The Startup
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The Startup

It’s a Skill-Based World

The workplace is changing. Who’s ready?

Photo by Branko Stancevic on Unsplash

When I was growing up, my dad always told me to take the lessons I learned from basketball and apply them to life. It was hard to fathom life after basketball as a kid, so it wasn’t until years later that his words sunk in. One critical lesson I learned from my basketball days was how not to practice.

As a basketball player looking to improve, I followed the conventional attitude toward skill-building: put in thousands of hours to become really good. I practiced relentlessly on my own, with dreams of playing in college. Years of repetition — playing up to eight games on a weekend and shooting baskets for hours — helped to a point.

However, my skills plateaued when I was a junior in high school. Frustrated, I poured more time into practice, but that didn’t help. In the end, I played one year of college basketball before deciding to hang up my laces.

Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, my practice approach neglected several critical aspects needed for improvement. I came to this realization a few years later when I decided to become a professional writer, and needed to build my writing skills.

We all know that skills are important. But what’s rarely addressed is how to build them properly, since most of us go about it all wrong, as I did with basketball. Since the workplace is becoming more skill-based, we need to know how to build skills the right way.

The Right Way to Practice: Deliberately

In his book Peak, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson tells the story of how Benjamin Franklin created exercises to help himself write better. For example, in one exercise Franklin found an article from The Spectator, a British magazine that he admired, and jotted down short descriptions of each sentence. After several days Franklin tried to rewrite the article based on his descriptions.

Then, he compared his version to the original article and made revisions. “This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently,” Ericsson concludes. Instead of repeatedly writing articles for the sake of writing articles, he concentrated on one aspect of writing, using The Spectator for feedback. This practice inspired more exercises to improve other aspects of his craft.

Franklin’s practice method underscores several essential elements of deliberate practice — a term Ericsson uses to describe the type of practice needed to develop expertise. Deliberate practice is all about skill development. It’s a fully-focused, conscious effort that takes you out of your “comfort zone,” centers on a specific goal, and “demands near-maximal effort.” In other words, you’re not going through the motions doing something that comes easy or natural. “The hallmark of . . . deliberate practice,” Ericsson writes, “is that you try to do something you cannot do.”

Feedback is critical to deliberate practice, so you can learn from and correct your errors. For Franklin, feedback came from comparing his version of the article to the original. A contemporary example is artist Kate Leigh Cutler, who regularly participates in art critiques. It’s a practice the New Jersey-based artist has been doing for some twenty-five years. “Critiques are important because that’s how I learn,” she says.

Research on doctors’ performance over time further underscores how important feedback is. Contrary to what we’d expect, “physicians who have been in practice longer may be at risk for providing lower-quality care,” according to a 2005 review in Annals of Internal Medicine. However, a certain type of doctor — a surgeon — does get better with experience. The reason, Ericsson points out, is feedback: “Surgery is different from most other areas of medicine in that many problems are immediately apparent, such as a rupture of a blood vessel or damage to tissue.” In contrast, a family doctor could misdiagnose the same illness time and again because there’s nothing alerting him of his mistake.

Working with a coach or teacher is another integral part of deliberate practice. They identify problems and offer instruction and feedback. Although we may think coaching is reserved for athletes and musicians, professionals across industries, from sales to programming to writing, also use them. The Spectator filled this role for Franklin, as he compared his version of the article to the original. The idea is that over time students “learn to monitor themselves,” to find and fix errors, which requires “effective mental representations.”

From Novice to Expert

A mental representation, as Ericsson calls it, is “a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else . . . that the brain is thinking about.” For example, when someone talks about Vincent van Gogh’s painting “The Starry Night,” you may “see” the swirling blue sky that dominates the background and the sun in the far-right corner. Mental representations applied to skill-building work in a similar way.

A quarterback with refined mental representations sees openings for potential plays, whereas a novice sees athletes randomly running on a field, tackling each other. A writer sees how words shape sentences and how sentences structure paragraphs, while a novice just sees a bunch of words on a page. After years of practice, you can develop “complex” representations of the different situations in your field. “The more [Franklin] practiced, the more highly developed his mental representations became,” writes Ericsson, “until he could write at the level of The Spectator without having a concrete example in front of him.” Over time, you can “make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.”

Josh Waitzkin, who excelled at chess and the Chinese martial art Tai Chi Chuan, credits a similar technique for his success.

Waitzkin began playing chess in Washington Square Park in New York City, and “became a protégé of the street,” he recounts in his book, The Art of Learning. He soon dominated the professional chess world, too, winning the National Chess Championship as a nine-year-old and becoming an International Master at sixteen. Then, at age twenty-one, he began to study Tai Chi Chuan. In just a matter of years he was winning national and world championships in his division. “What I am best at is not Tai Chi,” Waitzkin writes, “and it is not chess — what I’m best at is the art of learning.”

He suggests concentrating intently on a specific technique for a period time to “gradually internalize the knowledge.” For example, he “focused on small movements, sometimes spending hours moving [his] hand out a few inches, then releasing it back.” This process results in a “refined, nuanced understanding” of a concept that gets ingrained into the subconscious mind, which is referenced quickly and automatically. He calls this way of practicing “Making Smaller Circles.”

“Making Smaller Circles” is a starting point for “advanced learning and action,” says Waitzkin. Franklin, once again, is a great example. He created a poetry-writing exercise to help his vocabulary recall while writing, Ericsson explains, followed by another one that focused on the “structure and logic” of his prose. We can apply this principle to our professional lives today. A salesperson attends a Toastmasters group to polish his public speaking skills. Then, he focuses on data analysis: learning how to read data to improve sales. The point is to break down a skill into small pieces and focus diligently on them.

A Culture of Now

If deliberate practice is the secret sauce to becoming an expert, why don’t more people do it? Three reasons seem plausible. First, it takes a lot of time and hard work to engage in a rigorous practice session like Franklin’s, and most people aren’t willing to put in the time or effort.

Second, the demands of deliberate practice deviate from our culture of “now.” Want to be entertained? Surf the internet. Want the latest gossip? Scan social media feeds. Want to book a trip? Use any number of apps on your smartphone. Many people treat skill-building the same way: learn it fast, learn it now. Instead of focusing on the best way to learn a skill, they default to the quick-fix approach. This trend is endemic in today’s workplace.

Bosses send employees to conferences, workshops, and camps so they can learn how to sell, write, or public speak in a few days or weeks. Bootcamps are particularly popular. Many lure attendees by promising they’ll learn to program or become a data scientist in just weeks. But Chi-chi Wang, a lead JavaScript engineer, points out that “bootcamps, like video tutorials and college courses, are only a starting point.” He’s right. Thinking like a programmer doesn’t happen overnight.

A third possibility is that deliberate practice runs counter to the widely-accepted wisdom that we need to put in thousands and thousands of hours toward a skill to be an “expert,” or so the argument goes. I fell victim to this mentality as a basketball player, and found it didn’t work. To be clear, you’ll definitely put in the hours with deliberate practice — it is not a hack. But it takes the right type of practice to be an expert: going through the motions to hit a magic number won’t cut it.

Yet society won’t have it any other way. It’s why people choose the professional with decades of experience. But research shows that even experience has its limits.

Years of practice can help you improve up to a point. Shoot enough baskets and you’ll probably sharpen your game. In general, however, “once a person reaches that level of ‘acceptable’ performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement,” Ericsson says regarding research on the topic. In fact, he adds, it could make them a bit worse because “automated abilities” slowly worsen without “deliberate efforts” aimed at advancement.

As working professionals, deliberate practice matters because skills matter — and they’re playing a big role in today’s workplace. Most of us have misdirected our efforts for far too long, and that needs to change since building skills repeatedly is the future of work.

The Changing Workplace

Joe Mastey, an independent technology consultant and speaker, makes skill-building a priority for his own career. Although he’s been programming for nearly fifteen years, he follows a rigorous plan for improvement: he writes code “with a business-oriented goal in mind,” learns new “programming techniques,” and explores the latest technologies. And that’s just for programming. He’s also learning Japanese, and spends several hours each week practicing his language skills.

Mastey builds skills not only because he has to, but also because he wants to. It’s essential to continuously learn in programming, he says, “or you’ll be left behind.” He’s also “more engaged with work and with life when . . . learning new things.” Professionals today are taking control of their careers by repeatedly building skills on their own time and dime, but why?

From New York to India, the workplace is being transformed in two major ways. First, advances in technology pose a threat to jobs. By 2020 about five million human workers will be displaced due to “AI, robotics, nanotechnology and other socio-economic factors,” according to the World Economic Forum. “If technology doesn’t eliminate or change the skills you need . . . it at least enables more people from around the world to compete for your job,” argue Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha in their book, The Start-up of You. And yet the hype about outsourcing jobs is rivaled by “botsourcing:” defined as “the replacement of human jobs by robots.”

Many predict that new jobs will emerge as others are lost due to AI, and we need to be ready. “Skills like persuasion, social understanding, and empathy are going to become differentiators as artificial intelligence and machine learning take over our other tasks,” says Harvard Business Review.

The second change is the booming millennial generation. Millennials are already the largest generation alive in America, and will make up more than a third of the workforce worldwide by 2020, according to ManpowerGroup. With a new generation comes new values. “Their strong desire for development is, perhaps, the greatest differentiator between them and all other generations in the workplace,” reports Gallup. They’re willing to put their personal time and money toward it, too.

Together, these changes intensify workplace competition and put a premium on continuous skill development.

Skills Matter

Skill-building has practical benefits. For one, skilled employees need to keep up with consumer expectations, explains Wang. Consumers count on “sleeker and more robust experiences,” which means employees need to sharpen their skills to “keep up with these demands.” iPhone users can relate. Each year they anticipate the release of a new iPhone — trusting each version is better than the previous one.

For another, skill-building gives you new ways of problem-solving, says Ozzy Chagatai, a full stack engineer. “Learning skills, especially those that are outside of the ones you need to perform your work, gives you a new perspective.” In fact, he tries to focus on skills that he doesn’t “get a chance to improve” upon at his day job.

Developing new skills can also help prepare you for future roles. Jeff Hoffman, Chief Development Officer and Partner at Havas Health & You, a health and wellness network, admits that he “can’t keep up this pace forever,” referring to his current role. He’s preparing for the future by becoming a certified coach in the pharmaceutical industry. To build his skill-set, he keeps up with technology, increases his industry knowledge, and teaches entrepreneurship and leadership classes.

Skill-building isn’t just about the job, however. Franklin and Waitzkin, along with the individuals interviewed for this article, reveal another motivation: the desire to learn. Wang says his main motivation is learning concepts he finds “fun and challenging,” adding that the day he has “nothing more to learn is the day [he’s] done doing [web development] for a living.” For Chagatai, it’s “continuous improvement” for himself and his craft. And at 77 years old, artist Kate Leigh Cutler is still looking to improve, and sees skill-building “as a process, not an end.” She’s currently focused on a technique that combines the emotional tenors found in Mark Rothko’s paintings with J.M.W. Turner’s stunning atmospheric effects.

They’re on to something. “Expert performers . . . feel a tremendous sense of personal accomplishment from pushing themselves to develop new skills,” writes Ericsson in Peak. “It is as if they are on a constantly stimulating journey . . . because there are always new challenges and opportunities.” He’s right. As I use deliberate practice to improve my writing skills, I’m finding the process to be both stimulating and fulfilling. And that’s another lesson I learned from my basketball days: enjoy the journey.

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