In my last post, I talked about getting the reps to improve oneself on desired skills. But it’s difficult to make the time for practice, especially for deliberate practice where we are always dancing on the edge of failure. And I think that’s where I think Coyle’s observation that coaching is an integral part of talent development comes in.
One of the keys to being able to stay in the productive zone of deliberate practice is to create a tight feedback loop. Deliberate practice is about pushing oneself beyond one’s capability, failing and then figuring out how to do it right. However, a key aspect of this is getting immediate feedback on both failure and on getting it right. My theory is that part of mastery is repeating techniques until they are built into the unconscious part of the brain, and getting to that point requires consistent and useful feedback.
Fast feedback is also essential. Imagine a thought experiment where you had to wait a minute to find out if your previous action had worked or failed – you would never be able to stay in a zone of productivity because in that minute, you’d get distracted, and maybe even start on a different task (this is the experience of software engineers in languages without a REPL). To keep yourself driving forward, and experimenting with new techniques that may or may not work, instant feedback is a necessity. And that’s what a good coach can provide.
Coaches provide the immediate feedback necessary to stay in the mode of deliberate practice. This is especially necessary at the beginning of the path towards mastery, before the student has developed their own self-awareness so they can detect their own errors. Coyle described two researches watching John Wooden coach the UCLA basketball team; they were surprised to find that so little of his communication was in the form of praise or disapproval, but instead 75% was in the form of information transfer. He was watching his players and offering them instant feedback on what they were doing right and wrong. That accelerated their path to mastery, as they did not have to do trial-and-error experimentation to learn what worked and what didn’t.
One key aspect of coaching is that it’s not just objective feedback, but also why things happened. I could learn how to shoot a basketball better by just shooting a lot of baskets, where my objective feedback would be whether I made the basket or not. But when I missed a basket, I wouldn’t know why. And when I made a basket, I wouldn’t know how so I couldn’t repeat it. I would try a number of different things, and only a few of them would work, so I’d be wasting a lot of time in experimentation. However, if I had a coach, they could watch me, tell me what I was doing right, and more importantly, why it worked, so I could start to internalize the correct techniques. My improvement would happen much faster, because I would be able to integrate the “story” of the right way to do things into my self story.
As an aside, I was thinking about this last week during a discussion on a random Google mailing list discussing an ethnographer’s observations about Google in China. A couple engineers were dismissive, saying that objective data was better than these subjective stories. My point was that these stories help us interpret the data – data can tell us that market share is changing or that Chinese users are using instant messenger over Gmail, but social scientists can help tell the story of _why_ these trends are happening.
I think the other aspect of deliberate practice that a coach can help with is in helping with the motivation necessary to stay on the edge of failure. It’s so much easier to keep on doing what we are already good at than it is to consciously decide to do something that we know we’ll fail at. So having somebody there to encourage us to keep going past our existing competencies is helpful. Even in something as prosaic as weightlifting, I will never be as strong as I was in grad school, when I had a lifting partner who would push me to lift more than I thought I could – and it turned out I could do it. Now when I go to the gym, I don’t push myself anywhere near that hard, and therefore am not getting anywhere near the benefits.
Note that both feedback and motivation will eventually be internalized, and have to be internalized if one is to achieve mastery. Once I reach a certain point in skill development, I know what I’m doing right and wrong, and what I have to do to correct my mistakes. I also can get to the point where I don’t need external motivation because I am doing the skill for myself and can see how my practice and mistakes lead to improvement. But, boy, it’s difficult to get there, and having a coach to help with those aspects make it easier, especially at the start.
I realized as I was writing this that one of the challenges for me in my quest to become a generalist is the lack of coaching. There is nobody that can offer me instant feedback on what I’m doing, so I am in the inefficient mode of trial-and-error experimentation. And while I have been fairly committed to this path for several years now, it’s still difficult for me as I have few role models (Jerry Weinberg notwithstanding), and little in the way of formal encouragement. I don’t have a career path that I’m following, and while my position at work is enhanced by my generalist skills, they are not formally recognized, which is frustrating. I’m not sure what to do about this, but perhaps being aware of the difficulty will let me at least address the problems more directly.
Sorry for the long post – I originally had planned to split this post into one on tightening the feedback loop and another on coaching, but I feel like they work better together. Coyle’s framework is a useful way for me to think about these questions of mastery, and it integrates well with my previous thoughts on the subject. It also helps me to recognize that lessons might be the way to get me started on a new skill, rather than beating myself up for not having the discipline to start something on my own. Food for thought.