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Naresh Jain's Random Thoughts on Software Development and Adventure Sports
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Deliberate Practice: The Expressway to becoming an Expert

“Its God’s gift” or “S/he was born talented” or “S/He just lucky” is a common myth that undermines the relentless hard-work experts put to attain mastery in their respect work.

Benjamin Bloom, a pioneer who broke this myth found out that:

“All the superb performers, he investigated, had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years.”

Later research, building on Bloom’s study revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved.

Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that:

“Experts are always made, not born.”

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint hearted nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take many years if not decades to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice; practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.

One study showed that psychotherapists with advanced degrees and decades of experience aren’t reliably more successful in their treatment of randomly assigned patients than novice therapists with just three months of training are. There are even examples of expertise seeming to decline with experience. The longer physicians have been out of training, for example, the less able they are to identify unusual diseases of the lungs or heart. Because they encounter these illnesses so rarely, doctors quickly forget their characteristic features and have difficulty diagnosing them.

Practice Deliberately: Not all practice makes you perfect. You need a particular kind of practice – “deliberate practice” – to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all.

Let’s imagine you are learning to play golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills by driving and putting more balls and engaging in more games, until your strokes become automatic: You’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.

Why does this happen?

You don’t improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. In fact, professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament.

Computer gaming is an excellent example where I’ve seen people practice deliberately to get better. They focus on what they can do well, but they also focus on what they can’t do well. Most importantly, when practicing, the gamer is not just mindlessly playing. It’s a very thoughtful, deep, dedicated practice session.

War games serve a similar training function at military academies. So do flight simulators for pilots. Unfortunately in software development, very few people practice deliberately.

Genuine experts not only practice deliberately but also think deliberately. The golfer Ben Hogan once explained, “While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.”

Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning:

  1. Improving the skills you already have
  2. Extending the reach and range of your skills.

“Practice puts brains in your muscles” – Golf champion Sam Snead

The enormous concentration required undertaking these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them.

How long should you do deliberate practice each day?

“It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.”

It’s very easy to neglect deliberate practice. Experts who reach a high level of performance often find themselves responding automatically to specific situations and may come to rely exclusively on their intuition. This leads to difficulties when they deal with atypical or rare cases, because they’ve lost the ability to analyze a situation and work through the right response. Experts may not recognize this creeping intuition bias, of course, because there is no penalty until they encounter a situation in which a habitual response fails and maybe even causes damage.

Many research show the importance of a coach/mentor in deliberate practice. Some strongly favor an apprenticeship model. However one needs to be aware of the limitation of just following a coach or working alongside an “expert.”

Statistics show that radiologists correctly diagnose breast cancer from X-rays about 70% of the time. Typically, young radiologists learn the skill of interpreting X-rays by working alongside an “expert.” So it’s hardly surprising that the success rate has stuck at 70% for a long time. Imagine how much better radiology might get if radiologists practiced instead by making diagnostic judgments using X-rays in a library of old verified cases, where they could immediately determine their accuracy.

All an all, “Living in a cave does not make you a geologist” .i.e. without deliberate practice you go no where.

Original Article: The Making of an Expert

  • Mike Toppa

    You should read Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” which is also covers this. He found the magic number was 10,000 hours of practicing your craft: that’s what the Beatles, Bill Gates, and others did before they became famous.

  • Dave Aronson

    That’s one of the things I love about code retreats.  Not just “let’s code Life over and over”, but with restrictions to make you really stretch (“now let’s do it with a sparse matrix”, “now let’s do it in three dimensions”, “now let’s do it in an arbitrary number of dimensions”, “now let’s do it in node.js”, “now let’s do it in Clojure”, “now let’s delay all use of constants for as long as possible”, etc.), and the precious *feedback* you get from pairing with someone.

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