Friday, October 2, 2015

Deliberate Practice in Pursuit of Goals

For years now, I've been enthused and passionate about investigating the role of talent in shaping the person we become in our lives.  Books like "Talent is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin, "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, and "Mindset" by Carol Dweck had huge impacts on shaping my perspective about innate abilities and showing evidence that we all truly have much more control over our lives than we initially assume.  I have recently read "Bounce" by Matthew Syed, who was an Olympic table tennis player for Great Britain.  He had won numerous European table tennis championships as well as Commonwealth Championships - but readily admits to choking in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  At that point, he began to investigate the intricacies of success, why some experts choke, and the role of genetics in shaping our talent.  The book was phenomenal (I hope to do a write up on it soon).  Syed knows a thing or two about success in athletics at the highest levels, which gives the book some validity over the others, who were written by psychologists and journalists.  "Bounc" is like "Talent is Overrated", "Outliers", and "Mindset" on steroids (in fact, Syed even talks about steroid use in sports!).

Anyway, it was another eye opener into what we are truly capable of accomplishing with, as Colvin defines it, "deliberate practice".  Deliberate practice can be thought of as hours of focused practice - not going to the driving range to hit golf balls, but going to the driving range, focusing on the grip for hundreds of swings, then focusing on the backswing for hundreds of swings, etc.  Ideally, you'd be able to film yourself or receive immediate feedback so you can make minor adjustments.  Watch this talk from Colvin.  While this task is much different than perfecting a golf swing, the message remains unchanged:

Be sure to watch the entire video; the last 10 or 15 seconds are my favorite because they exemplify the public perception of "talent".  "Oh, that guy was lucky to be born with a photographic memory, just like Tiger Woods was born with golf in his blood."  Not true.  In fact, Syed discusses Tiger's upbringing in detail in "Bounce", along with other star athletes like Roger Federer and Serena Williams (he has a penchant for tennis) and totally dismantles the "talent" theory for each of these people.
Colvin writes that there typically is not much difference between the job performance of those in a given career vs. those just starting out in a job, namely because those who have been there a while do not work deliberately to improve.  We all know the feeling; we burn out in our job and view it as a means to an end.  We are not passionate about it and, therefore, do not seek to continually improve.  We do not seek out stretch roles that push us just beyond our current limitations.  Rather, we work our required 8 or 10 hours, then go home.  Want to separate yourself from your colleagues?  Force yourself to expand your knowledge and abilities each and every day.
Syed talks about the use of deliberate practice in complex tasks, such as racket games, golf, etc., but not necessarily in tasks that measure a single dimensions, like sprinting or weightlifting.  I think the goals most of us set for ourselves in our daily lives fall under the "complex tasks" category.  Our goals should be something we are passionate about; something we find no trouble motivating ourselves to pursue.  The hard part is to push yourself each day to become better:  a better investor, a better husband, a better cyclist, a better writer, a better boss, a better businessman.  Only then can we close in our actual potential.

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