How do we get better at our jobs? Practice, practice, practice …
by Steve Kuo
I’ve asked this question a lot over the last few years to a wide range of professionals across different occupations and get similar answers. We can read, take classes, attend seminars, find a mentor, or attend conferences. If I change up the question slightly and ask, “How would you get better at sport or playing a musical instrument?”, an overwhelming majority of people answer very differently, with the primary way of getting better as practice. I’ll avoid the obvious follow-on question of “Why don’t we practice?” by inviting you to talk with me in person and let’s have that discussion and move onto some ways that I’ve found to make effective practice an easy tool that fits into our everyday professional lives.
I’ll go out on a limb and hazard a guess that we all know how to practice. We’ve all done it in some way, shape or form in our past. Mostly in school we learned by practicing. We practiced using our brain (math, spelling, history to name a few) and our bodies (any type of sport or something like tying our shoes). A few professions actually claim it in what they do when they “practice medicine” or “practice law”, but that’s a different definition of the word practice we are using here. Here, we are talking about doing an activity or action deliberately so that we can get better at it over time. More importantly, how we can apply this skill to allow us to get better at what we do in our everyday adult life.
I’m going to get detailed about software development, but an insightful reader should be able to see how this can apply outside of programming to just about any other skill or profession you’d like to get better at.
The last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how we get better at what we do and trying many different ways to improve myself and what I do. I’ve woven three different concepts into a successful practice philosophy and structured learning environment that I personally use on myself and to mentor/facilitate others with. (1) Deliberate practice is essential for effective skill acquisition. (2) An individual must also be open and receptive to the practice as defined by the Learning-Performing Distinction theory of Behaviorism. (3) An individual needs to gain proficiency in a skill and then strive to achieve fluency with the skill to become a truly skilled practitioner. It all starts with practice, practice, practice…
In the recent past, I heard my son’s piano teacher say to my son:
Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
I’m not sure if my son’s piano teacher really knows what this means, but I am certain my son has heard me define it to him. Deliberate Practice is defined by K. Anders Ericsson in his paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. In his paper, he states very clearly: If you want to become an expert, you must practice. Not just practice though, but deliberate and intentional practice in a very structured way. He defines deliberate practice very precisely as (paraphrased):
- There must be motivation to attend
- The person attending must exert effort to improve performance
- The exercise should consider preexisting knowledge
- Feedback needs to be immediate and informative
- The person should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks
Deliberate Practice is great and I’ve seen individuals and teams improve with this alone, but there needs to be more to be layered in and teased out from his definition of intentional practice.
Here’s where a Behavioral Psychology’s theory of Learning-Performance Distinction comes into play. The Learning-Performance Distinction talks about how the human brain has two very distinct modes, learning and performing. When the brain is one of those two modes, it doesn’t do the other very well. This has to do with a range of different things including the human need to accomplish things and when they are trying to accomplish something if it’s OK to fail or must they just succeed. If you are going to be practicing improving something an individual must be in a safe environment where he’s allowed and encouraged to fail, while also not being expected to produce and perform.
It’s also not just about learning how to do something. When we talk about how skilled someone is with a skill, like language, we can talk about it in a couple of ways. We can say that someone is proficient with the language and that they are fluent with a language. There’s a lot to say about knowing the structure, spelling, and the vocabulary of a language, but as anyone who’s studied a foreign language for a time and then tried to ask directions, order dinner or find the restroom in that country for the first time, fluency matters. Fluency is being skilled and familiar enough with something that when under pressure to perform a person uses that skill without thinking. In the software world, someone who is fluent with Test Driven Development wouldn’t have to restrain themselves from writing a test first, they’d just do it out of habit…aka fluency.
These three techniques/concepts individually help to improve skill acquisition. When I facilitate learning sessions you can see how I have incorporated Ericsson’s rules for deliberate practice, the Theory of Learning-Performance Distinction and recognizing the difference between building proficiency/creating fluency. I have incorporated these concepts into how I guide others in helping them practice and get better at what they do. I, in fact, apply these techniques in my own self practice that better allows me to “practice more perfectly” and spend my practice time more efficiently. I started this discussion asking about would you go about getting better at your job. To which almost everyone replies, by gaining knowledge. I hope that today I’ve allowed for an opportunity for you to not only gain some knowledge and proficiency, but also given you insights into how you can attain fluency and gain mastery of new skills that you are trying to learn.
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