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!