Three-Minute Thought: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

Three-Minute Thought: The Skills of Miners and Mongols

One pattern of learning is to delve deep into a subject, going far beneath the surface to find the treasures that no one else sees. These mines hold treasures, and they’re unassailable–but it’s easy to block the entrance to the “surface” world.

Another pattern is that of the Mongol hordes. Their pattern was to move fast, spend a bit of time securing the territory, and then sweep onward, taking with them a harvest of intellectuals and craftsmen from the conquered cities. They were formidable…and as they went, their culture changed to something new.

The Mandelbrot set, a fractal, is infinite in detail, yet it fits in a constrained space. Yeast also grows in fractal fashion, yet in expansionary mode.

The empire of the mind needs to produce its own treasure. The empire needs intellectual raiders.

Mini-review: Bounce, by Matthew Syed

I just finished reading Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed. Syed is a journalist and a several-time Olympic competitor in table tennis. In this book, he makes a great case that practice is what builds skill, with “talent” or “aptitude” often being mostly fiction. I recommend the book–the content is valuable, and it’s an enjoyable read.

Syed offers a number of interesting case studies. A few among them:

  • His own experience–in retrospect, he wasn’t exceptionally talented, but had the right opportunities for a lot of coaching and practice.
  • “Clusters” of elite runners–determined not by genetics, but by environment and experience.
  • An educational psychologist who set out to prove that training, not talent, determines chess skill. Before he was even married, he proposed to train his children to elite levels of skill. Two of his daughters held the top two rankings of female chess players in the world.

Syed also offers some other great nuggets. Among them, he looks into why high-level athletes “choke”, apparently losing all ability to play, and why athletic skill isn’t necessarily transferable across sports. In a great anecdote, he describes deploying his table-tennis reaction times against a tennis player’s famous high-speed serve. The results…well…didn’t convince him to switch sports.

Bounce echoes themes of psychologist Carol Dweck’s research, much of which is presented in her book Mindset. I highly recommend Dweck’s book as well (despite a fair amount of “fluff”), both for personal growth and parenting. I expect there’s also a fair amount of overlap with Geoff Colvin’s The Talent Code, but haven’t yet read Colvin’s book.