Category Archives: Workhacking

“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.

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.

The World of the Adjunct

I do a lot of adjunct teaching now, and so does my daughter’s friend.  There the similarity ends.

However many years I may have left, adjunct teaching for me comes at the end of my working life, and has more in common with snacking or hors d’oeuvres.  It can be pretty stressful at times, but it’s all extra.  It doesn’t come at the expense of my life.  I do one class at a time; maybe, once in a while, two.  It’s lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans.

For my daughter’s friend Sean — not his real name — adjunct teaching is more like not getting enough to eat.  He depends on his teaching gigs to keep bread on the table.  He chases six (I think!) adjunct jobs at once.  The enjoyment of the students is there, too, for him, , but the ratio of good-stuff-to-tsuris is way out of whack.  He’s caught in Adjunct Hell and he wants to get out.

What we have in common is that we have intellectual wares to sell and the official market for intellectual wares, deformed by the tenure system, is too small to manage what we’ve got.  There are still students who want to “buy” what we’re “selling”, but they can only do so in the black-market-for-labor I call the “World of the Adjunct.”

What interests me about this topic is two things:

  1. The academy is tipping from “mostly tenured professors” to “mostly adjunct professors”, for a variety of reasons, which matters if, as I do, you think the academy matters
  2. There are lots of working situations that are tipping from honorable careers to “markets for Mechanical Turk labor packs”

Second one first.

I assume many readers of this blog are familiar with Mechanical Turk.  Briefly, it’s an Amazon service where workers can sign up and employers can sign up.  The employers give the workers whatever tasks they want — a typical one might be “sort through images and name the brand products found in the image” — and the workers take on whichever tasks they want.

I signed up for Mechanical Turk both as an employer and a worker, and have tried being a worker on some tasks.

It’s horrible.  Factory work — which I’ve also done — had the same dreadful but mind-numbing stress to it, but there at least there were fellow workers to commune with, and solidarity.  In Mechanical Turk world, you’re alone in front of your computer, struggling to get enough images recognized to at least make a pittance that day.

A lot of work is becoming Mechanical-Turk-ized, whether it’s the TPS reports of “Office Space” fame or modern medicine, which is a series of 15-minute encounters with patients optimized for misery on both sides.

Adjunct teaching in Sean’s world is a lot like Mechanical Turk.

There’s another pole to work emerging as well, which I call “Do-Good-ism”.  This is work with meaning for the worker, often work that helps somebody else in the outside world, work that counts.

For me, because I don’t have to do it at Sean’s pace, because I don’t have to support myself from it, adjunct teaching is Do-Good-ism.  I relish the interactions with the students (at least the good ones, the ardent learners; the troublemakers and whiners and grade-grubbers are awful for both Sean and me, although we do commune over how awful they can be when we talk adjunct teaching).

It’s all because my need to work and my self-esteem don’t come from the teaching; it’s extra.

More on the second point — what adjunct teaching is doing to the Academy — in another post perhaps.

Your thoughts?

“Themes” for December

I’m trying to be a bit more deliberate about what I read and what I write about and why.  Most of my life I’ve just wallowed in learning with the result that I think I know a “little” about a “lot”.  While that’s probably better than knowing a “lot” about a “little” (the stance of the typical academic scholar, who seems poorly-served by his or her narrowness IMHO), it might be better to focus on things that were useful, difficult, mind-stretching, or all three.

So for December, I want to work on three things:

  1. Presence and Deep Work.  Josh Waitzkin says, in his book on learning: “We cannot expect to touch excellence if ‘going through the motions’ is the norm of our lives.”  It smote me, that sentence.  It really did.
  2. Ways to reach entrepreneurs with information that may be of use to them but they may not be aware of.  I’m working on a project to turn academic research on entrepreneurship into useful information products for real sweating bleeding entrepreneurs out in what Teddy Roosevelt called “the arena.”
  3. The World of the Adjunct.  I’m doing a fair amount of adjunct teaching these days, and it raises many questions: the Mechanical Turk-ization of work, the death of the academy, the problem of normalizing adjunct talents and strengths, etc.  I want to read and talk and write about these topics.

That’s it.  Hope you’re interested.  Always welcome your thoughts.


The idea that work and play can merge — “plerk”, if you will — is a very common one in the Age of Overwork.

Years ago, when it seemed like more of a joke, my wife and I used to have a little routine for the morning.

I would turn to her — or she to me — and say, “Has the distinction between work and play evaporated yet”?

The other person would then say back, “No, they wouldn’t call it work if it was fun.”

We were mostly just making fun of the people who thought they could merge.  It’s not that our work lives were never fun; it’s just that there’s something that keeps you Work-ing at Work, and it’s not the same thing that keeps you Play-ing at Play.  It’s just not.

(Honestly, she has had more Play at work than I have had over the years, and not because our works have been so different.  But our temperaments are different: I’m more bilious, more inclined to see the glass as half-empty (nay, broken), and more inclined to get hopped up about work stuff than she is.  So the same struggles with politics, with bad bosses, with deadlines, with Mickey Mouse bureaucratic nonsense, make me insane-er than hers make her.)

What would plerk look like?

Well, I just gave a few ideas about what makes work Work:

  1. Politics.  “Politics” is the word we use for unpleasant and extraneous things we need to do at work in order to get good stuff to happen or prevent bad stuff from happening.  We have to go through the same stuff with family (and even with friends, if truth be told), but it doesn’t have the same frustrating feeling about it because we’re stuck with our family and we’ve chosen our friends.  We hardly ever pick a workplace for the people there — although it’s not a bad idea — and our attempts to do so often misfire.  We end up with people that seem arbitrary, and therefore the lubrication we have to use on them to get them to cooperate with us seems arbitrary as well.   Hard to see 100% how you would get rid of politics except by making the work relationships all non-arbitrary.    But that’s what you’d have to have at Plerk.
  2. Bosses.  The relationship with your boss is probably just a special form of politics, in the sense that you have to manage your boss and it seems painful or arbitrary at worst.  Even a great boss needs to be managed.
  3. Deadlines.  Both work and play have deadlines, but play deadlines don’t invite procrastination, or at least not in the same way.  Players in a game don’t wait until the last minute to score a touchdown or ace a serve.  Why do work-ers do so?
  4. Mickey Mouse bureaucratic nonsense.  Work demands that you show up at a certain time and place, wear a certain costume, and follow certain rules.  Those who work at home on their own often urge wannabes to act like they are “really” at work: go to a certain room at a certain time dressed in a certain costume.  In order to… give the feeling of work, which is essential, they say, to getting work “done.”  You don’t talk about getting play “done”, although others may say to you, “are you done playing yet”.

Joseph Heller’s masterly novel,  “Something Happened” is a brilliant examination of work.  A few quotes:

  • I think that maybe in every company today there is always at least one person who is going crazy slowly.
  • It’s a real problem to decide whether it’s more boring to do something boring than to pass along everything boring that comes in to somebody else and then have nothing to do at all.
  • Because Andy Kagle [his boss] is good to me and doesn’t scare me any longer, I despise him a little bit too.

What is it about work?  Are these accidental shortcomings of bad workplaces or are they inherent in the beast.

I was a programmer for many years, and thoroughly enjoyed writing and debugging code.  The work itself was a great pleasure.

But all my programming jobs involved politics, bosses, procrastination, and Mickey Mouse.

On one of my first programming jobs, there was a choice between two approaches to some software: we could do it in-house (which meant I would do it) or we could buy someone else’s work (which meant I would “manage” the relationship with that company).  My then boss asked me what we should do.

“It would give me a lot of pleasure to do it in-house,” I said.

He looked at me.

“Dan, we’re not here to give you pleasure.”

Truer words were never spoken, which is why plerk is a pipedream.

But what do you think?

Why Entrepreneurs Should Study Poetry


A very short argument (so a very short blog post):

  1. Entrepreneurs need to size up novel situations quickly
  2. Our most potent human tool for sizing up a new situation is an analogy (“Oh, this new thing is kind of like when that saber-tooth tiger ate Og”)
  3. We can train our ability to do analogies by studying potent compact analogies
  4. Potent compact analogies occur at a greater density in poetry (and, btw, in songs) than almost anywhere else
  5. Therefore: entrepreneurs should study poetry to sharpen their abilities to generate and evaluate analogies

Two Philosophies About “The Room”

For whatever reason, our metaphor for interaction in business life is “The Room.”

“Working the room.”  “Every eye in the room was on him.”  “She had the room eating out of her hand.”

I just finished teaching a group of business-school students, and a good chunk of their grade was their participation in class and on their teams.

I found myself distinguishing two philosophies about participation, about “the room”, and I found myself appreciating one philosophy much more than the other.

Philosophy #1: “Be the smartest person in the room.”  Very understandable that kids would learn this in school, their first “room”.  In the schoolroom, the smartest kid gets the strokes.

But I got introduced to Philosophy #2 some years ago, and it makes more sense for most situations, for most grown-ups, for most rooms that are not set pieces like classrooms: “Be the one who helps the room move forward.”

I was working at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and doing my first presentations to big audiences, also my first consulting gigs.  A colleague approached me after one session we had worked on together and said, “You know, Dan, being the smartest person in the room isn’t always the right strategy.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Your strategy is to be the smartest guy in the room.  And you do it really well.  But it’s not always the right thing.”

“What’s a better strategy?”

“Everyone in that room is there trying to do something, solve some problem, move something forward, that’s why they’re in the room.  I try to help move the room forward.”

“What does that mean?”

“Find out what people are trying to do, and help them figure out how to do it.”

I kept thinking about this, and thinking about it.  My colleague was so right.

So fast-forward to these kids.  They were supposed to fill out online forms after each class discussing what they had contributed to class that evening.

And almost every one of them put in stuff where they had said something smart, where they had said something that could have made them the smartest person in the room.

A couple of students got it, though: they talked about what they had said or done that helped the class move forward, or helped their team move forward.

They were the ones who got my votes for best class participation.  Like they say here, “If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”