Practice, Practice, Practice
We wrote a post back in July 2008 about how in order to get better you must practice. Since that time we’ve seen a lot of interest in this concept of how much must you practice in order to master a skill. This interest is primarily due to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers in which he showed a number of examples of why you must have about 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice in order to achieve mastery. I’ve come across many variations of this recently and wanted to revisit the topic from a non-programming perspective to show that this is applicable to every aspect of your life and career. If you want to become a better parent, teacher, runner, programmer, leader, or technologist you must practice. If you want to master those skills you must practice them a lot.
One of the more interesting variations is from the 1976 book by William Zinsser, On Writing Well. If you are interested in writing I highly recommend this book and for everyone else you can draw inspiration from his devotion to the craft of writing. In the first chapter William Zinsser talks about an interview he participated in discussing writing as a vocation along with a certain Dr. Brock who was a surgeon that had recently taken up writing. Dr. Brock started by expressing how “The words just flowed.” And when asked what he did when the writing wasn’t going well he said he’d just stop writing. Zinsser countered that “writing is a craft, not an art, and that the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.” He continues with “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.” Zinsser concludes the section with a thought that if writing for a surgeon was so easy he’d consider taking up surgery on the side. This was a bit tongue-in-cheek with the point being to get better you must persevere and do so with a critical eye for how to constantly improve.
An interesting theory on how to produce sustained and desirable change is the Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory. This is five step process that enables individuals to achieve change and maintain it. If you have ever tried to stay on a diet or start an exercise regime and have found it difficult, you should be able to relate to this. One of the keys to this process is practicing the new behavior in order to build and strengthen neural pathways. This eventually leads to mastery of the skill and sustained change.
An MIT Computer Science grad student has an interesting list on his blog of posts that cover this subject of dedicated practice to master a skill. In MJ fashion, he calls this list “Thoughts on living a remarkable life”. Two of his most interesting from that list are book reviews On the Value of Hard Focus about Murakami’s book on distance running and The Steve Martin Method about the comedian’s life.
Another story comes from Dave Ramsey’s book More Than Enough. Dave tells the story/parable of a professional golfer being approached by a fan saying “I’d do anything to hit like you” and the golfer says “No, you wouldn’t”, to which the fan replies “Oh, yeah, I really would.” The golfer goes on to explain his secret “Get up every morning and hit 500 golf balls. Hit them until your hands are so blistered they bleed. The next morning, tape over the blisters and do it again.”
A final example comes from Jason at 37Signals on making money. He postulates that as an entrepreneur you need to practice early and often making money; learning the skills of negotiating, pricing, and selling. This is why he recommends entrepreneurs not take outside money, in order that they learn to make money quickly. Tim Ferris would probably agree that negotiating can be practiced and Seth Godin would certainly agree that selling takes practice.
So now with all the overwhelming evidence that we need to focus and practice to master a skill, what will you do today to become a master at something?