Lesson 3: How do you “deliberately practice” your job?

In the first two lessons in this series, Cal and I discussed why you need to develop meta-knowledge of how your career works, and which skills are worth investing in. However, assuming you can get over that obstacle, the next challenge–actually getting good at the skills in question–can often be difficult.

Practicing a well-defined skill with a clear learning path like chess or music is one thing. But how do you deliberately practice an office job?

In this lesson, Cal will share some of his insights in applying deliberate practice outside the original areas it was first developed in. Now, I’ll turn things to Cal with today’s lesson:

As longtime readers of my blog know, I’m a fan of deliberate practice — a well-validated theory, developed by Anders Ericsson, that explains how people master complex skills.* At the core of this complicated framework is a simple idea: to master something hard, it’s not enough to simply do the activity a lot, or study the activity in detail; you must instead design practice activities that deliberately stretch you past your comfort zone and offer feedback on how your doing.

Applying this style of skill development is obvious in fields with well-defined competitive structures like professional sports, music or chess. If you’re an aspiring chess grandmaster, for example, the theory clearly tells you that you can’t just play lots of matches or read lots of chess books — you need a teacher to design exercises to systematically improve your skills where weak. (Indeed, research on this topic published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that chess grandmasters engaged in five times more of this “serious study” than players with similar overall training hours but much lower standing.)

What is less obvious is how to apply this practice approach to your job.

Though I’ve been writing about this topic for a long time (c.f., this 2010 blog post or my 2012 book on career satisfaction), one of the great side benefits of our Top Performer course is that it exposed me to many more case studies of people actually succeeding in this effort in their real world professions.

Scott and I thought it would be useful to share with you three key ideas we learned from these case studies about effectively integrating deliberate practice into the workplace:

1. Projects trump self-directed study

Something we learned early on is that it’s hard for a busy professional to sustain a purely self-directed program of study. It might sound good on paper, for example, to spend five hours a week taking an online algorithms course to deliberately improve your ability as a computer programmer, but without outside incentive to keep up with that course, it will likely be pushed to the side rather quickly by more urgent demands. A better approach is to develop a project within your day job that is valuable to your employer, and that will require you to deliberately improve the skill you care about in order to complete it. In our algorithms case study, therefore, the better strategy might be to commit to completing an important code module that will almost certainly require you to finally master red-black trees to pull off.

2. Brutal feedback is necessary

A core principle of deliberate practice is that you need brutally honest feedback. Without this reaction, it’s too easy for your efforts to veer from the activities that actually drive improvement and toward those that are more pleasant. In sports, music, or chess, this feedback is usually embodied in the role of the coach. In most other professional settings, however, such feedback is more difficult to come by and will require some ingenuity to put into place. Some of our students hired their own “coach” for evaluating their work efforts (often a colleague, though, in a surprising number of cases, a spouse). These coaches were given results to evaluate on a regular basis and were coached themselves about the importance of honesty. In some cases, our students succeeded with leveraging regular feedback from online communities. As it turns out, in many fields there are groups of experts online who are happy to tell you what they really think about your work (as anyone who has ever posted some code on Stack Overflow knows well).

3. Mental discomfort must be embraced

A final key we noticed for succeeding with professional deliberate practice is that you must develop a mindset that embraces the mental strain of pushing outside your comfort zone. Most knowledge workers, for example, flee such strain as soon as it arise by opening an inbox or new browser tab. In fields with well-established competitive structures, this mindset is trained at an early age, but, of course, there’s no similar training in most modern jobs. If you can come to recognize this strain as playing the same role in your career as a muscle strain does to the career of a body builder (painful but also a mark of progress), you’ll significantly increase your chances of succeeding.
Deliberate practice is complicated. Applying it to a professional setting magnifies this complexity. The good news, however, is that because so few people are even thinking about the possibility of improving their work skills more deliberately, you don’t need to practice like Magnus Carlsen to get ahead. Just the fact that you’re practicing at all can be a big competitive advantage.

* There’s been a lot debate surrounding deliberate practice (c.f., this article on Carlsen’s prodigious rise) following Malcom Gladwell’s popularization of the concept in Outliers. This debate, however, is not about whether deliberate practice is the right type of practice to improve at hard things (this is largely accepted), it instead centers on the role of other factors, like genes, in determining which individuals from a relatively homogenous (in terms of training techniques) competitive pool will rise to the top.