Simon Sarris

Deliberate Practice for Knowledge Work

Andy Matuschak writes:

Top-tier athletes are fanatically disciplined about improving their foundational skills—skills which transcend any sport, the same kind of agility drills you might see an army recruit do. Top-tier musicians do likewise: Lang Lang, for instance, is still working on his scales after 30 years as a concert pianist. They’re not just doing rote drills: they’re working to improve those skills critically, poring over performance videos and working with coaches.

By comparison, Knowledge work rarely involves deliberate practice. Knowledge workers seem surprisingly unserious about honing fundamental skills like reading (People seem to forget most of what they read, and they mostly don’t notice), note-taking (Note-writing practices are generally ineffective), developing ideas over time (Knowledge workers usually have no specific methods for developing ideas over time). Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc, and knowledge workers generally don’t seem to pursue a serious program of improving in those core skills. I suspect that this is in large part because the possibility of improvement isn’t salient: Salience of improvement drives skill development.

What might it mean for knowledge workers to fanatically pursue virtuosity in these fundamental skills, in the way that athletes seek in their fundamental skills?

More concisely Ryan asks:

What's the "deliberate practice" for knowledge work?

In a word? Shitposting.

A little more seriously I think the answer is play.

Play does not resemble deliberate practice because knowledge does not resemble deliberate performance. The core technique of knowledge is not a careful repetition but anti-repetition. It is found in the ambling, tinkering spirit of crafting. It is revealed to participants by having an argument for argument's sake. When Andy says "Knowledge workers usually have no specific methods for developing ideas over time", I think making space for play is one method.

Play can be practiced deliberately. London's Debating Societies were forums for playing with ideas. Today these are supplanted mostly by private clubs, secret slacks, and other places where people feel they can be loose enough without judgement to experiment with ideas aloud. For those without these affordances, anonymity will sometimes do.

Play does not need to be as structured, it requires only a willingness to wander beyond the proven. Orville Wright dropped out of high school to design and build a printing press. Which do you think he would learn more from? I doubt it was the structured knowledge environment of school. The tinkering that lead to the Wright brothers airplanes was likewise a wandering beyond recorded expertise. The specificity that Andy speaks of may be difficult to find simply because it is the wrong thing to look for.

Walt Disney's studio fostered play among his employees. In the words of one animator it was "like a marvelous big Renaissance craft hall." (Another animator, remarking on the wild pranks: "if this is not a crazy house then I don't know what is.") It was not in the deliberate practice that stories were worked out, but in the ample time and space for faffing about. John Cleese of Monty Python fame recommends the same: You must be deliberate in creating space for play. He contrasts the working in closed and open modes:

By contrast, the open mode, is relaxed, expansive, less purposeful mode, in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful.

It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. When Alexander Fleming had the thought that led to the discovery of penicillin, he must have been in the open mode. The previous day, he'd arranged a number of dishes to that culture would grow upon them. On the day in question, he glanced at the dishes, and he discovered that on one of them no culture had appeared.

Now, if he'd been in the closed mode he would have been so focused upon his need for "dishes with cultures grown upon them" that when he saw that one dish was of no use to him for that purpose he would quite simply have thrown it away.

Thank goodness, he was in the open mode so he became curious about why the culture had not grown on this particular dish. And that curiosity, as the world knows, led him to the light bulb — I'm sorry, to penicillin. Now in the closed mode an uncultured dish is an irrelevance. In the open mode, it's a clue.

From Cleese's 1991 "Creativity in Management", transcript here

It is the cultivation of this mode of play that knowledge workers must identify and flex. Carving out this time for play is generative, an example from Paul Graham: "Microsoft and Facebook were both started during Reading Period at Harvard, because that was when the founders had time to work on their own projects."

I am not convinced as Andy suggests that reading retention and note-taking are fundamental skills of knowledge work. What's more I have a suspicion that many knowledge workers over-rely on the act of collecting notes. Too much note taking is pernicious: it feels like doing something, while also giving you an excuse to endlessly delay putting forth your own thoughts until you have all the pieces. Rather than collecting and storing thoughts, the deliberate practice of knowledge, the expression of creativity that comes from play, necessitates sharing nascent and feeble ideas.

In other words, deliberate practice of knowledge work requires testing knowledge, and that is achieved by doing. Note taking is not the under-studied force of knowledge, play is.



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