Tag: Susan Cain

Quiet: Why Introverts Have a Creative Advantage

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain looks at how our lives are shaped by personality.

The book explores how where we land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum influences our choices, friends, conversations, careers, success, and even love.

“It governs how likely we are to exercise, commit adultery, function well without sleep, learn from our mistakes, place big bets in the stock market, delay gratification, be a good leader, and ask “what if.”

“A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty -five pages to the dissection of a small boy’s feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him goodnight … Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.”

— Allen Shawn

It’s also one of the most exhaustively researched subjects. It’s not just scientists who’ve contemplated this, they are a rather recent addition. Poets and Philosophers have been thinking about introverts and extroverts forever.

[T]oday we make room for a remarkably narrow range of personality styles. We’re told that to be great is to be bold, to be happy is to be sociable. We see ourselves as a nation of extroverts— which means that we’ve lost sight of who we really are. Depending on which study you consult, one third to one half of Americans are introverts— in other words, one out of every two or three people you know.

Surprising? That’s because most introverts, like myself, pretend to be extroverts. I’m what you call a “closet introvert” or what I call an undercover introvert.

It makes sense that so many introverts hide even from themselves. We live with a value system that I call the Extrovert Ideal— the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups. We like to think that we value individuality, but all too often we admire one type of individual— the kind who’s comfortable “putting himself out there.”

[…]

Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.

The Ideal Extrovert

The extrovert ideal is alive and well.

Talkative people, for example, are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends. Velocity of speech counts as well as volume: we rank fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there’s zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas.

But, like anything, it’s a mistake to embrace this ideal without thinking. Without introverts, we wouldn’t have: the theory of gravity, the theory of relativity, Chopin’s nocturnes, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Peter Pan, Orwell’s 1984, The Cat in the Hat, Charlie Brown, Schindler’s List, E.T., Google, Harry Potter, or Farnam Street.

In How Heredity and Experience Make You Who You Are, the science journalist Winifred Gallagher writes: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc^2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

Cain argues that it is not in spite of introversion that people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Al Gore, Warren Buffett, Gandhi and Rosa Parks achieve what they do, but, in part, because of it.

As society moves unconsciously toward an extroverted world—one of open offices, team everything, and organizations that value “people skills” above competence—introverts will have to adjust. But things like creativity and “innovation” will suffer.

If you’re an introvert:

you might still feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner invitation in favor of a good book. Or maybe you like to eat alone in restaurants and could do without the pitying looks from fellow diners. Or you’re told that you’re “in your head too much,” a phrase that’s often deployed against the quiet and cerebral.

Of course, there’s another word for such people: thinkers.

After taking my MBTI, one of my professors defined introversion as “where you get your energy.” If you’re extroverted you get energy from being around people, and if you’re introverted you get it from being alone. But is there more to it than that? What exactly does it mean to say someone is introverted?

In 1921, psychologist Carl Jung had published a book, Psychological Types, that popularized the terms introvert and extrovert as the foundation of personality.

Discussing Jung’s work, Cain writes:

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

The MBTI is based on Jung’s work. But, you should know, there is no consensus on any of this. There are “almost as many definitions of introverts and extroverts as there are personality psychologists, who spend a great deal of time arguing over which meaning is most accurate.”

Still, today’s psychologists tend to agree on several important points: for example, that introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle , or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo.

[…]

(Introverts) prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

Whenever I tell someone I’m introverted the first thing they inevitably say is “you can’t be an introvert. You’re not shy.

Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not. One reason that people confuse the two concepts is that they sometimes overlap (though psychologists debate to what degree).

The bus to Abilene

Here is one particularly amusing anecdote from the book: The bus to Abilene. And this applies to everything from meetings to how we make decisions.

A well-known study out of UC Berkeley by organizational behavior professor Philip Tetlock found that television pundits—that is, people who earn their livings by holding forth confidently on the basis of limited information—make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance. And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident—the very ones who would be considered natural leaders in an HBS classroom.

The U.S. Army has a name for a similar phenomenon: “the Bus to Abilene.” “Any army officer can tell you what that means,” Colonel (Ret.) Stephen J. Gerras, a professor of behavioral sciences at the U.S. Army War College, told Yale Alumni Magazine in 2008. “It’s about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day, and somebody says, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go.’ And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go— I thought you wanted to go,’ and so on. Whenever you’re in an army group and somebody says, ‘I think we’re all getting on the bus to Abilene here,’ that is a red flag. You can stop a conversation with it. It is a very powerful artifact of our culture.”

The “Bus to Abilene” anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action—any action.

How We Innovate

A lot of organizations want to encourage innovation with “positive” action. They hold up Google, Twitter, and Kickstarter as models of innovation. In a well-meaning attempt to encourage innovation they inevitably come up with a process that relies on presentation skills to sift ideas.

In his book Iconoclast, neuroeconomist Gregory Berns explores what happens when companies rely too heavily on presentation skills to sift ideas.

“He describes a software company called Rite-Solutions,” Cain writes summarizing his work, “that successfully asks employees to share ideas through an online ‘idea market,’ as a way of focusing on substance rather than style.”

(In Quiet Cain describes the company) Joe Marino, president of Rite-Solutions, and Jim Lavoie, CEO of the company, created this system as a reaction to problems they’d experienced elsewhere. “In my old company,” Lavoie told Berns, “if you had a great idea, we would tell you , ‘OK, we’ll make an appointment for you to address the murder board’ ”— a group of people charged with vetting new ideas. Marino described what happened next:

(Cain quoting: Iconoclast) Some technical guy comes in with a good idea. Of course questions are asked of that person that they don’t know. Like, “How big’s the market? What’s your marketing approach? What’s your business plan for this? What’s the product going to cost?” It’s embarrassing. Most people can’t answer those kinds of questions. The people who made it through these boards were not the people with the best ideas. They were the best presenters.

In his memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Steve Wozniak writes:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee. If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

Of course, introverts are not necessarily more creative. The most creative or innovative people tend to ask questions, display a healthy disrespect for authority, a natural irreverence, and a stubborn streak. This suggests they may not work well as part of a team.

In explaining why introverts have a creative advantage, Cain writes:

[T]here’s a less obvious yet surprisingly powerful explanation for introverts’ creative advantage—an explanation that everyone can learn from: introverts prefer to work independently, and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck once observed, introversion “concentrates the mind on the tasks in hand, and prevents the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”

In the end, creativity and innovation in organizations is about accepting and even encouraging differences. I’d caution organizations not to move too far towards the extroversion end of the spectrum (open offices, everything done in teams, promoting based on social skills above competence) without giving consideration to the effects that may have on some of your most creative people. A lot of things are better done by individuals than teams. It’s ok to have offices. It’s ok to have quiet. It doesn’t work for everyone but it works for some of your best and possibly most misunderstood employees.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is an interesting look at how letting the extrovert ideal run wild is a bad idea for creativity, decision making, and cognitive diversity. To learn more about this subject, see this my interview with Susan Cain on the Knowledge Project.

Temperament Matters: In Life and Business

Temperament

I love this excerpt from Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking on Warren Buffett:

Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and one of the wealthiest men in the world, has used exactly the attributes we explored in this chapter – intellectual persistence, prudent thinking, and the ability to see and act on warning signs – to make billions of dollars for himself and the shareholders in his company, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett is known for thinking carefully when those around him are losing their heads. “Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ,” he has said. “Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

Every summer since 1983, the boutique investment bank Allen & Co. has hosted a weeklong conference in Sun Valley, Idaho. This isn’t just any conference. It’s an extravaganza, with lavish parties, river-rafting trips, ice-skating, mountain biking, fly fishing, horseback riding, and a fleet of babysitters to care for guests’ children. The hosts service the media industry, and past guest lists have included newspaper moguls, Hollywood celebrities, and Silicon Valley stars, with marquee names such as Tom Hanks, Candice Bergen, Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, Steve Jobs, Diane Sawyer, and Tom Brokaw.

In July 1999, according to Alice Schroeder’s excellent biography of Buffett, The Snowball, he was one of those guests. He had attended year after year with his entire family in tow, arriving by Gulfstream jet and staying with the other VIP attendees in a select group of condos overlooking the golf course. Buffett loved his annual vacation at Sun Valley, regarding it as a great place for his family to gather and for him to catch up with old friends.

But this year the mood was different. It was the height of the technology boom, and there were new faces at the table—the heads of technology companies that had grown rich and powerful almost overnight, and the venture capitalists who had fed them cash. These people were riding high. When the celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz showed up to shoot “the Media All-Star Team” for Vanity Fair, some of them lobbied to get in the photo. They were the future, they believed.

Buffett was decidedly not a part of this group. He was an old-school investor who didn’t get caught up in speculative frenzy around companies with unclear earnings prospects. Some dismissed him as a relic of the past. But Buffett was still powerful enough to give the keynote address on the final day of the conference.

He thought long and hard about that speech and spent weeks preparing for it. After warming up the crowd with a charmingly self-deprecating story—Buffett used to dread public speaking until he took a Dale Carnegie course—he told the crowd, in painstaking, brilliantly analyzed detail, why the tech-fueled bull market wouldn’t last. Buffett had studied the data, noted the danger signals, and then paused and reflected on what they meant. It was the first public forecast he had made in thirty years.

The audience wasn’t thrilled, according to Schroeder. Buffett was raining on their parade. They gave him a standing ovation, but in private, many dismissed his ideas. “Good old Warren,” they said. “Smart man, but this time he missed the boat.”

Later that evening, the conference wrapped up with a glorious display of fireworks. As always, it had been a blazing success. But the most important aspect of the gathering—Warren Buffett alerting the crowd to the market’s warning signs—wouldn’t be revealed until the following year, when the dot-com bubble burst, just as he said it would.

Buffett takes pride not only in his track record, but also in following his own “inner scorecard.” He divides the world into people who focus on their own instincts and those who follow the herd. “I feel like I’m on my back,” says Buffett about his life as an investor, “and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away. I like it when people say, ‘Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting.’ But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, ‘Why don’t you use more red instead of blue?’ Good-bye. It’s my painting. And I don’t care what they sell it for. The painting itself will never be finished. That’s one of the great things about it.”

Unfinished thought

It’s Buffett’s comment that really sticks with me because, like a lot of his wisdom, it transcends investing and plays out into many aspects of life.

“Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

— Warren Buffett

Temperament matters.

Consider your workplace.

I bet you have bosses. In general, I believe those bosses are probably intelligent people – what causes problems is not their lack of intelligence but rather their temperament. (One way to help neutralize the wrong temperament is to use a process.)

You need a temperament that controls the urges that get other people into trouble. And there is a long list of things that get people into trouble … Buffett offers a great example:

You need a temperament that neither derives great pleasure from being with the crowd or against the crowd.

If they lack the ability to think independently, bosses (like everyone else) can cause great harm to an organization, while claiming to be doing the right thing.

You also need a temperament that allows you to take action where many just sit and watch. Consider the case of a board of directors. In his 1993 Shareholder letter Buffett writes:

a director who sees something he doesn’t like should attempt to persuade the other directors of his views. If he is successful, the board will have the muscle to make the appropriate change. Suppose, though, that the unhappy director can’t get other directors to agree with him. He should then feel free to make his views known to the absentee owners. Directors seldom do that, of course. The temperament of many directors would in fact be incompatible with critical behavior of that sort. But I see nothing improper in such actions, assuming the issues are serious. Naturally, the complaining director can expect a vigorous rebuttal from the unpersuaded directors, a prospect that should discourage the dissenter from pursuing trivial or non-rational causes.

The temperament of many people is incompatible with critical behavior. Most people go with the path of least resistance.

“Take the high road, you’ll find it’s less crowded.”

— Charlie Munger

In fact, organizations, by the very nature of how they hire and fire, generally promote people who lack the right temperament. There is an almost unspoken chain of reciprocity.

If you were going to give someone some general advice on how to move up in a large organization you’d probably say something along the lines of: (1) be visible; (2) emphasize the aspects you’re good at; (3) make those in power feel good about themselves; (4) if you must point out a mistake by someone in power, blame the situation or others; and (5) shower those above with flattery.

You’d probably tell them to avoid being critical, giving other people too much credit, and being the only person in the room with a different opinion.

Office politics matter and often that’s what we tend to reward.

How does your organization treat people who think differently? How does your organization treat people who think mediocre is not good enough? Does your management take action in situations that require courage? Do you attack problems or gloss over them? Do people admit when they are wrong? Are people curious?

Temperament affects so much and yet we rarely give it thought. What kind of temperament does your culture foster?

Buffett can teach you a lot about management. If you’re interested in learning more, pick up a copy of A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers From Warren Buffett.

How You Can Make Brainstorming Better

Generally brainstorming is inefficient and ineffective. The benefits, if any, tend to fall into the social category and not the creative one. New research suggests that with some tweaking we can improve the quality of ideas.

Why does brainstorming suck?

One reason is because we get stuck on the ideas of others. This is actually cognitive fixation, or the concept that, “when exposed to group members’ ideas, people focused on those and blocked other types of ideas from taking hold.”

Adding more people won’t help. Tyler Cowen mentions this in his book Discover Your Inner Economist:

the larger the group, the greater the loss of productivity. We all know that many people rely too much on the work of others and become “free riders.”

One reason is self-deception

Self-deception is one culprit for this failure of perception. When we are in groups, someone else is usually talking. We feel less pressure. We don’t feel stupid just because we are silent or devoid of new ideas. Rather the sense of continuous activity gives us the feeling of being engaged in collective discovery. If I am experiencing no revelation, well, maybe someone else is. After all, something good must be happening; why else would we all be gathered in this room? We do like being on teams, especially winning teams.

Cowen adds, “Many people, after working in groups, mistake other people’s ideas for their own. After the meeting they feel better. Furthermore, if the problem is hard, everyone can see that everyone else found it hard too; this makes us all feel better.”

If brainstorming doesn’t work, why does it persist?

Susan Cain addresses this in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

Indeed, after all these years of evidence that conventional brainstorming groups don’t work, they remain as popular as ever. Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe that their group performed much better than it actually did, which points to a valuable reason for their continued popularity—group brainstorming makes people feel attached. A worthy goal, so long as we understand that social glue, as opposed to creativity, is the principal benefit.

What can you do to improve results?

Two new tweaks promise to improve ideas: Brainwriting and Electronic Brainstorming. Fancy terms no doubt, but let’s look at how they work to see if they address some of the points mentioned above.

Brainstorming’s foundation

Both use the basic brainstorming rules developed almost half a century ago by the advertising executive, Alex Faickney Osborn:

Don’t criticize.
Focus on quantity.
Combine and improve ideas produced by others.
Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how wild.

How do they work?

Electronic Brainstorming is done online using something like Microsoft Messenger. This way you can see all the participants ideas scroll across the screen. Brainwriting, on the other hand, involves getting together in a room like you would for a normal brainstorm. Only unlike traditional brainstorming where you all shout out ideas, brainwriting, much like it sounds, means that you write your ideas down Post-It note style. You can initial your ideas but no talking allowed.

A new study compared these ideas and found that Electronic Brainstorming produces the most new ideas.

The drawback of the Brainwriting method is that each person has to reach forward and pick up other ideas and people don’t do this as much as they should.

In contrast, Electronic Brainstorming allows (forces, even) every member to see what the others are saying with little or no effort. It means that the group is exposed to the flow of ideas with very little effort.

On top of this it solves some of the problems with face-to-face brainstorming. When it’s done online, each person doesn’t have to wait for the others to stop talking and is less worried about being evaluated (plus brainstormers don’t have to be in the same country!).

This probably helps to explain why people report finding Electronic Brainstorming to be a satisfying experience.

Oh, and use a group of 8 or more to optimize results. I wonder if chat addresses the “free-rider” because your ideas are now written down so people can easily see your “output.”

The bottom line is brainstorming can be effective if you know how to use it, when to use it, and its limitations.

Increasing The Productivity of Computer Programmers and Engineers

If you want to make your computer programmers and engineers more effective give them “privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Via Susain Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

To find out, DeMarco and his colleague Timothy Lister devised a study called the Coding War Games. The purpose of the games was to identify the characteristics of the best and worst computer programmers; more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10: 1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter— such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work— had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below— even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

Still curious? This is a follow-up to a previous post: Open-plan Offices Suck — Privacy Makes Us Productive. If you have to work in an open-plan office, here is how to survive.

What is Deliberate Practice?

You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. This is because you don’t use deliberate practice to your advantage.

Deliberate Practice

Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do. It doesn’t matter how many years they spend they stop getting better.

Experience does not equate to expertise.

In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated he writes:

In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.

Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are misleading.

Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).

Deliberate Practice

Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.

Designed to Improve Performance

The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.

“In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.”

But it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.

“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.

Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Consider a chess tournament:

Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*

Repeat

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.

Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *

It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.

Feedback on results is continuously available

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.

“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”

Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.

“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”

Mentally Demanding

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

Ben Franklin, an interesting example

Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.

“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …

Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.

The Role of Solitude

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes:

Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

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Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.

Are You A Learning Machine?

The same advice from three remarkably different people: Become a Learning Machine.

Charlie Munger says:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

Carol Dweck says:

You have to apply yourself each day to becoming a little better. By applying yourself to the task of becoming a little better each and every day over a period of time, you will become a lot better.

And this tidbit from Susan Cain, also fits:

…identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.

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