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The studies on learning and mastery are clear. You don’t get better or achieve mastery at a skill by just practicing the same thing repeatedly.
You also won’t get better by just reading.
Neither is mastery solely the fruit of talent and innate ability.
These are all myths.
What we know for sure is that getting better at any skill requires taking the right approach to learning and practicing.
But, what’s this right approach?
Before delving into the actual science of mastery, I’d like to point out that this article is mostly focused on how to master soft skills — but the principle applies to learning just about anything.
I have also chosen to explain the principle from a developer’s perspective.
How does a developer/engineer go from just being a technical lord to mastering soft skills necessary for an impactful career?
Mind you, the principle discussed is just as effective for any other profession. Do you have a job and what to get better at soft skills?
Please read on as well.
The next section highlights the key to mastering anything — with soft skills being the moot point.
The Principle of Deliberate Practice
“When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.” — Ray Allen, ten-time All-Star in the NBA.
Anders Ericsson has made it his life’s work to study the science of expert achievers in almost every given field of endeavour.
As he says in his book, Peak, this new field seeks to understand the abilities of “expert performers”, that is, people who are among the best in the world at what they do, who have reached the very peak of performance.
If you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours rule, then you’ve interacted with the learnings from Anders life work.
In his book, Peak: secrets from the new science of expertise, Anders debunks the 10,000 rule.
Merely practicing the same thing over and over for 10,000 hours won’t necessarily bring you mastery.
However, Anders sheds light on what he considers the single most important strategy for mastering any skill: Deliberate Practice.
The brain, even the adult brain, is much more adaptable than most people think. With the right training, anyone can create skills that did not exist before.
So, what is deliberate practice, and how does it differ from the regular practice you and I are probably used to?
Deliberate practice is the sort of practice which meets the following requirements:
- Have a clear specific goal
- Stay focused and constantly push yourself to achieve more
- For true growth, make sure you receive feedback after every practice attempt
- Be guided by a coach, trainer or mentor.
In the age of the internet, it’s my opinion that you can fulfil requirements 3 and 4 without having an actual person guide you. I’ll show you how.
So, how does this help you master soft skills as a developer, or any other professional?
I’ll now mention that there are many ways one could choose to deliberately practice.
However, the suggestion I make in the following section is perfect if you consider yourself a “busy” person and may not find it easy to squeeze out extra hours for some deliberate practice.
What if there was a way to deliberately practice on the job?
What if you could master soft skills while going about your regular day to day work?
Deliberate Practice on the Job
The solution is simple, yet not so obvious…
You should look for opportunities throughout your typical day in which you can convert your normal developer/company activities into activities for deliberate practice.
Let’s have a look at a process most developers are familiar with.
Let’s say you’ve got a friend named Emily.
Emily’s goal as an engineer is to write better, more expressive code.
Hopefully, Emily gets a job at a progressive company like mine, and from there, here’s what typically happens:
- Emily is assigned a new task within her team of other talented engineers
- She takes the time to work on this task (a form of problem-solving practice).
- When completed, her written code is reviewed by her peers before considered ‘done’ and merged to production.
This process is typically called Peer Review. A process which when rightly done, and under the right atmosphere of growth may serve as a form of “feedback after practice”. The kind required for steady growth.
Notice how it can incorporate the core pillars of deliberate practice.
- Emily has a clear goal — to write clean code.
- Emily solves given tasks with focus and constantly pushes herself to write cleaner code.
- Emily receives feedback about the code she’s written from one or more peers.
What’s lacking here is, Emily doesn’t have a coach or guide. A way out of this is to purchase books or videos that discuss clean code architectures and apply the principles. If she does this, the book’s author becomes a pseudo guide.
There it is. Deliberately practicing on the job.
During the peer review, If Emily had used some bad practices or obsolete technologies, someone on her team is gonna catch that and request a change.
Typically, Emily would either have a conversation about her chosen methods or go back to make the required changes suggested after the review.
Unknown to Emily, this is a great example of converting your normal developer activities into one for deliberate practice. Instead of just writing code for the sake of getting the job done, you can be more intentional with it.
When done with clarity and focus, you can learn to write better code as an Engineer just by doing this.
What happens is you end up learning (and achieving mastery) while still getting your work done at the office!
If you get a difficult task assigned to you, you’re forced to learn on the job. In the end, you also get valuable feedback from your peers.
You may argue all you want, but the science is clear on the subject. If you are not getting effective feedback on your practice sessions, you limit how much you can improve on any skill.
Deliberate practice is the type of feedback-driven practice that leads to true improvement, and consequently, mastery.
A retrospective analysis of your actions while performing a skill should not be ignored. Over time, the effect of the regular feedback will kick in and your overall performance will be improved.
How could you apply this principle to mastering a soft skill like public speaking?
Well, easy enough! The answer remains the same: look for opportunities where you can convert your normal developer/company activities into activities for deliberate practicing public speaking.
Here’s an example.
First, what’s a normal developer/company activity that gets you to speak to a group of people — no matter how small?
Well, this is going to differ from company to company, but here’s a few scenarios that may be common.
1. Team status report meetings
This could be a daily stand-up meeting or just a regular status report meeting done on a regular basis to keep everyone on your team in sync.
2. Company wide presentations
You may have meetings where you’re required to present work done by your team to other peers and perhaps stakeholders. This sort of meeting is called many names e.g. All-hands meetings, Information sharing meetings etc.
3. Team learn days
A particular time of the week where your team sets apart time to learn something. Usually someone presents a subject of interest to the whole team.
Regardless of the meeting type, the goal is to look through your weekly or monthly calendar for opportunities that require you to speak or present to people other than yourself.
Once you find such activities, you then strategise to turn these activities into deliberate-practice driven activities.
1. Have a clear specific goal
For starters, your goal might be simple e.g. to communicate clearly and be understood by everyone.
This may be great if for example, you’re not a native English speaker but are required to present in English. In this case, your goal could be to speak with enough confidence — regardless of how well you think you speak English.
2. Make sure you receive feedback after every practice attempt
You’re going to need some help here.
If you’re presenting to your team mates, you can ask them for their objective feedback.
You want to make sure the feedback you receive particularly targets the goal you have. For example, if my goal were to speak without making grammatical errors, I’d ask the native speakers in the team to give me specific feedback on whether I spoke bad English. I’d also let them point out these mistakes so I can work on them.
Remember, feedback-driven practice is the best kind of practice. Don’t ignore it.
If you also have a manager or team leader who also happens to be present in these meetings, then you’re in luck! Managers are usually concerned with the growth of their team members and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to give you feedback to help your grow.
3. Constantly push yourself to achieve more
You must take every feedback you receive and strive not to make the same mistakes twice.
You must constantly push your goal a little more.
Stretch yourself and make sure you aren’t taking a nap in your comfort zone.
4. Be guided by a coach, trainer or mentor.
This is usually the hardest part when you’re learning on your own i.e being self-taught.
If you can, get a coach, trainer or mentor. They bring incredible value to the table.
However, if you can’t afford one, look for something to guide you. You may have to find training materials to guide you. This way you’re sure to practice the required skills to achieve your goal.
Don’t assume you know what to practice. Get a guide. People who have devoted years to the study of the skill and have probably written informative guides in the form of books.
There are lots of authorities on public speaking.
Get a book and note the most important skills to practice to become an effective speaker.
Devise a plan and get on with it!
If you do these continuously, without taking for granted any of the main principles of deliberate practice, you’ll find yourself growing incredibly.
How about other soft skills such as empathy and team work?
Yes, same answer: look for opportunities where you can convert your normal developer/company activities into deliberate practice activities for empathy and team work.
How about communication skills such as writing? The answer remains the same.
Regardless of the soft skill you want to master, the answer remain the same.
Look for opportunities where you can convert your normal developer/company activities into deliberate practice activities.
Conclusion: why this method works
If you think about the principle of deliberate practice, it becomes apparent why the system works.
It is focused on doing!
Traditionally, most people attempt to learn a new skill by acquiring “more knowledge”.
Sadly, more knowledge by itself doesn’t get you to mastery.
For example, reading 10 books on React and State Management doesn’t mean I’ve mastered the concept — not without building applications that require me to apply my newly found knowledge.
There’s a reason you put your years of experience NOT amount of books read on your resume!
What you’re able to do, or have done, NOT what you think you know is what truly counts, and deliberate practice forces you to “do”.
Personally, I believe the hiring yardstick of a person’s “years of experience” is slightly flawed, but that’s a conversation for another day. You don’t gain expertise from just experience alone as well.
Deliberate practice focuses on actual performance and how you improve it. If you want to learn public speaking, the goal is to practice speaking NOT just read on how to speak.
Even with a lot of knowledge, you still have to practice the skill — a lot, or you’d never achieve mastery.
Don’t focus on knowledge at the expense of skill.
Choose deliberate practice.
Look for opportunities where you can convert your normal developer/company activities into activities for deliberate practice.