You don’t get better at writing essays by writing more essays

Though perhaps a bit more rigorous in his approach, what Geoff Colvin has to say about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else is not unlike what George Leonard says about “practice” in Mastery or how Josh Waitzkin describes his process of mastering chess and T’ai Ch’i in his recent book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  What caught my eye about Colvin’s book, and the main reason I read it, is its relating of this idea of deliberate practice and high performance to the world of business.

Early on in Chapter 7, Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The problem is, as the title of this post hints at, that you can’t get better at something by just doing that something.  The early part of Talent is Overrated is full of examples:  Jerry Rice didn’t become the greatest football player ever by playing football games; Tiger Woods didn’t become the greatest golfer by simply playing endless rounds of golf; and Benjamin Franklin didn’t become the incredible writer that he was by writing essays.  All of these people, and many more, became incredibly good at what they do (did) through deliberate practice.

One of the biggest challenges for a wartime military is how to balance the need and desire for deliberate practice and continued improvement with the day-to-day operational requirements of carrying out its missions.  Having spent a few years now in the civilian world of business, I’ve come to realize that the “operational environment” of most organizations is much like that of a wartime military – there is such a strong focus on meeting day to day mission requirements that it is a challenge to find the time for individuals and teams to engage in deliberate practice to improve their ability to perform.

Colvin finishes with some thoughts on how organizations can apply the principles he addresses in the book for both individuals and teams.  And he believes, and I think shows throughout the book, that any organization, any individual, has the ability to become great at what they do if they are willing to put in the work.

The Art of Living

Just inside the entrance to the Art of Living Building in Downtown St. Louis is the following quote:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreations.  He hardly knows which is which.  He simply pursues his vision of excellence thorugh whatever he is doing and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing.  To himself, he always seems to be doing both.

This came to mind as I was reading Lilia’s post Mama’s day, PhD work and being grounded, and her earlier post Turning work into life (June 2004) in which she said:

Don’t get me wrong, I like my work and office is a great space for meeting colleagues and serendipity of coffee talks. I’m just thinking about things what would make me more productive. A bit more flexibility, a bit more nature, a bit more fun… I know that there are organisations that make work fun and flexible to their people, but I wonder why they are so rare and what could be done to turn work into life. I guess one of the biggest obstacles is a myth about work/life balance, implying that work is not life, making us thinking that work should be that way – formal and full of discipline – and preventing thinking about other options…

Fortunate is the person who can make life their work and work their life.

The internet doesn’t make people stupid…

Over at, David Wolman has posted an essay entitled The Critics Need a Reboot. The Internet Hasn’t Led Us Into a New Dark Age. The essay is a response to the numerous recent books and articles that paint “the internet and its digital spawn” as the cause of the growing shallowness and dumbing-down of society. I’ve been following this trend of blaming the internet as part of another interest of mine, Work Literacy, and that is how I came across this particular article.

What caught my eye, in terms of relevance for this blog, was Wolman’s take on the role the internet (and its digital spawn) plays. It’s not the cause of these problems, it is an enabler of these things for people, and a society, that is already pre-disposed to this way of thinking.

…in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30), Mark Bauerlein delivers a grim assessment of the state of young minds, rattling off statistics about faltering education and using such figures to buttress his assertion that the Internet, videogames, and IMs all serve to numb and dumb.

To be sure, there is plenty of evidence that ignorance and irrationalism are rampant. Pernicious fallacies have found a purchase among educated people who ought to know better: Vaccines cause autism, Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks of 9/11, power lines give you cancer, cell phones kill honeybees, and global warming is a scam orchestrated by tree-hugging liberals.

Yes, it must be acknowledged that the Web provides remarkably easy access to such bogus ideas. On top of that, there’s the human tendency to seek out information that supports preexisting assumptions, a behavior psychologists have dubbed homophily. The Web magnifies this echo-chamber effect.

Continuing his theme that technology is not the culprit, Wolman goes on to say:

But the latest crop of curmudgeons fail to acknowledge that there is not much new in this parade of the preposterous. The US has a long and colorful history of being taken in by the erroneous and irrational: Salem witches, the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, phrenology, and eugenics are just a few choice examples. The truth is that Americans often approach information — online and off — with a particular mindset. “Antirational junk thought has gained social respectability in the United States during the past half century,” notes Susan Jacoby in The Age of American Unreason. “It has proved resistant to the vast expansion of scientific knowledge that has taken place during the same period.” Jacoby argues that long-standing American values like rugged individualism and the need to question authority have metastasized into reflexive anti-intellectualism and disdain for “eggheads,” “elites,” and pretty much anyone who might be described as credentialed. This cancerous irrationalism isn’t pretty, but it isn’t technology’s fault, either.

If we do find ourselves in a new dark ages, it won’t be caused by the internet. It will be caused by people. (Of course, the internet will be there to document it all 😉

David Wolman is also the author of the Wired piece, The Truth About Autism: Scientists Reconsider What They Think They Know.

Work competency, literacy, and mastery

Tony Karrer’s comments to a recent post of mine that discussed the application of a craft work model to knowledge work got me thinking a bit more about the subject. I’ve also been thinking some about the one of the goals of the Work Literacy project, specifically to “help build a foundation of knowledge of methods for knowledge work” (as Tony wrote in comments to Michele’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers).

So instead of apprentice/journeyman/master, which refer as much to an individual’s position within an organization as it does to the individual’s skill level, I’m thinking the more basic terms of competency, literacy, and mastery may apply. These speak directly to the skill level of the individual in terms of the individual’s goals, and is independent of any organization they may be part of.

Obviously, these terms will need to be defined a bit in the context of knowledge work and work literacy to be of use to the current effort. A good place to start is at the basic definitions of the terms:

  • Competent: having suitable or sufficient skill, knowledge, experience, etc., for some purpose; properly qualified; adequate but not exceptional.
  • Literate: having knowledge or skill in a specified field
  • Mastery: command or grasp, as of a subject:

Though competency and literacy seem to be very similar, I see them as distinct in the following way. Competence means that you have the knowledge/skill to perform a given task, without necessarily understanding why it is done or having the ability to adapt of if the conditions under which you learned the skill change. Literacy, on the other hand, suggests that you understand why you perform the task the way it is and that you have the ability to adapt your performance to changing conditions and still be successful.

To re-word Tony’s goal stated above, the question in my mind then becomes, “What competencies are needed for knowledge workers today?”

Here are a couple that come to mind. I’ll save more detailed discussion of these for the comments or future posts.


  • Technology (hardware)
  • Technology (software)
  • Personal Computers
  • Social Networking (technical and personal)
  • Visual Communications
  • Information Assurance / Security
  • Impact of Globalization
  • Finance / money
  • Interpersonal communications

I’m sure there are more, and I’m sure some of these may not be appropriate. But it is a start.

Tools do not a master make [redux]

I’ve been catching up on the posts over at Work Literacy (that’s a lot of catching up!), along with discovering new (to me) blogs in the field of learning. This in turn has had me revisiting old posts and ideas of my own.

Joan Vinall-Cox’s post Old Skills and New Know-How, a response to Michele Martin’s post Knowledge Workers as Craft Workers (which, as it turns out, is based on a comment I left to another of Michele’s posts), discusses the importance of understanding the skills that must go into using a new technology.

Re-printed below is a post of mine from August 2006, Tools do not a master make, that explores a similar theme.

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No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

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You may also want to check out one of my earliest posts, Quick example of individual productivity gains / savings based on digital thinking.

Lessons learned and learned lessons

Dave Snowden, with whom I share a general dislike (maybe distrust is a better word) for lessons learned / best practices, has a post from about a year ago on the difference between lessons learned and learning lessons. I’m revisiting these ideas after sharing my thoughts about knowledge work as craft and the growth and development of young knowledge workers as craftsmen with the Work Literacy group.

Before someone can start working in a craft, they must first learn the basics of the craft. Part of this learning is traditional learning of the facts, procedures, and techniques that have been learned and passed along by those who have gone before. While not “lessons learned” in the usual sense, this type of lessons learned (or best practice) can be of value.

In fact, I think that assimilation of this knowledge, obtained from lessons learned by others, is a key early step in helping people become able to learn their own lessons later on in their career. Without a solid foundation of what has already been learned, the apprentice is destined to “reinvent the wheel” more than is necessary. (Note the “more than necessary” caveat: I believe that it is important for the novice to attempt some reinvention of their own; this gives them an understanding of the importance of those early lessons.)

The journey of an apprentice to the realm of the master is, in many ways, a journey from knowledge consumption to knowledge creation. As an apprentice, the reliance on existing knowledge is very high. The journeyman learns to understand the knowledge in use and apply it in creative, new ways. The master, while grounded in the existing knowledge of the craft, is not constrained by that knowledge as he creates new knowledge for use by the next wave of apprentices.

The same progression can be seen in many aspects of knowledge work. Most will start off in college, accumulating that basic information they need for their chosen field, then move on to a “journeyman” stage in a company (or their own company) where they will learn how to apply that accumulated knowledge. For most, this is the stage they will remain at for most of their career.

If they are lucky, and of course diligent in continuing to develop their own work literacy, they will progress to the “master” stage where they can re-write what is taught to students in college.

Innovation is good, but innovators are bad…

…if you are looking for someone to help you get the word out about your innovation. At least, this is the message I get from a quick read of Innovators are a bad choice for change from Shawn at the Anecdote blog.

Dr Rogers persisted thinking, if only he could get one farmer to try it out and then they could influence everyone else. After a time he did find someone to try out the new corn, a hipster dude who wore Bermuda shorts and fancy sunglasses. He enjoyed a bumper crop but the other farmers were unimpressed. This maverick farmer derided their way of life, he was an outsider and there was no way they were going to adopt anything from a Bermuda short wearing weirdo.

The story Shawn is discussing comes from Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, which has this to say in regards to the story:

Rogers learned that the first people to latch onto a new idea are unlike the masses in many ways. He called these people innovators. They’re the guys and gals in Bermuda shorts. They tend to be open to new ideas and smarter than average. But here’s the important point. The key to getting the majority of any population to a adopt a vital behavior is to find out who these innovators are and avoid them like the plague. If they embrace your new ideas, it will surely die.

Though I hate to say it, this explains a lot. I don’t know if I buy into it completely, but I think anyone who fits the description of “innovator” given above can probably recount more than one story like this from personal experience. Shawn goes on to say that the recommended approach is to approach “early adopters”, but I must admit I’m not sure I understand the difference between an “early adopter” and “innovator” in this context.

I also can’t help thinking of this in the context of Michele’s recent question in Developing Work Literacies: Who’s the Target Audience? Regardless of whether you stake out your target as the workers themselves or the organization’s leadership, it seems that you should maybe avoid targeting the people who already embrace the concepts of Work Literacy.