On Peak Growth

Have you ever felt like you’ve stalled in improving your skills? You reach 20,000 miles driving your car, and you think, “yeah, there’s nothing more I can do to improve my driving skills.” You feel comfortable clocking in at work, mindlessly going through the actions because you’ve done this work a thousand times before, and there’s absolutely nothing that will shock you. I’m not critiquing the boredom one could face droning through work. I’m making an observation that you don’t even notice when you’ve reached a peak in growth.

graph of peak growth

At First, How Much

This week, I read Scott H. Young’s article, “Failures of Intensity”. In the article, Scott argues for skill acquisition advice to be geared towards how much you should do rather than what you should do. Scott mentions there is lack of information about how much time it takes learning a new skill as well as frequency. Almost all advice columns out there are about what to do to learn a new skill.

If I open the top stories on Medium, you’ll find posts titled “These 12 Habits Are Killing Your Productivity”, “Building your design portfolio? Here are 8 things I wish I’d known”, and “How to be like Steve Ballmer”. The last article, it started with the word, “how”, but when you get to the meat of the article, you find out its telling you the “what”, as in “what do you need to do in order to achieve success like Steve Ballmer.” I’m not trashing these articles. I’m sure they’re all a perfectly good read, but Scott was right. They’re focused on telling people the “what” and not of “how much” and “how frequent”.

How much is enough to learn a skill? Last year, I read Josh Kaufman’s book, “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!” Like most books, Josh first breaks down the question of what. For this book, it’s the what of of skill acquisition. But unlike other books, the second half is Josh chronicling the first twenty hours of learning a new skill. He breaks down the first twenty hours of learning yoga, programming, touch typing, the game go, the ukulele, and windsurfing. He learned it wasn’t worth pursuing touch typing after twenty hours, but it was worth pursuing programming a bit further.

What we can learn from Josh is to give new skills a shot. Give yourself a goal or milestone to reach by twenty hours. At the end of the twenty hours, you take a moment of reflection. Do you continue to put more effort in this skill or let it go?

Reflection Points

If you decide to continue with your skill, place checkpoints to review the progress. All too often, we don’t reflect on where we are. If you check in with yourself at fixed time intervals, like every week or every month, you can review the progress you’ve made. Then, you can adjust the frequency of how much more practice you’ll need.

When you don’t have checkpoints for reflecting, you could be comfortable with mediocre skills and stop working on growth. This is especially harmful if you wish to continue growing. I have made this mistake repeatedly. Years into my piano lessons, I’d practice with an automated mind, letting myself play the music without thinking about timing, about playing the correct notes or keeping good form. Bad habits such as finger slip mistakes creeped in and stuck, in other words, I learned to adapt to hearing the bad note. Before I knew it, I wasted a good 100 hours practicing music that didn’t sound great. I stalled on my skills and wasn’t going to improve them with more time spent on practice. I had fallen pray to my autopilot mind.

Flow is the balance between doing a task that is challenging while having a high skill level in that task. Deliberate practice is being in that flow state. Regular practice regards all practice, whether deliberate or not. I won’t talk much about flow, as that was the topic of a previous post. If you find yourself in that stalled funk, here are a few tips to help you get out.

Work on something new. In piano practice, this is as easy as playing a new song in a new genre. Last month, I found my fingers tired and sore trying to play improv salsa. It was a genre I hadn’t tackled before, and by the end of my practice, I remembered what a beginner felt like.

Write about the process. This past week, I started using Vim as a text editor. After a year of using Sublime and Atom, I put those aside and took two hours to go through a tutorial called vimtutor. The tutorial taught me the basics of how to use Vim. At the end of the tutorial, I wrote up a piece about my experience with the tutorial, mainly to help myself with what I learned, but with a bonus side effect that it may help someone else just starting out with Vim.

Reflect with a teacher. Whenever I feel I’m not challenged enough, I talk to a teacher, a boss, or a mentor who has a higher skill level. Talking to someone with a higher skill level, you may be able to extract what you could do next. I was at a data visualization unconference two weekends ago and people I talked to pointed me to bunch of new programs to sharpen my toolset.

Be the teacher. If you know the skill well enough, you should be able to teach it to others. A lot of times, you won’t know there’s gaps in your knowledge or skill until you have to teach it to someone else. It makes you reflect on being the beginner again. During Thanksgiving, I tried to teach my 8 year old cousin how to play a 14 and up card game. When I was explaining the rules to my cousin, I used large words he couldn’t understand. Looking at my cousin’s dumbfounded face, I realized I’m still terrible throwing away large words in favor of shorter ones a 8 year old could understand. Reflecting on this situation, I need to work on communicating more clearly to children.

While I’ve recommended this book in the past, it’s a great book to recommend again. “Pragmatic Thinking & Learning. Refactor Your Wetware” by Andy Hunt has more tips about getting out of the rut.

Remember skill acquisition takes time, and you should focus on the journey rather than the destination. Perhaps twenty hours utilizing one of these tips might just be what you need to grow into the master you wish to become.