A few weeks ago, I wrote an email where I stated “You get results from what you pay attention to.” I was actually talking about management, but I am realizing that the statement applies in all aspects of life. It sounds banal, almost trite, but capitalizing on this assumption require discipline and focus.
My personal experience is that the behavior of managers informs their employees as to the values of the company. No matter what the vision statement says, it is day-to-day behavior that matters. Even if the avowed goal is to create the highest quality product, when managers spend every meeting asking about reducing cost, their employees will focus on cost reduction. If a manager asks their team every week about the status of project A and never mentions project B, which project will the team be working on? This was the point I was trying to make when I wrote that original email. This is something I want to remember when I am a manager, that my employees will concentrate on the things I show interest in – if I want something to get done, I have to convey its importance to them, and be able to prioritize their efforts so that I am not asking them for several conflicting goals.
Wes’s comment on my amateur post started me thinking about the wider implications of this statement. He said “I have also observed that Iâ€™m only truly good at things I truly love, because those are the things I enjoy doing even when thereâ€™s no one paying me to do them.” That comment helped me make the connection between my observation about management and previous thoughts on passion. We pay attention to the things we love doing, the things that deeply matter to us. For me to get good at something, I have to love doing it. That post from last year explained that part of the reason I was leaving programming was that I didn’t have passion for it, and because of that, I was never going to be great at it.
So let’s start picking up the implications of the idea that improving at something requires paying attention to it. David Shenk’s blog mentions the concept of deliberate practice, which he describes as follows:
“Deliberate practice” is qualitatively different from ordinary experience. In ordinary experience, an individual is exposed to certain task demands, spends time attaining proficiency at that task and then plateaus, more or less satisfied with his/her level of competence. Under these passive circumstances, more time spent with the same task after the plateau will not significantly increase skill-level. The skill level becomes autonomous and stable. In contrast, under a regime of deliberate practice, the individual is never quite satisfied and is always pushing a little bit beyond his/her capability, actively and incrementally expanding that capability. (Ericsson, 2006, chapter 38).
Practicing to get better is different that just practicing. To get better, we have to identify our weaknesses and attack them. We have to pick areas on which to focus. It requires a reflective quality, where we think about why we were not able to achieve what we wanted, and what we can change next time to achieve that goal. It can be painful and frustrating, but that’s what it takes to achieve greatness.
I can think of several examples from my personal history. I tend to reach plateaus in my skill set because I fail to practice deliberately. For instance, in ultimate frisbee, I just get out there and have fun running around and have hit a plateau because of it. Because I’ve never been part of a team, I’ve never done the deliberate drill work necessary to improve my skills to the next level. And having done exactly such work on tennis and volleyball teams in the past, I know what is required, but have not been willing to put in that level of effort. To get really good at something, I would have to endure the pain and drudgery of drills and deliberate practice to break through to the next level of mastery rather than dilettante. But instead my tendency is to move on to the next activity to get back to the low effort/high return portion of the learning curve.
This self-reflective quality of deliberate practice is essential for managers as well. I’m reading Gerald Weinberg’s Becoming a Technical Leader on the recommendation of a friend, and Weinberg’s test on whether you are ready to become a leader is to spend five minutes a day writing in a personal journal. I was initially taken aback, but he describes the experiences of others who were similarly skeptical, and how it ended up helping them. So I’m going to try to keep to that, and taking the concept of deliberate practice into account, I’m going to try to focus on things that I have not done well that I would like to improve, and ideas that I have encountered about management that I would like to remember. Because it’s personal and deliberately short, I think I will have more success with it than with my occasional efforts to write a daily blog post.
A classmate introduced a similar concept to me. He keeps a personal scorecard of the various aspects of his life and career, and each week he rates himself on how he is doing on those aspects. It forces him to be quantitative on the progress that he is making, and to reflect deliberately on his priorities and the implicit choices he is making on where he is spending his time. It lets him identify when he’s hit the plateau and decide how he should attack it. He’s used it several times in the past to identify when he’s gotten all he’s going to get out of a job and move on.
So I’m going to be thinking about these concepts. Figure out where I want to be getting results, and therefore what I should be paying attention to. Spend time on self-reflection in order to identify areas of improvement, and then determine how I can use deliberate practice to attack those deficiences. Of course, the problem is that it requires self-discipline to do all of these things and that’s one of the areas of improvement. So we’ll see how things go.