Monday, 28 November 2011

Why top performers are top performers?

I made some suggestions in twitter about why does certain people have certain skills. Why is Mozart so skillful at composing symphonies? Or why has Bill Gates been able to build such a vast company? I got some interesting answers (“the lack of schooling”), but none of them was what I was looking for. After reading the book “Talent is overrated” (from now on referred at “the book”) by Geoff Colvin I got the answers I needed. The book was inspiration to this text and I encourage everyone to read the book even if you don’t want to be a world class “whatever” (surgeon, tester, manager). I tried to quote everything that was directly from the book

Why top performers are top performers? - They practice.

“Duh?!” you might say because you practice too. Most of us practice testing during some testing dojos or at courses. Some might even practice some during normal work. So how does practice make us top performers? Shouldn’t we all be the top of the game since we all practice to some extent? “I have tested for 20 years and I’m still not top performer. How do you explain that?”

Experience doesn’t count! Most of us work in the field we’re in and are just fine at it. We know the basic thing we need to know to get by with our daily work. The book explains that there is no difference between a new worker and experience worker unless the experienced worker has done practicing during ones career. One is not a master of a certain field with ONLY years of experience, but one needs to master the skills and it usually takes years to hone those skills. “Maybe the top performer was born with the gift. Maybe he was a testing star at birth!”

There are no gifts or talents or whatever. There is no innate talent, says the book and points our years of gene research. We create the talent with dedication and practice. “Ok, but how do you explain that great violinists come from musical families or lawyers come from lawyer families? If they have it in the family how come it’s not innate?” Family has some effect on the skills people accumulate. I will return to it later, but suffice to say now is that there are some environmental factors that help us (or hinder us) in our quest to be better. One might ask whether Michael Bolton or James Bach were testing gurus at birth. As I recall Mr. Bolton was a comedian and Bach was a software developer. Neither probably didn’t test software at the age of six (don’t know but I assume). What they did to be so prestigious was that they honed their skills and became better than most of us.

Nowadays we have higher standards and we need to be more successful than those before. The bar is higher for us to be great. Take science for instance. In the past people like Newton got the status of great physicists quite easily (for our standards) He just explained gravity. “I can explain gravity! Why aren’t I considered a great physicist?” The standard was different for people before us because they had not the access to information we have today. We need to better than those before to be considered great. “Do I need a brain the size of a mountain and memory capacity to match today’s super computers?”

Memory or intelligence has nothing to do with success. High IQ is not a perquisite for being top performer. IQ doesn’t measure critical thinking, emotions (and the ability to use them to our advantage), social skills, honesty, wisdom, etc. Even if you do have very high IQ you might not be a top performer. Look at the membership list for MENSA and count all great performers from the list, then compare it to those that are not members of MENSA. You can have high IQ and be a top performer but it is not required. Same rule applies to memory. Some geniuses (not all top performers are though) forget all kinds of things but are still considered great in their field. What the top performers have what the rest of us don’t is domain knowledge. I’ll return into that a bit later.
“Again: What makes us great?!” If we all practice and increase our knowledge, and only some of us become great, what is it with practice that excludes some of us from greatness? “Am I doing it wrong?”

Well… You probably are. The top performers practiced just like the rest of us but they did it with purpose! They practiced deliberately. And they accumulate domain knowledge in doing so. What we “regular” people see as practice is the things we do to entertain ourselves with domain related things. We might “practice bug hunting” and try a few things and say “Now I practiced the skill. I must be better at it.” You probably ain’t… In fact you just might be worse as you perhaps didn’t know what you were doing and thus did some essential thing the wrong way. You probably did some exercises that you knew you could do or played with software you had played with before.

Deliberate practice is practicing those areas that you are not good at. And doing that systematically! The thing with deliberate practice is planning what you want to achieve and knowing the road to get there. It may not be fun, but getting to the top of the game is not about fun but being the best. A deliberate practice needs to be designed to suit your needs and to hone skills that you’re not good at. Basketball players may shoot hoops in the evening as they know they can do a hoop from three point line. Pro basketball player shoots hoops from half court. If he/her hasn’t the strength he goes to gym and shoots again. And again. And again! Then he/she shoots hoops while moving, etc. In deliberate practice one moves away from comfort zone and practices skills he doesn’t yet master. You cannot learn in your comfort zone but you need to know not to push too hard or you’ll panic and there’s no learning. It is all about increasing the performance of a certain aspect of our domain.

As we all know we might not know what to practice, therefore we do what we know. So we need tutoring. The tutoring provides two things: guide and feedback. The tutor may or may not be a physical person but a goal we aspire to reach. For instance we may look at a video of a guy doing a yoyo trick and look at it closely and try to replicate the trick. Or we could have a coach that guides us during football practice. As in sports and music, we can get tutoring in testing and programming. Tutoring helps us knowing where we want to be and means to get there. We just need a person that is more qualified in some area that we seek to master and get him to coach us. Of course it’s not THAT simple, but we all know the basics of tutoring and coaching. Preferably your tutor is the current best in the field.

Just as much we need guidance we need feedback. At early stages of our lives our parents provide feedback. “That’s a beautiful drawing.” But when we start practicing deliberately we need constructive feedback. Again the source of the feedback need not be a person: you can watch yourself do the yoyo trick from a video also. You can even record yourself shooting hoops, but in the hoops case the ball going to the basket is feedback enough. Tutors provide feedback. We can do some amount of things without systematic feedback but we may learn to do things inefficiently or wrong. In testing the feedback can be bugs. The systematic and good feedback is the kind that makes us find those bugs more efficiently, easier, more, etc.

And when plan is made and feedback is given, you repeat. By repeating you can hone that skill. Masters make things they do look effortless and they may be. They have practiced that skill so much that they no longer have to put all their effort into the basic mechanics of things. They do not, however, automate themselves. The book presents an example of Tiger Woods teeing a golf ball. Someone coughs at the audience and he stops the swing in the mid-motion and starts again. The rest of us just let the swing go to the finish and hope it’s a good one. The masters are so aware of the things that they do that they don’t need to focus on what they do. They focus instead into HOW they do it. They seek flaws in their manners and techniques and practice those skills to do them better. “Where does all this practicing lead?”

The top performers are able to perceive more than the regular people. For example by looking at an X-ray picture a novice might see only the most prominent features and describe them. The top surgeon might see the little details that determine whether the person has cancer or pneumonia or a hidden heart disease. They see more with less looking. They see the subtleties and details possibly ignored or misinterpreted by the rest of us. They uncover hidden things with the same information we have to cover only visible or most prominent things. Top performers understand the significance (or insignificance) of subtleties and details. When bug hunting testers need see things they aren’t looking for. Seeing things you don’t look for and looking for things you don’t see. Deliberate practice helps you perceive more with less information.

It all sounds simple when it is said like this. The book has tons of information about the subtleties of deliberate practicing and many references into practical things. Music, sports, chess. They all have a their intersections with deliberate practicing, even some highly specialized learning techniques to practice in that area. Even business, programming and testing have their own special ways to build skills in domain.

We all still need things that motivate us to practice. The practice in itself may not be motivational so we need things to support the practicing for us to keep doing it. We need a supportive environment to practice. Mommy and daddy were sufficient enough in our childhood with their comment and encouraging, but in business world we need a different support. Some of us don’t have the possibility to have a tutor but still can use the basic methods of deliberate practicing. We can do practicing while we work. The working environment may or may not support you practicing so you need to be able to do deliberate practicing in the midst of the daily labor. “I just said before that I do practice while I work. What are you saying?”

The practicing at work can be done in three parts (and should, might I say): before work, at work, after work. This doesn’t exclude that you can’t stop to think the “after” part during the workday, but all require some thinking and time so before and after work you most likely have enough time to think these things. Before work practicing is setting goals for that day. It’s not about some high level goals like “I’m going to do my best today” but specific goals like “today I’m going to find out why my build fails the first time I commit it every time”. The goal is to produce a working build and to find out why it had failed the previous time. After goal is set you should plan how to get there and you need to be exact! Then during work the key to practicing at work is metacognition (this is also from the book) that is thinking that you think, knowledge about your knowledge. You can study yourself when you do certain activities at work and go through what you really are doing. Then spot any flaws and make corrective measures to succeed in the task. And think what you do! After the work analyze the performance. Use this analysis to increase performance the next time at work (or practice it before hand if possible).

Motivation is a tricky thing to maintain, so I'll delve into it in a separate blog post. What you need to know is that motivation may come from within or without. And it all supports the practice.

All in all: We’re not all going to be super professionals but we all can be! If we truly want to be extraordinary there is a way to be! It takes hard work and dedication, sometimes sacrifices, but a way is free for all of us to be top performers in our chosen field. Just practice deliberately and hone those skills!


Sami Söderblom said...

Hi Peksi,

Haven't read the book, but read your post word to word and interpreting from that I consider Geoffrey Colvin to be full of shit.

Why it's so that when a group of people are doing something they've never done before, someone's always better than someone else. And how come some people tend to generally learn and adapt to the new more quickly than others? Did the baby learning to speak first practise that?

I always enjoy your writings but rarely see if you really stand behind them personally; Are these teaching really affecting you or are you just relaying the words of people with some kind of merit? It's a safe place to stand behind big names and even bigger words, but standing in front of them is completely another ball game.

We are testers. If we don't stop the nonsense on it's tracks, no one will.

Kind regards,


Pekka Marjamäki said...

Great comment, Sami! I was kinda waiting for you to pop up! ;)

The thing about inequality and tendencies to learn something are not inborn. They are dependable of domain knowledge. Someone has tampered with computers in early life and thus makes a better programmer. Someone has done extensive maths training in early life and thus makes a better programmer. Someone has done X which relates somehow to Y and thus makes one better at Y. So on and so on.

As children we see walking and (as a motivation to move faster and like others) we start practice walking. As they hear speaking they are motivated to make sounds and start practicing. If a child is at the presence of wolves it will not speak but growl, bark, etc. as it the child's knowledge of communication skills.

The child is probably very good explanation to deliberate practice as there is MOTIVATION and practicing towards something. If there is no motivation the child stops doing it. If the child doesn't practice he/she will not progress. Did you stop practicing as a child? You have the skills to speak, write and read. Some don't as they don't have the ENVIRONMENT to support deliberate practicing.

As we adults start looking into thing in more depth we see all kinds of patters that are in fact deliberate practicing; it's just in different form.

What I did with the reading of this book was not "this is something miraculous! I want to be this person who practices deliberately!" but instead I recognized a pattern already existed within and I got someone to verbalize it.

What Geoffrey Colvin did was not talk about testing but instead he spoke of managerial skills and business related skills and development thereof. I translated those dogmas onto testing. What I achieved was a Continuous Self-improvement program on which I'll accumulate domain knowledge to become more able to tackle all challenges.

So, Sami. What was the "nonsense" you refer here?

BR, Peksi

Anonymous said...

I love that idea of deliberate practice and it is particularly relevant to testing where we get to practice many things in many environments.

I am surprised that you do not talk about mentoring, as I think that is the one thing, above all others that can bring an adult from a worker ant to a Queen Bee in their field.0

Sami Söderblom said...

Things of no importance or value suit the best for definition of nonsense. Copied this to Twitter too... :)

You (or does Geoffrey?) talk about motivation. Can it be involuntary? An example from Dexter, one of my favourite TV shows; What if I'm good at killing people, but I hate it and steer away from it as well as I humanly can? The environment doesn't encourage him to do so, he doesn't encourage himself to do so, but he's compelled to do so because of his childhood trauma. And he is very good at it.

Does he practice skills that are only remotely related to his ability to kill? All this makes me think about animals. Let's think about lions in the savannah. They are all living in the same environment, they all have same history and prerequisites to survive but only some do. I bet they all have the same motivation to survive and practise for it, but only some do. Why is that?

I took this animalistic approach because when bullets starts flying we often regress to our basic behaviour. We forget our manners and gnaw ourselves towards survival. The embodiment of modern IT. :)

Sami Söderblom said...

Then I started thinking one of my favourite movies, Good Will Hunting. The main character Will is mathematical prodigy and has skills far beyond the brightest minds in mathematics. He could not have any kind of training or practice because there aren't any people qualified for that.

In the movie was mentioned a real life counterpart to Will, Srinivasa Ramanujan ( It's quite hard to imagine anything but innate talent when talking about him.

Then there's of course all that's not quantifiable like feelings, subconcious mind, spiritual level of thinking, etc. I'll keep all that in my sleeve and play if it seems Srinivasa wasn't really an innate talent... :)

Pekka Marjamäki said...

As the motivation is so broadly covered in the book (and there are so many aspects to it other than those mentioned in te book) I decided to cover that area in another blog post. Initially there was a brief summary included in the post but it turned out to lessen the meaning of the practice itself if motivation is not covered better.

And Sami, you do realize that you speak of fictional characters (Dexter and Will)? Based on real persons or not, the movie (or TV-show) doesn't tell the whole truth. Even people themselves don't tell the whole truth!

I case of this Will-person (never saw the movie) I believe that the movie did not cover every single occasion in his life (or his mental labour) that ay have brought him the domain knowledge needed to be more susceptible to learning complex thing. I believe that he did not as such look at a dilemma (with no solving rules told to him) and solve it. It would be so that at birth he would have the skill and could solve those problems as an infant. Did he? Even though he could not speak he could solve university level dilemmas?

What i believe happened (and bear in mind that this is a movie we're talking about) is that he accumulated a certain amount of knowledge during his youth and thought "Hey! I just might bee good at this!". When someone encouraged him to learn more, he did (motivation of being slightly better than the majority at his age). And after accumulating domain knowledge regarding figures, calculus, problem solving skills, creative thinking and a heck of amount of hard work he was able to use the skills he had learned to interpret complex rules and guidelines to solve a problem. Encouraged by the fact that he succeeded he learned more. And so on and so on. You get the point.

To be good at something you should probably be good at thing surrounding it. I mean a football player who can only play football is no pro. A pro football player has skills to see the field as a whole, leadership skills to some extent, strategy skills, leg muscles, knowledge about history of his sports, social skills, etc. The list goes on and on. To be able to be pro mathematican you need also skills from other domains than maths that support the maths skills.

Testing as an example is probably one of the best: you have testing skills AND critical thinking skills, inquisive approach, technical skills, maths skills, linguisival skills (both tongue and programming), social skills, reasoning and emotional skills, etc. If you only know testing skills you are probably not a tester but something else.

And Sami, how do you quantify domain knowledge? I'd like to hear about spiritual skills (as a theist I'm interested on those particularily), subconcious thinking, and whatnot. But still the knowledge and skills being innate would meen that they are present at birth, wouldn't they?

Pekka Marjamäki said...

@ElizaF: I think I'll cover the entoring more thorougly when discussing motivation. But as short mentoring is only part of motivation (extrinsic motivation that may form into being intrinsic as a "shadowing motivation).

How come you expected me to bring the mentoring up? And how come it is "the one thing"? I believe that a combination of different sources of motivation is the key to remaining... well, motivational about practicing.

Sami Söderblom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sami Söderblom said...

And Peksi, do you realise that I used fictional characters only as a reference when the actual stake is Mr. Ramanujan. He actually existed and produced theories that baffled the brightest mathematic minds, and at the age of ten! Without any practise. He just fiddled with some elementary level math book and produced something extraordinary effortlessly.

- Read about Mr. Ramanujan. This is important if we want to wrestle more.
- Watch Good Will Hunting. It's just for fun, but the movie is really remarkable.

Anonymous said...

I mentioning for adults because in my experience, I would see it as the most effective way of motivating a grown up.

As a child we have our values and motivations set. (Mum home baked a lot so we run a bakery because we love that smell, Dad was a prize winning gardener so we are a stables manager because we love to work outside etc etc)

So an office environment with computers, office politics, a job involving changing technologies, we may be motivated by one/some of the characteristics of office working but there may be many more that will de-motivate us.

I would say this is the gap that effective mentoring fills in. Hell, social networks are informal mentoring groups where we gravitate towards people who are more evolved than us in thoughts and practice so we can learn from them.

The conclusion I have come to about mentoring is that 1)As a formal process, it works as I have seen numerous times in formal environments. 2) As an informal process, it works too. Something as small as attending a conference of your peers can motivate you in thought and mind in ways you never thought possible.

Our parents and other adults mentored us while we were young and that is how we learned.... so it follows that seeking out mentoring as adults can help us learn and motivate us too.

Sami Söderblom said...

Ok, he was 12 when producing those theorems. In 2 years from zero to this... how in earth can you explain that? What kind of practise makes that possible? Bionic augmentations? :)

Sami Söderblom said...

Seems that the achievements of Ramanujan and other child prodigies that I consider to indeed have innate talent have bigger affect on me than a book I haven't read. Your blog post didn't convince me and our discussion takes me even deeper into my bunker.

But that's ok. I just realized what we're arguing about here actually. You just want to point out that practice is good and we should do it to get better. And I agree on that completely! For me it's actually irrelevant if I'm ever going to be talented or if I have some innate talent. If it is there, it is there. In my world there are people who naturally blessed with talent and in your world there aren't. Are we using too much energy to convince each other to revise our views?

Those who want to change the world must carry the burden of changing it. If you or Geoffrey Colvin really manage to convince that Mr. Ramanujan and others like him really achieved their merits by sheer practise, I'm all ears. Meanwhile I'll continue changing the world in other fronts. ;)

Pekka Marjamäki said...

Sami, I'm not going to go there whether Mr. Ramanujan was a real person or not. Or whether the info told about him is fact. You say: "Without any practice." and other things that point to a divine power or a gift. This is backed up by what? A biography? A movie? Come on! You know better than that! Everybody practices the domain they excel at. If you say this guy did nothing at all to show tendency toward maths and all of a sudden he produces theorems unimaginable, I doubt that very hard.

What you are saying is that he had all the knowledge from birth ab the first time he had a pen he had the ability to produce those at any time in his life. That basically is innate ability. Did he produce those without any maths skills what-so-ever? I think not. So he practiced.

And when you say "fiddle" I think he practiced really hard and took in all knowledge from the domain and used knowledge from different domain to support the skills. I think it is good to try to understand the reason why he produced those theorems. Did he do that because he was given a gift and he had no choise but to produce those, or was he seeking an answer to a question that was presented by someone else? Was he able to come up with the question? The skills and practice helped him produce those answers because he had sufficient skills to achieve that goal and the motivation and fresh view to the dilemma.

I think this is not about convincing anything. You can have you beliefs and I'm not here to take those away. What I believe that this person did not have any innate talent or a gift but a affinity to learn and motivation to do so. Maybe it was the only thing he wanted. Maybe it was the only thing he could do. I think he used the skills he had and practiced those skills and used them in a way no-one has seen before.

Unknown said...

I support the idea practice make perfect. Everything is learnable.

Sami Söderblom said...

Mr. Ramanujan was really real and his accomplishments are well known, even common knowledge. As you read about him (please do), you notice how challenging environment he grew in and who incredibly limited his domain was. Considering it's very unlikely that his skill was anything but innate.

But of course, I'm more than willing to be convinced otherwise.

Jenova said...

It's tempting to say "Practice hard and you can be what ever you want", but I can't say I would believe it myself. But one can go very far, and understanding own strengths and weaknesses one can optimize performance.

I believe, that practice and motivation are ingredients of top performer, but everyone can't understand quantum mechanics, thought they want. Everyone cannot understand even relational databases.

I mean - everyone can read theories and books about it, but its not the same thing as the to do that oneself. Knowing is not same as understanding.

Still one can make good just copying methods and work of some one who really understand - and some time it may actually work, especially if surrounded by a team that has different skills and talents. Even Ramanujan got Hardy (thought this hardly is best example of great teamwork).

There are lot of theories where high G factor (general intelligence) bases, but one thing is sure - when there is one around, top performer or not, one will notice it sooner that later. And most likely they are top performers at things that they care.

Talent is raw diamond that can be ground with practice and motivation. One needs bit of everything to be top performer.

But if one is interested of everything, will one ever be top performer nowdays?

Pekka Marjamäki said...

@Jenova: Thanks for the comment. If you are motivated to accomplish something you will eventually get it. If I want to learn rocket science I will. I can overcome any obstacle there is between me and my goal if I am motivated enough.

With motivation I can arrange everything around me to support the process of learning. I can get as much theoretical information as I can get my hands on and then start applying it into practice. By facilitating the process of learning with supporting activities every goal is achievable.

If one doesn't have motivation to do it then it's whole other subject. Then it's not the learning that fails but the motivation. If supplied with unlimited amount of motivation and never getting bored, anything can be accomplished by deliberate practice. Even though there are something you cannot do that require physical alternation (eg. getting taller or becoming a dog) but all skill required things are achievable.

Usually to be accomplished in some fields require a supporting set of skills on other domains. Say I can only code but I'm very good at it, I may not be exceptional programmer. If I have skills to support it (problem solving skills, language skills, business domain skills) I can be exceptional. But they all are skills that can be mastered by practicing.

Jenova said...

I think we define top performer differently then, would you clarify how you do it?

Have you ever met top performer who shine in one enviroment but fails another? Is he top performer, or one who understood one organization and had great team there? Is it really just motivation and practice that makes top performer?

Systematic and goal-orienting practice may indeed be good, but I have rarely seen top performer who is that organized. More likely they are middle of chaos catching up dropping balls when everyone else just think their own trousers and think how to get away from trouble. Propably they are fast adapt information and sharp to make own judgements.

To make fast solutions, one must have at least moderately high IQ or talents at that particular area. That's why I don't believe that everyone can make it. But I really do that anyone has remarkable help of proper practice.

For example emotional intelligence interesting - experience may get you better, but practice doesn't make perfect. And your example - I think programmer may be exceptional being good in just his own area, requirements differ within organizations and their way to lead.

Pekka Marjamäki said...

A top performer excels in a domain. He may be the best there is on that particular domain or one of the best. Or he may be *on the road to mastery*. At least he is above average performer. Most of us fail in some domain and I know many who are not best at everything. Take Einstein for example: He excelled in many domains, (e.g. mathematics, physics) but failed in others (e.g. marriage, speling). To be a top performer is not about being good at everything. If someone has a good team and he still is performing better than the others he is a top performer. A person who takes credit over what he has not done is not (duh!). ;)

A top performer need not be organized in conventional way. Let’s say a football player that live a messy life but still is one of the Top 10 ranking players on the league. Being a top performer is also about discipline and seeking an environment that supports your performance. A footballer may have a personal coach or trainer. A mathematician may have a science group to which he plays his ideas. A corporate leader may have a business guru. The list goes on and on. When people lose motivation to what they seek they either stop developing themselves OR seek a way to re-motivate and continue. A top performer continues. Maybe the people you (@Jenova) are referring to are not top performers as such or had a bad day (even Tiger Woods has bad days).

The fact of BEING a top performer is about sustaining the status. If a top performer does end up in a situation where “ball start dropping” he most likely has the skills to catch the balls, organize a catching team or see that it is reasonable to let the balls drop. Top performers come from many fields and disciplines.

To make fast solution one MUST NOT have high IQ. Go to the race track and see whether the white collar guy or the blue collar guy wins his money back on horses. And if I share your belief (which I don’t) I’d say the one with high IQ. And by talents do you mean that they have practiced the domain? I’ve seen some people win money on race track but they lost it the minute afterwards. The practiced players keep winning more than un-practiced.

Practice doesn’t make you perfect. It is designed to make you better. Human psyche doesn’t allow “perfectness” as we strive towards bettering ourselves. An exceptional programmer may not excel in other domain than in the one he acquired his skills. He however has tremendous advantage over those that have less experience in that domain. The excellence in domains that support your main domain is also important. That’s why footballers don’t practice only throwing the ball; they do running, strength training, strategy exercises, statistical analysis, etc.