I recently read Cal Newport’s latest offering, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, and had so many thoughts, that I had to try to sort them out on paper. The book is definitely worth reading, even for those who are relatively secure in their career path and are confident they have it all mapped out.
I had a few insights, and will try to put them down in a few posts.
Cal writes about deliberate practice, a method by which you basically improve your skill in a given endeavour. I’ve read two books on the topic, and am already very familiar with the idea. Cal underscores the point that deliberate practise is meant to be uncomfortable, that it is important to go through that process to increase skill. And I thought to myself, this means that if I find something uncomfortable, that’s simply because I haven’t developed the skill yet. And when I do, it will no longer be uncomfortable.
So the point I'm making here is very different from the point made by Cal Newport. He states (or rather the research literature has discovered) that in order to improve a skill we have to go out of our comfort zone, stretch ourselves. I’ve read this before, and this is why improving a skill isn’t easy. However, the corollary to this of course is that if you’re doing something, and its difficult or uncomfortable, that means you are stretching your abilities and becoming better at whatever you are doing. This may sound obvious, but in some contexts it may not be so.
We don’t need to be world-class at all skills. In some situations you may need to simply learn how to do if efficiently and effectively, and then it’s important that the skill becomes automatic, that you don’t need to think too much about it. The classic example of this is driving. Learning to drive is initially difficult, but most people get to a point where they can carry on conversations or plan the dinner menu in their head whilst driving (not that I think being distracted being the wheel is advisable).
For me, this insight, that the discomfort in applying a skill is only temporary till I have gotten the hang of it, or mastered it as such, means I am much more likely to hang on in a new skill till I’ve gotten to this point of basic mastery. A prime example recently has been cooking. I know a lot of people love to cook, and I used to be among those when I cooked occasionally, with a lot of help, and only made special dishes. Cooking was fun then, but also an elaborate affair taking many hours, and necessitating lots of clean-up after the mess I made in the kitchen. Recently however, I have had to take over the everyday cooking for my family, with the added requirement of making healthy, low-fat dishes for a new eating program I had started. And initially it was too hard. I could easily cook everyday dishes like pasta, but that wasn’t on the eating plan. Instead I had to make soups, salads, stir-frys, meat dishes with less oil and less processed sauces. And these all had to taste good, because I am an incredibly fussy eater, and far more inclined to eat toast than salad.
Long story short, it was hard; I tried many things, but not only were most of my dishes just ok, they took ages to prepare, and I was feeling very discouraged. When I read this book I realised that maybe this meant I was still developing my skill, and just had to keep at it a little while longer. And although I'm not really a pro yet, I have recently found a few simple and delicious dishes to add to my repertoire that don’t really take as long as before. These were ones I came up with, or variations to recipes I found, that I could only make as my skill developed.
So what’s the point of this story? I have no intention of competing for Masterchef any time soon, when I think about developing skill, cooking doesn’t even make it to the top 5 list. But my goal is to make quick, healthy, tasty dishes. So I had to develop my skills to a certain point. And that’s where the concept of deliberate practise came in – simply by hanging in there, trying new things, riding out the wave of discomfort, I got to a point where I am a good enough cook to achieve my goal. I am still trying to improve my efficiency, to the point where cooking seems to me really easy. Notice how Cal’s goal is to make things harder, to stretch to improve a skill you already have, to hone it further. Yet my goal is to make things easier, to hone a skill I don’t have yet to a point where I don’t have to think about it, it doesn’t stress me out.
If you’re reading this, how can this insight help you? Think of something you need to learn to do, or something you are already doing, or have maybe given up – because its too difficult, it takes too much time and you decided this isn’t something I'm good at. It maybe cooking like me, or learning to make presentations at work, or sorting through your paperwork. If it feels difficult, keep at it, keep trying different strategies till it feels easier. It will feel easier. At which point you can add this skill to your list of things you do automatically, and move on.
What new skill / habit can you make easier for yourself?