Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Thoughts from: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Below are some quotes from this book that summarize the major findings/arguments. In all cases, emphasis (italics) are mine.

What genetic brain-science research is telling us
"the research is revealing many ways in which DNA and the environment interact from the moment of conception all the way through life, and suggesting increasingly that the concept of strict nature-versus-nurture conflict is unhelpful in understanding how people actually develop." (pg 81)

Why care about "deliberate practice"?
"the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain" (pg 63)

Deliberate practice "can extend one's ability to perform at high levels far longer than most people believe." (pg 79)

What is deliberate practice?
"Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements..." (pg 66)

  • It is activity designed (often with a teacher's help) specifically to improve performance.
  • It can be repeated a lot.
  • Feedback on results is continuously available.
  • It is highly demanding mentally.
  • It isn't much fun.
"deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them... The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it's on to the next aspect." (pg 68)

How much do I have to do it?
"A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines [violin, chess, sports, ...] 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." (pg 71)

How exactly do I do it?
Deliberate practice demands that "we insistently seek out what we're not good at." (pg 71) "He [Tichy] labels the inner circle 'comfort zone,' the middle circle 'learning zone,' and the outer one 'panic zone.' Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That's the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach." (pg 68)

"Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent." (pg 69) "More generally, the most effective deliberate practice activities are those that can be repeated at high volume." (pg 70)

"Regardless of how well it [deliberate practice] is designed, another important variable is how much effort a person puts into it... Measuring the intensity of practice may be difficult, but it's clearly significant." (pg 80)

What is the effect of deliberate practice? I.e., how does it make us better?
"Frequently when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they've practiced for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically. When we learn to do anything new—how to drive, for example—we go through three stages. The first stage demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, learn the rules of driving, and so on. In the second stage, we begin to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and more fluidly combining... In the third stage, we drive the car with barely a thought. It's automatic. And with that our improvement at driving slows dramatically, eventually stopping completely." (pg 82)

"By contrast, great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice—avoiding automaticity... Avoiding automaticity through continual practice is another way of saying that great performers are always getting better." (pg 83)

The above was conceptually how deliberate practice works;
now for a few more details.
  1. Perceive more (where perception can be visual, auditory, tactile, ...).

    For a fast serve in tennis, rather than watch (or try to watch) the ball, exceptional players watch the server's body to predict where the serve will land. This is an example of
    working around a limitation (in reflex speed as far as 150mph serves go). "the accomplished performers, facing the familiar limits on response time, didn't react any faster than the novices, but they understood what they were seeing much more quickly" (pg 87). Similar examples for typists, jugglers, drivers. Other themes: understand the significance of indicators that average performers don't even notice, look further ahead, know more from seeing less, see differences that others don't see.

    What if response time is not the perceptual bottleneck? E.g., interpreting X-rays. No points for doing so quickly; rather, the challenge is to determine the correct diagnosis. All were looking at the same X-rays, the top performers were able to pick up on more subtle cues—which enabled discriminating among multiple possible diagnoses so as to obtain the correct one.

  2. Know more. Domain-specific knowledge makes a difference. Doesn't suffice to merely apply superior reasoning methods to an arbitrary problem in a problem-independent manner. Stunning example of this was the quest to build a computer that could beat a man at chess. The computer could consider 100 million possible moves a second and still was beaten by Kasparov. Top performers have more knowledge AND their knowledge is better organized and consolidated.

  3. Remember more. Finding: expert players could glance at a chess board in some position and recall it (all 25 pieces) perfectly whereas novices looking at the same board could only recall the positions of around 5 pieces. But, when instead put pieces randomly on the board, the difference in recall between the two groups was non-existent. "The conclusion was that top-ranked chess players did not possess incredible general memories but did possess an amazing ability to remember real chess positions." (pg 98)

    The above experiment tested short-term memory; "virtually everyone's short-term memory falls in the range of five to nine items." The chess researchers found that "the masters had only average short-term memories in that they recalled only five to nine 'items,' just like the novices. The difference had to be in what those 'items' were." (pg 99) From whence sprung chunk theory: everyone remembers the same number of chunks of information. "For the novices, a particular piece on a particular square was a chunk. But for the masters, who had studied real positions for years, a chunk was much larger, consisting of a whole group of pieces in a specific arrangement."

    Chunk theory explains short-term memory but not longer term memory differences, such as the chess players who would play — blindfolded — ten games simultaneously. The claim is that the memory used in this case is neither short-term (which does not have a long enough time span) nor long term (which doesn't produce fast enough recall) where short-term is like RAM and long-term is like disk. Supposedly, the explanation is something referred to as
    expert working memory, which involves the expert having some structure in which to incorporate the new information where that structure enabled recall at some later time. As an example, consider a programmer who has written a very long computer program. Because the programmer knows what the various routines he has written accomplish, he can remember all sorts of information about the program — information that would otherwise seem like random letters and symbols to someone who didn't understand the program's functionality.

    "the superior memory of great performers doesn't just happen. Since it is built on deep understanding of the field, it can be achieved only through years of intensive study. It further requires consistently relating new information to higher-level concepts..." (pg 102)
Even larger claim: deliberate practice causes the brain to change in helpful ways. Then there is a discussion of myelination. Colvin doesn't claim that DP causes myelination but rather that the way in which DP changes the brain is akin to the way in which practice (in general) causes myelination. Myelination occurs when myelin builds up around neurons and nerve fibers; a neuron or nerve fiber with myelin around it "works better." (pg 103) How does it occur? When send a signal through a fiber over and over, that eventually causes myelin to build up over that fiber. By way of example, stroking a particular piano key in a particular way corresponds to sending a signal through a particular fiber. (But this makes it sounds as if doing something rotely can have a great effect when all previous discussion of deliberate practice makes it seem as though one must concentrate while doing it. The answer to this riddle is that Colvin isn't tying myelination to deliberate practice directly (yet).)

OK, how do I actually apply these findings to become better?
There are a couple different ways to practice, depending upon what skill (or activity) we're trying to improve.
  1. The music model. Use for playing a musical piece, giving a speech/presentation, writing, even preparing for an interview.

    In this case "you know what you want to convey, and the challenge is to convey it effectively. The message can be broken down into pieces and each piece analyzed for intent, then practiced repeatedly with immediate feedback from a coach or..." (pg 111)

  2. The chess model. Since there are thousands of books with positions from real games between top players, "study a particular position and choose the move you would make, then compare it with the move chosen by the master; if they're different, figure out why and which is better." (pg 112) Also used in case studies in business school.

  3. The sports model. Training involves two components: (a) conditioning which builds strength and capacities (e.g., endurance) and (b) work on specific critical skills. The tricky part about working on such skills — e.g., hitting a baseball, throwing a football to a receiver — is that they have to be performed differently every time "because the situations in which they're encountered are never the same." (pg 114)

    "Conditioning [in business] means getting stronger with the underlying cognitive skills... basic math and accounting in financial jobs, basic science in engineering jobs, basic language skills in editorial jobs." The second type of practice (specific skill development) "is based on focused simulation." Unpredictable opponents, fast responses, dynamic situations. Practicing these can be difficult because they involve other people.
Practicing in the work. Basically, whatever job you have to do that day, make that deliberate practice of some sort. Self-regulation.
* Before the work: set specific goals about the process to use.
* During the work: Observe yourself while doing the work; use metacognition ("knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking"; pg 108).
After the work: Debrief. Evaluate your performance. Figure out how to do better. Adapt.

Another thing you can work on day-to-day is deepening your domain knowledge. "your objective is not just to amass information. You are building a mental model — a picture of how your domain functions as a system." What does a mental model buy you?
  • It's a framework in which to easily incorporate new information.
  • It helps you distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.
  • It lets you project what happens next.
"A mental model not only enables remarkable recall, it also helps top performers learn and understand new information better than average performers, since they see it not as an isolated bit of data but as part of a large and comprehensible picture." (pg 123)

Skipped Chapter 8: Applying the Principles in Our Organizations

Chapter 9: Performing Great at Innovation
"Time was when you could turn the crank on a good business model for thirty or forty years, and sometimes much longer; the regulated-utility model of AT&T and electricity companies worked for close to a hundred years." (pg 147)

"Creativity and innovation may even be the key to the future economic prosperity of America and other developed countries, at least according to one line of thinking. ... It [this idea that America's future depends on innovation]'s radical because for three hundred years the source of economic dominance has clearly been leadership in science and technology; the countries or regions that were the most advanced technologically have also been the most prosperous." (pg 147)

"how does Target thrive as a discount retailer against the massive power of Wal-Mart, a company more than five times its size that commands by far the world's most advanced retail computer systems? In part it does so by arranging for some of the world's top designers... to design some of the home's most pedestrian products... and then selling them in massive volume at discount prices. Following that strategy, Target can never be commoditized." (pg 148)

"The other thing we think we know about creativity is that it can be inhibited by too much knowledge. We often say that someone is 'too close to the problem' to see a solution. The broader principle is that if you know too much about a situation... then you can't have the flash of insight that is available only to someone unburdened by a lifetime of immersion in the domain." (pg 150)

But... "The greatest innovators in a wide range of fields... all have at least one characteristic in common: They spent many years in intensive preparation before making any kind of creative breakthrough. Creative achievement never came suddenly." (pg 151)

"These findings remind us strongly of the ten-year rule that researchers have found when they study outstanding performers in any domain." (pg 152)

"Until recently, researchers have often thought of creativity in two categories: Big-C creativity, which yields famous, influential products like the integrated circuit or Huckleberry Finn; and little-c creativity, which produces everyday creations like a TV commercial or a florist's arrangement of flowers. But ... have suggested that both types of innovation exist 'on the same developmental continuum,' and that the continuum extends even further back than little-c creativity, to what they call mini-c creativity. In this framework, 'all levels of creative performance follow a trajectory...' This perspective is highly significant because it ties together evidence showing that creative achievement is attained in the same way as other kinds of achievement." (pg 159)

How can an organization foster (encourage) innovation?
  • Create "innovation networks" within the organization. "'Since new ideas seem to spur more new ideas, networks generate a cycle of innovation.'" (pg 162)

  • "In a survey of six hundred executives, those at the top thought the main reason why their company wasn't more innovative was that it didn't have enough of the right people. Lower-level management held a markedly different view  that the company had the right people but the culture kept them from innovating as they should." (pg 163)

    Organizations should: tell people what's needed and give them freedom to innovate. "What's important is that people understand the organization's priorities and thus know where innovation will do the most good." (pg 164)
"Practice in childhood causes myelin to build up more than does practice in adulthood." (pg 171)
What type of environment is best for encouraging innovation?
Findings from a study of the parents (home environments) of 120 young high achievers (in various fields  art, science, athletics): "Despite wide variations in the parents' backgrounds, professions, and incomes, their homes tended to be child-oriented. Kids were important, and the parents were willing to do a lot  almost anything  to help them. The parents also believed in and modeled a strong work ethic. Work came before play, obligations had to be met, goals were to be pursued... 'To excel, to do one's best, to work hard, and to spend one's time constructively were emphasized over and over again.'" (pg 172)

"In an organization this progression [to a master teacher from an initial convenient teacher] is analogous to choosing developmental assignments taht continually stretch an employee's abilities. Employees aren't children, but many of them, like children, will not voluntarily keep seeking new work experiences taht stress their weakest professional muscles; the temptation to continue doing what you do comfortably is too great." (pg 173)

"A stimulating environment was one with lots of opportunities to learn and high academic expectations. A supportive environment was one with well-defined rules and jobs, without much arguing over who had to do what, and in which family members could rely upon one another... But in the fourth combination, the environment that was both stimulating and suppportive, students were much more engaged, attentive, and alert in their studying... Most organizations are not intellectually stimulating, even when the field itself might seem fascinating..." (pg 174)

Deliberate practice == the fountain of youth?
"Studies in a very broad range of domains  management, aircraft piloting, music, bridge, and others  show consistently that excellent performers suffer the same age-related declines in speed and general cognitive abilities as everyone else  except in their field of expertise... But while excellent pianists slowed down like everyone else in how fast they could respond to a choice on a screen, which is not a skill that makes much difference to a pianist, they didn't slow down at all when it came to piano-related skills like finger tapping or finger coordination. They could do those things as if they hadn't aged at all... When it comes to tasks that are part of their domain of expertise, great performers can keep performing at a high level even after their skills outside their domain have deteriorated." (pg 180)

Why bother?
"[Shizuka] Arakawa's road to the gold medal [in figure skating] involved at least twenty thousand derrier impacts on an unforgiving surface [the ice skating rink floor]... Arakawa's story is not just impressive in itself but also valuable as a metaphor. Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from." (pg 187)

"A study of figure skaters found that sub-elite skaters spent lots of time working on the jumps they could already do, whlie skaters at the highest levels spent more time on the jumps they couldn't do, the kind that ultimately win Olympic medals and that involve lots of falling down before they're mastered." (pg 187)

Who bothers?
"Creative people are focused on the task (How can I solve this problem?) and not on themselves (What will solving this problem do for me?)." (pg 188-189)

"His [Csikszentmihalyi's] famous work on 'flow' describes a state in which a person is so totally involved in a task that time slows down, enjoyment is heightened, and the task seems almost effortless. This 'high' is achieved when the challenge just matches the person's skills..." (pg 189)

"The concept of flow might even help explain one of the particular puzzles of motivation to practice. It's a considerable 'might' because the research has not been done... at a deeper level one has to suspect that practice is somehow meeting an inner need for anyone who can maintain it at an intense level for years. It seems plausible that the role of practice in producing the highly enjoyable flow state could be part of it." (pg 189-190)

What not to do to a creative person
"'The intrinsically motivated state is conducive to creativity, whereas the extrinsically motivated state is detrimental.' Other studies showed that virtually any external attempt to constrain or control the work results in less creativity. Just being watched is detrimental." (pg 191-192)

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