Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink) has just come out with a new book, Outliers: The Story of Success (which I have just ordered – it was only released two days ago!). The thesis of the book, in the excerpt I read (in the NY Times, I think), is that radical success is more the product of hard work – continual practice – and being in the right place at the right time than it is of talent. Or rather, talent is a prerequsite for remarkable success, but effort is a stronger factor.
Then a friend pointed me at an interesting Scientific American article, which is mostly about analyses of chess grand-masters but which has this neat little tidbit tucked away in the body of the article:
Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player’s progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.
Even the novice engages in effortful study at first, which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say, or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time, so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.
I have occasionally wondered why it is that I progress so quickly in various fields (weaving) and so slowly in others (cycling). I think a lot of it has precisely to do with this idea of effortful study. With weaving, I’m constantly observing, analyzing, and thinking about how to improve, and so have made astounding progress in just two years. With cycling, I tend to be in it for the Zen of riding and so don’t know (and haven’t any interest in learning) about the theory of it. Mike, in just a few months, has long surpassed my knowledge of cycling – because he is engaged in active, effortful study of the subject, and I am not, despite having spent many more hours cycling than he.
This is also related to a concept in teaching (and other fields) called “comfort zone”. You develop a certain degree of competency in the things you typically do, and get used to that. Then, when you pursue a different field, suddenly you’re incompetent again, and because that is emotionally difficult (frustrating, possibility of failure), you relapse back into your comfort zone. This explains why some people are so frightened by learning new things (even in an old field) – because learning is virtually always done outside the comfort zone.
I was lucky enough to be raised by two parents who were research scientists – a profession that more or less requires active, effortful study of a subject – and so got into the habit of reaching ever further mentally. I got trained in the practice of learning. And here is where the two subjects come together. I believe that learning is just like any other skill: the more you practice and study it, the easier it becomes. Further, if you don’t just practice it, but engage in effortful observation of how you learn, with an eye to improving your learning methods, you can actually become an expert in learning: learn to learn things faster than others.
That is, I believe there are useful learning techniques that one can study. When I get frustrated by a failure, I automatically fall back to thinking about what I learned from that failure. I started doing that after having it drilled into me by my parents that there are no failed experiments; a negative result is as valid as a positive one. So my perspective on failure is quite different. I have met many people who feel a failure is a disaster; this holds them back, by keeping them from trying new things. By noticing things that keep you in your comfort zone – that keep you from actively learning – you can analyze what is holding you back and come up with better and faster ways of learning. But most people don’t think of this.
One of the things I do to “keep the razor sharp” is to deliberately step outside my comfort zone on a regular basis. I think of this as being like stretching my muscles before a workout: if you don’t stretch your comfort zone, it tends to tighten up, making using it (stepping out of it) difficult. So I like to delve into areas where I am not an expert, and tend to resist seeing myself as an expert, because to me that hinders learning. I came to this conclusion after effortful study of my learning style.
My final thought on the matter is that the mind is a muscle. If you exercise it, it stays strong, flexible, and adaptable: learning is easy because you are in the habit of learning, you are in the practice of using your mind. If you don’t use it, then it gets soft and flabby, and learning new things is difficult – partly because your comfort zone doesn’t stretch as far, partly because you aren’t accustomed to analyzing and taking in new information – you’re out of practice with effortful study. This combined with a small comfort zone is a deadly combination for learning. Unfortunately, it’s something I see all the time. Because keeping the razor sharp is work, and many people either can’t or won’t invest the energy.
I was lucky enough early on to get good learning skills from my parents, and also (through having been a near-champion math team guru) having done the equivalent of training for the mental Olympics. I am not nearly as obsessive about learning as I used to be (honest!), but those skills have served me very, very well as I plunge into new subjects and deepen my understanding of others. And a lot of that has come from effortful study – not just in a given subject, but in the study of study.