This is Part 3 of a four part series on learning. Be sure to also check out the intro, part 1, and part 2.
At the end of Part 2: The Final Draft Fallacy, I shared the following formula:
High Impact Learning = Growth Mindset + Strategy + Discipline
Parts 1 and 2 were about the growth mindset part of this equation.
This post is about strategy and discipline.
Wednesday night chess and drinking with my best friend and occasional adversary.
Strategy and discipline are important to call out, because we live in a society where unfocused effort is praised and rewarded far too often.
Yes, effort is good, but it's not enough.
When we don't see improvement, all too often our answer is to try harder, rather than to try different.
We are doing an entire generation of children a disservice by simply praising their effort.
Working hard on ineffective tasks is worse than not working at all.
We need to praise our kids and our students and our employees and our partners not just for more effort, but for better strategies.
Classic example: Have you ever had that friend who couldn't find a job, and all they had to say was "well I just need to start sending out my resume to even more places!"
Sorry people - that's called doubling down on a losing strategy. And the only thing that happens when you increase the frequency of a losing strategy is lose more frequently.
Instead, we must learn to recognize what the world is telling us, and adjust our approach.
Learning Strategy #1: Seek and Embrace Feedback.
Feedback comes from lots of places.
But most of all it comes from doing, not thinking.
For almost all of my life I have been an over-analyzer. I was naive and thought I could simply think my way to a good strategy. "If I break this down correctly in my head" I told myself "then I can figure out the best approach."
Well after a while young Peter learned that wasn't actually the case.
I've been lucky to have role models who have taught me the power of thinking by doing.
You can only get so far in your head, then you have to test your strategy in the real world, pay attention to the feedback you receive (from customers, your partner, your body, your prospective employers, etc.) and then iterate.
Why do you think world class performers have coaches?
Because instant, objective feedback is the lifeforce of high impact learning.
Not all of us can afford coaches (though if you can, you should highly consider it, no matter your field), but all of us can learn to be better at seeking, noticing, and responding to feedback loops.
Learning Strategy #2: Bias Toward Breadth over Depth
You only live once. And not for very long.
The universe is big and beautiful and there is so much to explore.
My basic philosophy is to invest time and energy in 1 or 2 key areas at a time. But beyond that I bias toward breadth over depth because the opportunity cost of over-specialization is fairly high.
For those one or two high impact areas, I shoot to reach the 95th percentile. Going from the top 5% to the top 0.5% requires extreme dedication and sacrifice, which I am not willing to make at the expense of learning and experiencing so many other things.
And for everything else beyond those high impact areas, the question is, how deep should you go? That's up to you. Everyone is different.
For me - I like to keep digging on a given topic until I meet the following conditions:
- I can articulate (and ideally sympathize with) multiple perspectives.
- It's gray and fuzzy, not black and white.
- I realize how little I know. (The paradox of learning is the more you know, the more you know you don't know).
So go deep enough, but remember that specialization is for insects.
Another reason I advocate for breadth is because there is magic at the intersection of topics.
But more on that in the next post.
Learning Strategy #3: Deliberate Practice
Let's revisit the our learning formula:
High Impact Learning = Growth Mindset + Strategy + Discipline
This final tactic is the discipline part of the equation.
Over the past few years, the concept of "deliberate practice" has hit the mainstream.
According to psychology researcher Anders Ericsson, who popularized the term, deliberate practice is one of the keys to becoming a world class learner. And if you become a world class learner, you can become great at anything on which you choose to focus.
Ericsson describes deliberate practice as an "activity designed ... for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual's performance."
Basically - it means identifying your weaknesses, and then making a plan to address them head on through rigorous, repetitive, painful practice.
Yes, deliberate practice requires a certain amount of pain, and thus discipline.
Indeed, a good method for figuring out where to focus our learning is to use discomfort as a compass.
Let's say you're trying to improve at playing songs with the guitar. Ask yourself this - what is the most uncomfortable, difficult part of that activity which you generally avoid? Is it taking the lead in any key? Is it singing loud and clear? Is it memorization of songs? Is it writing your own stuff?
Whatever the answer, that's where you need to spend your deliberate practice hours.
I could go on about deliberate practice, but there are other resources that provide a more extensive and eloquent take on the topic than you'll find here. Here are my top 3 recommendations:
How to Become Great at Just About Anything by Freakonomics Radio [Audio]
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
So Good they Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
Feedback. Breadth over Depth. Deliberate Practice.
These are strategies that have worked for me. They may work for you, or they may not. Experiment.
But please, if you're serious about better results, do not fall for the "just try harder" trap.
I generally try to avoid cliche, but here it is worth repeating the oft-cited phrase:
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
Stay sane my friends.
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