I loved Ben Casnocha’s writing about Mastery. He starts with how to draw an owl:
And I think this is how some systems treat learning. You memorize how an owl looks from the picture and then you just draw it. In fact this is what many educational systems in East Africa that I’ve spent time in look like. You look at the answer, maybe memorize it, and that’s it. But the results of systems based on rote memorization speak for themselves.
But how do you really draw the rest of the fucking owl?
Geoff Colvin writes about something he calls deliberate practice. We’ve heard about Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, but what do you do during those hours? You practice, deliberately. This means a few things:
1) It stretches you beyond your abilities:
At the driving range or at the piano, most of us are just doing what we’ve done before and hoping to maintain the level of performance that we probably reached long ago. By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. Tiger Woods – intensely applying this principle, which is no secret among pro golfers – has been seen to drop golf balls into a sand trap and step on them, then practice shots from that near-impossible lie.
2) You repeat it, a lot:
High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. Tiger Woods may face that buried lie in the sand only two or three times in a season, and if those were his only opportunities to work on that shot, he’d blow it just as you and I do.
3) Feedback on results is continuously available:
You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts. Or you may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.
4) It’s hard:
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. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone’s mental abilities…Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at.
Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over. After each repetition, we force ourselves to see – or get others to tell us – exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done. We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.
Adding these up, we get a very different picture than ‘just draw the fucking owl’. And we get a very different picture than the lecture halls full of students staring at the ceiling while professors read aloud to them from textbooks. In fact this list is almost the polar opposite of what we see here in East African higher education. Students here are not stretched beyond their abilities, they don’t repetitively practice the skills they’ll need after school, they almost never get feedback, and their studies aren’t mentally demanding.
Deliberate practice is anything but easy. And running academic programs that actually provide meaningful practice with feedback is challenging. But luckily Casnocha’s follow up post lays out 30 simple steps, which I really love:
2. Keep going.
3. You think you’re starting to get the hang of it.
4. You see someone else’s work and feel undeniable misery.
5. Keep going.
6. Keep going.
7. You feel like maybe, possibly, you kinda got it now.
8. You don’t.
9. Keep going.
10. You ask for someone else’s opinion–their response is standoffish, though polite.
12. Keep going.
13. Keep going.
14. You ask someone else’s opinion–their response is favorable.
15. They have no idea what they’re talking about.
16. Keep going.
17. You feel semi-kinda favorable and maybe even a little proud of what you can do now.
18. Self-loathing chastisement.
20. Keep going.
21. You ask someone else’s opinion–they respond quite favorably.
22. They’re still wrong.
24. Keep going though you can’t possibly imagine why.
25. Become restless.
26. Receive some measure of praise from a trustworthy opinion.
27. They’re still fucking wrong (Right?)
28. Keep going just because there’s nothing else to do.
29. Mastery arrives, you mistake it for a gust of wind.
30. Keep. Fucking. Going.