleashed a wave of neuronal protest…

To combat this resistance, I deployed two types of structure.

  1. …[T]ime structure: “I am going to work on this for one hour.”
  2. …[I]nformation structure: a way of capturing the results of my hard focus in a useful form

I’ve done similar things when reading a text that’s challenging: 1) split the reading up into “Pomodoros” (cf. the Pomodoro method I’ve spoken about previously) and 2) challenge the text by writing notes that actively dispute, wrestle with, work with the concepts in the text in order to make them mine.

It’s not easy; it still takes lot of chutzpah to hold yourself steady against the psychic pain.  But it’s worth it.

Deliberate Practice and Cal Newport’s “Five Rules”

It’s clear that being more present while doing deep work is the precondition for accomplishing much of anything, particularly for much of anything good.

I’ve had this experience once or twice working with an editor.  While good editors are largely a thing of the past, every once in a while I’ve run across one who hasn’t heard the news yet, and it’s unforgettable: someone holds you accountable until you produce the best writing you can.

What I’m relearning as I work on my novel is how to serve as my own editor.  How to hold myself accountable.  How to get the best writing I can out of myself.

Not easy.  My unconscious believes that if I tell a story at a dinner party I’ve essentially written the story.  My unconscious is easily pleased with substandard or off-the-cuff work.  Fruits of years of lousy habit.

So holding myself accountable means going over and over the material until it’s right.

In this morning’s session I went over the same two sentences for an hour, and finally got them, not right, sadly, but better.  I’ll try to overcome the urge to move on tomorrow when I resume.

This is a kind of “deliberate practice”, in the sense that Wikipedia and Malcolm Gladwell and others mean it.

I’ve been reading Cal Newport’s book on gettiing work you love and he’s all about a systematic approach to getting better at what you do.

He has a five-step proposal for approaching getting better at knowledge work:

  1. Identify what kind of knowledge-work “market” you are working in: is it a “winner-take-all” market (only one way to be “best” in this market: e.g., writing novels) or an “auction” market (variety of ways to be “best”, e.g., tech maven).  Novel writing is a “winner-take-all” market.
  2. Figure out what kind of work you have to be good at to prevail in that market.  You have to be good at writing a novel to win in the novel-writing market.
  3. Define “good”.  For novel-writing, it’s story, plot, description, character, dialog, suspense
  4. Work it
  5. Keep Working it

Good advice.  But, like all good advice, the advice itself is pretty obvious once you think about it.  It’s holding yourself to it that’s hard.

What Josh Waitzkin can teach us about lifehacking

As part of the “presence in deep work” theme I’m pursuing this month, I read “The Art of Learning”, by Josh Waitzkin.

Josh Waitzkin is a chess and Tai Chi champion whose views about learning (due to his accomplishments) are worthy of interest, but subject to the caveat that most successful people are no better than anyone else at accounting for their success.

I’ve reached this sad realization after years of reading self-improvements books, which I love and continue to mine as a source of wisdom.  I believe that self-help authors are trying to do something that intellectuals should do but don’t: help the rest of us get better.

(Intellectuals don’t do it, why?  Because it’s too much trouble and they get paid for doing research that the government and corporate sectors want.)

But the ore in self-help books is thin ore; it’s the tar sands of Athabasca: lot of junk to wade through to get to the nuggets of useful stuff.  And that is because our brain is a gland that secretes the impression that we’re always right.  So self-help accounts by successful people are larded with… self-congratulation.

I almost put down Waitzkin’s book several times for this reason.  The first part, although there are some hints of interesting thoughts on learning, are essentially a series of braggy vignettes about how touch a competitor he is, how vexed he has been by numerous tournaments and rivals and challenges, and how he has surmounted them all with a steely will and (and here’s the good part) a mindful approach to learning from his mistakes.

Which is what rescues the book.

He actually goes back when he has screwed up and tries to figure out:

  1. What went wrong
  2. How he contributed to it
  3. What he can do in the future to not make the same mistake again

These are extremely powerful steps.

I tried to put them to work on my rewriting of my novel, which is up to 2 hours/day now and gaining momentum.

What I have been doing with novel rewriting is sitting in front of the ms on the computer and sometimes paying attention to it, sometimes engaging in distractions, and never really working from a plan or an agenda.  The Muse rules, right?

Starting this Tuesday I began a different regime, based on what was going wrong with the existing process.

The night before I’m going to write, I address a question to my unconscious, something from the book.  Picking the right question is a problem, but I’ve been lucky  in the last 3 sessions.

Last night, for example, the question was “Why was Elspeth jealous?”  She’s a character in the part I’m working on now.

When I wake up, I freewrite for ten minutes about the question first thing in the morning.  It’s gold; the stuff that comes out is enormously helpful for figuring out the problem.

I saw at once this morning that Elspeth was not in fact jealous but was both envious and angry, envious because she wishes she were like the hero and angry because she also has disdain for the hero.  Good stuff that made the writing session much better.

It’s a variant of what I’ve always done: load up my mind with a problem and take a long walk.  But applying it to the current situation will be a big help to me.

Hopefully I can continue to make continuous improvements using the three questions that Waitzkin uses.

Your thoughts?