A Large Collection of Miniskills

A Large Collection of Miniskills

I  really like the way that Daniel Kahneman describes expertise in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. His description is incredibly meaningful today, in a world where so many of us work in offices and perform knowledge world. Expertise is important, but it is a bit nebulous when you think about knowledge work expertise compared to craftsmanship expertise. Nevertheless, a good concept of what expertise is can be helpful when thinking about personal growth and success.

 

Kahneman writes, “The acquisition of expertise in complex tasks such as high-level chess, professional basketball, or firefighting is intricate and slow because expertise in a domain is not a single skill but rather a large collection of miniskills.” By thinking about expertise as a large collection of miniskills it becomes more understandable and meaningful, even in the context of knowledge work. For sports, many crafts, and even physical labor, expertise as a collection of miniskills is so obvious it is almost invisible. But for knowledge work, expertise as a collection of miniskills is invisible because it is not obvious or ubiquitous.

 

The image coming to mind for me when I think of expertise as a series of miniskills is iron forging or glasswork. It is clear that one must have a lot of different skills ranging from skills related to noticing subtle changes in materials as heat is applied to physical skills involved in shaping the material once it is at a certain temperature. One also has to have imaginative skills in order to see the shape and design that one wants, and be able to connect the right twists, bends, and physical manipulations to the object to match the mental image. Forging a knife or making a glass marble requires a lot of skills in related but different spheres in order to make one final product. It is obvious that one needs a lot of miniskills to be successful, but unless we enroll in a beginners class, we don’t necessarily think about all the miniskills that go into the craftsmanship.

 

In the knowledge work economy, our final work products are also an accumulation of miniskills, even though it feels as though we just produce one thing or do one thing with no real “skill” involved. However, our work requires communication skills, writing skills (a particular variation of communication skills), scheduling and coordinating skills, and oftentimes skills that require us to be able to create visually stimulating and engaging materials. Whether it is creating a slide show, coordinating an important meeting, or drafting standard operating procedures, we are not simply doing one thing, but are engaging an entire set of miniskills. True expertise in knowledge work is still derived from a set of miniskills, but the skills themselves don’t seem like real skills, and are easily ignored or overlooked. Focusing on the miniskills needed for knowledge work expertise can help us understand where we can improve, what our image of success really entails, and how to approach important projects. It is the mastery and connection of various miniskills that enables us to be experts in what we do, even in our ubiquitous office environments.
Skill Versus Effort

Skill Versus Effort

In the world of sports, I have always enjoyed the saying that someone is so good at something they make it look easy. While I usually hear the saying in relation to physical activity, it also extends to other generally challenging activities – Kobe made the fadeaway jumper look easy, Tyler Cowen makes blogging look easy, and Roman Mars has made podcasting look (sound?) easy. But what is really happening when an expert makes something look easy? Daniel Kahneman argues that increased skill makes things look easy because skill decreases the effort needed to do the thing.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes, “As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. Talent has similar effects. Highly intelligent individuals need less effort to solve the same problems, as indicated by both pupil size and brain activity. A general law of least effort applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion.”

 

while I was at a UCLA summer basketball camp years ago, Sean Farnham told me a story about Kobe – he used to work out at the UC Irvine Gym every morning. He drew such a big crowd to the gym that UC Irvine asked him to either stop coming to the gym, or to arrive at a different time. Kobe didn’t stop, he just changed his hours, working out at 4 or 5 a.m., before the gym would be packed. Farnham told me that Kobe had a training entourage with him, so that when he would pass out on the court from physical exhaustion of working so hard, his staff could pull him to the side, get him some fluids, and help him get back out on the court until he would pass out again.

 

Tyler Cowen writes every day. On his podcast and in other interviews, he has explained how writing every single day, even on Christmas and your birthday, is one of the most important things you can do if you want to be a good writer and clear thinker. Much of his writing never gets out into the public, but every day he puts in the effort and practice to build his skill.

 

Roman Mars loves radio, and his hit podcast 99% Invisible is onto episode 410.  In a 2012 interview with Debbie Millman Mars talked about learning to love radio early on and how he developed a passion for audio programming, even if no one was listening.

 

Kobe, Cowen, and Mars all practice a lot, and have developed a lot of skill from their practice. As Kahneman explains, their daily practice doesn’t just allow them to make things look easy. For those who practice as much as these three, things really are easier for them. Kobe’s muscle memory meant that he was more efficient in shooting a fadeaway jump shot, literally needing less energy and less mental focus to pull off a perfect swish. Cowen writes every day and the act of starting a piece of writing for him probably requires less brain power to begin putting thoughts together. Similarly, Mars probably slips into his radio voice effortlessly, without consciously having to think about everything he is about to say, making the words, the voice, and the intonation flow more simply and naturally.

 

Kahneman and the three examples I shared show how important practice is for the things we want to do well. Consistent practice builds skill, and literally alters the brain, the chemical nerve pathways (via myelination), and the physical strength needed to perform a task. With practice, tasks really do become easier and automatic.
The Challenge with Low N Events

The Challenge with Low “n” Events

There are a handful of things we only do once or twice in our lives. Many of us probably aspire to only get married a single time, only select a single school to attend for college, and only take a vacation to a foreign country one time. These low “n” experiences, or low frequency occurrences,  are hard to predict and prepare for. It is hard to know exactly what we will want, exactly what risks we might face, and how we will respond in experiences that we can’t always practice and experiment with. Sometimes the consequences are huge, as in the case of a marriage or picking the right college major, and sometimes the consequences are rather trivial, like picking the right beach to visit during your Spanish vacation (hey, in the age of COVID-19 we can still dream right?).

 

In the face of these one time experiences (whether big or trivial) we seem to fall into two paths. The first path is one of detailed and conscious study. Some of us will agonize for hours over which beach to go to on our vacation, which food trucks we should hit up, what time of year to travel, and where to stop for that hidden Instagram gem of a waterfall. Others of us will follow the second path, giving almost no thought to the decisions we face, big or small. We will just go with our guy and jump into a career, a relationship, or a lake.

 

On the one hand, these low “n” events don’t offer a lot of room for trail and error. If you are not likely to ever get a second vacation to Hawaii, then you probably want to seize every moment of your trip, making sure you check out whales, enjoy the shopping and beaches, and avoid that long road trip to Hana (it just isn’t worth it – trust me). You only get one shot, so you should do your best to prepare yourself to make the best decision. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “You may deem it superfluous to learn a text that can be used only once; but that is just the reason why we ought to think on a thing.”

 

But at the same time, should we really stress ourselves over a decision that we will potentially only make one time? If we constantly worry about our single decision, will we then second guess ourselves the whole time and wonder if we made the right choice? Will we ever truly move on from that single decision and adjust to the the choice we made and find a way to be happy where we end up? Is it really worth the time to focus all our energy on a single decision point when we know we will have other high “n” events that might be more meaningful than the low “n” event we spend all our time thinking about?

 

Seneca thinks it is worth the effort to think through the big low “n” events, to make sure our decision making is as comprehensive and self-aware as possible. But he, and other Stoics, would likely advise that we don’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make a perfect decision. I think he would simultaneously recommend that we approach low “n” events with an open mind to the outcomes, recognizing that our reactions to the outcomes will often determine whether we find the end state to be unbearable or something where we can still thrive. In the end we should think critically on our decisions, including low “n” events and choices, but we should be flexible in how we respond to outcomes and in how we think the world should be.
Learn Hard Things Quickly

What Is Needed To Learn Hard Things Quickly

In Deep Work, Cal Newport quotes a Dominican friar named Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges who wrote a short volume titled The Intellectual Life. In the short book Sertillanges writes, “To learn requires intense concentration.”

 

Newport continues to explain his views of learning and how his views align with Sertillanges, “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction. To learn, in other words, is an act of deep work.”

 

We cannot learn when we are not focused on the material in front of us. We might pick up on headlines and a few trite lines when we brows a news article while watching TV, but we won’t do any real learning. Additionally, if we really need to make sure we understand some new material, we cannot attempt to study and pick up on what we need to know if we are checking our email every 15 minutes, notified about updates from our social media platforms, and continually interrupted by the world around us. We must cultivate spaces that allow us to devote time and attention specifically to the material at hand.

 

Newport describes what we need to do as deliberate practice, a term coined by a Florida State University professor named K. Anders Ericsson. “This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires,” writes Newport. “Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.”

 

Deliberate practice does, Newport also explains, seems to develop increased myelin layers around neural circuits related to the activity we want to master, “Keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits.” Myelin acts as an insulator for those neural circuits. The more myelin around a brain circuit, the quicker the neural pathway operates and the more it becomes easy and automatic. Deliberate practice helps promote the myelination of the pathways involved in the activity we focus on, even if that activity is focus itself.

 

Practice within deep work makes us better at doing deep work. Learning is a deep work process, and one that we can improve as we practice improving our focus. As our neural pathways become better at focusing and avoiding distractions, we will be able to maintain a state of focus for longer, and as a result our work and learning will improve. Conversely, allowing ourselves to drift in and out of focus and allowing our mind to be continually distracted prevents us from developing the crucial myelin insulation around the brain circuits needed for deep work. This means that when we need to focus on something, we won’t be able to, and without being able to focus we won’t learn, and we won’t be able to adapt to take on new challenges and opportunities. Without developing our focus skills and neural focus pathways, we will not prepare ourselves for the future and for a world that requires quickly mastering complex ideas and processes.

Learning From Others vs Being Fearful of Others

Ryan Holiday shares stories from leaders and masters of their craft in his book Ego is the Enemy, and the lessons he shares show us how some people have been able to put their ego aside to become truly great at what they do. One of the people Holiday uses as an example is Kirk Hammett who became the lead guitarist for Metallica when it was still an underground metal group. Hammett had a great opportunity with the band early on, and recognized that there were many areas where he needed to improve if he wanted to help the band truly reach the next level. Despite being successful and in a lead position on an up-and-coming band, Hammett reached out to another man, Joe Satriani, for lessons starting with the most basic fundamentals. The lesson that Holiday shares is a lesson in self-humility. Even when things are going our way and we are in the positions we want to be in, we can still learn a lot from those around us and from those who have also been working in the same or similar areas where we have begun to find success. In order to truly learn from those around us, we have to be open to the idea that other people can teach us something important, and we have to put aside our pride in the accomplishments we have already achieved. We have to accept that we don’t know all there is to know and that someone else (potentially someone who has not had the same level of success as us) can still show us something new.

 

Holiday writes, “We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life–but it is almost always a component of mastery.”

 

It is always tempting to tell ourselves that we are much more smart, talented, and hard working than everyone else. It is reassuring to say to ourselves that we deserve what we have received (or that we don’t deserve to be passed over for an opportunity) and that we are going to have even more opportunities for greatness and success simply because we are awesome. What is harder to do, and what Holiday shows us is critical to truly be a master at what we do, is to seek out other leaders and other skillful individuals to learn from them. Looking around and seeing that other people are just as skilled, smart, and competent as us often feels threatening, as if they will be recognized for their greatness and we will be left behind, discarded as a fraud. Its tempting to ignore others, or to tell ourselves stories about why we somehow are more deserving or just better than the rest.

 

True greatness, however, looks at our competitors, colleagues, and other people in our space with respect. From this vantage point, there is something we can learn from others as we press forward. If we step back and take a more objective view of ourselves relative to the world, we can see that we are not always as amazing as we would like to be, and that is OK. We can reach out and learn lessons from those who we may otherwise denigrate and we can begin to prepare ourselves for our next opportunity rather than over-inflate our pride only to be terrified when the next challenge rolls around.

A Thought on Leadership

Leadership is one of the ideas that Fred Kiel addresses in his business book Return on Character when he focuses on the importance of strong moral character for the CEOs and leadership teams of companies in todays competitive business world. Kiel employs the term virtuoso to describe those leaders who are able to display strong character while organizing a business and supporting meaningful ethical and responsible goals for their employees, communities, and shareholders.  He chooses the term because maintaining a strong moral character takes practice and focus, and virtuoso, a term normally reserved for talented musicians and athletes, strongly represents the attention and development of high character leadership over time. Kiel writes, “Not only is leadership based on performance, but it is an art that requires disciplined practice as well as ability.”

 

I found this quote to be meaningful because Kiel is explaining that we need practice and development to become great leaders. There are certainly people I know who naturally seem to be great leaders, but what Kiel is explaining is that to be a truly virtuoso and impactful leader, one must focus and practice to hone not just their leadership skills, but also their character skills, and their moral judgement skills. Even those with great leadership talent will not be able to become as successful as possible if they are not able to refine their leadership talent and build it to become applicable in various settings. In the view that Kiel adopts in Return on Character, practice and self-awareness are key for any leader, including those who bring great natural talent to their position, because developing meaningful and trustful relationships is a key component of leading with strong character.  A talented leader who is self focused and does not act with integrity to support those around them may reach business goals, but they likely will not be bringing their team with them in a way that will meet the goals of everyone within their organization.

 

Another powerful idea represented by Kiel and his quote above is the thought of deliberate practice and grit on the way to virtuosity in leadership.  When we begin to think that leaders are not born as great leaders, and when we recognize that those with great character are not born with overflowing character, we can see both to be attainable in our own lives through dedicated focus and effort.  I recently listened to the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain, where the idea of grit, practice, and achievement was directly addressed.   What they find, and what I am sure Kiel would support, is that those who can preserver, or display grit, are the ones who begin to display effortlessness in their areas of focus, and virtuous leadership certainly falls in line with this thought.  Just as incredibly talented individuals such as Kobe Bryant became awe inspiring thanks to practice, we can grow and change to become exceptional with our moral character and leadership. We may not all start our on the same playing field in terms of talent (there may be Kobe Bryants of the leadership and character world out there) but we can certainly put in the focus and deliberate practice to ensure that our nature skill will not be the only thing that matters in our ability to lead and be morally responsible to those in our lives.