SEI Dock Model, Pillar II: Practice
(Repetition: the act of performing your skilled task)
If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it. - Jascha Heifetz, Lithuanian-born American violinist
As a writing major at Grand Valley State University, I had to retake the introduction to college writing class all freshman are required to take.
Going into the class I thought, I did this all in high school; I’ve written so many research papers already, this is a joke. In my act of rebellion, I started writing unconventional essays and made arguments that were backed by completely biased “scholarly” sources, which, as an 18-year-old, I thought it was quite clever. Take for instance my paper titled: How Smoking Tobacco Could Save Your Life. I ended up failing the class (as I should have) and came away learning some humbling lessons:
Even unconventional bias-sourced research papers need to be cohesive and have a structure the reader can follow.
Either I wasn’t as good of a writer as I thought I was, or the staff of the entire freshman writing program was full of idiots. After two weeks (probably more like two months) of writing angry unsent emails to the dean, I finally accepted the first notion.
I, like everyone, had to make sure I was writing appropriately for my audience. I wasn’t writing research papers: I was writing satire (the following year, I started the schools’ first university-funded alternative newspaper/zine as a proper form for this).
Deliberate practice, myelin, and what 10,000 Hours Really Means
“Talent isn’t born, it’s grown,” Daniel Coyle.
A lot of people have misinterpreted Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule. The rule doesn’t mean that something magical happens after 10,000--you don’t “level up” like you do in a video games after you get enough experience points--but something does happen along the way and it’s more organic than calculated.
10,000 hours is an abstract number representing years of deliberate (sometimes called “deep”) practice. Deliberate practice focuses on the quality of the practice you are doing. These are focused, conscious, and goal-oriented exercises. Often, this is when you are in “the zone”, lasers locked on the task you are doing when the curtain of reality drops and you are in harmony with the task you are performing.
In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle writes about how repetition during deliberate practice strengthens the neural connections in our brain. What strengthens this is something called myelin. Myelin responds to deliberate practice by providing sheaths of protection around our neural pathways. Every time you repeat something, your myelin insulation gets stronger, causing the signal speed in your brain to increase, and resulting in quicker performance. How much faster? Unmyelinated neural pathways pass information at two miles per hour. Compare this to a fully myelinated pathway which is able to transfer information at two hundred miles per hour.
So, then, how do you gain talent? Talent is the result of a lot of mindful repetition.
Why 10,000? It is impossible to calculate how long someone is in the deliberate practice “zone”. In our quick fix and hyper-calculated society, 10,000 hours or 10 years is a pretty good guess.
College: what is it good for?
Why do we pay thousands of dollars per class to practice writing papers? In math-based classes, why would someone spend days trying to solve hundreds of problems millions of people have already found the answer to? Why do endless numbers of undergraduates replicate large research studies with a smaller sample size?
After failing my first class (ever), I understood what the core function of college is: practice. It is a safe place to experiment with writing papers, conducting research, and solving problems. College is creative problem solving in practice, where you have access to mentors and numerous resources to guide you along. There is something special in how you find the answer that only you are able to benefit from.
More and more, apprenticeship programs are popping up as an alternative to the college “practice” path. Apprenticeships are similar in that you are able to practice your skill and receive instruction from trained masters in the field, but the learning is usually more hands-on and industry-specific. Often, these programs focus 40 hours a week on the roles within an industry rather than an interdisciplinary survey of academic theories. An internship can be a form of an apprenticeship, which is becoming more common for college seniors and post-grads.
After you earn an undergraduate degree or move on from an apprenticeship program, grad school or your new job likely will become the next location you practice your skills. You get more freedom to “play” (pillar 3) with your skill set, but most of the time it is the same repetition you have been doing in school—with real-world accountability.
Practice in the Dock Model
The practice pillar in the Dock Model represents the repetition you do every day. This is when you are writing code, talking with clients, making excel documents, researching, selling services, writing a blog post, etc. This pillar, similar to health, is an important foundation pillar as it is close to shore.
Follow these five tips to get the most out of your deliberate practice.
1) Practice early and often. Repetition is important. Weight lifters don’t say, “I’ve lifted enough pounds in my life, I think I am at where I want to be.” They know that if they don’t maintain a certain level of activity, they will lose their strength. In other words, you have to work each day to maintain where you already are. Regularly engage with your skill: read blogs, read books, watch videos, attend conferences, and meet with people in your field. You should know what is going on in your industry. It’s a good idea to make this a part of your daily routine.
2) Know your skill well. Having a solid foundation in your skill set will mean that in times of stress, you will have something to fall back on (and be able to produce as if it were second nature).
3) Stay positive; change your mindset. Too often it’s easy to feel like a victim of our circumstances. When I failed my class, I thought: why would I, the writing major, have to take an introduction to writing course, and why would I receive a failing grade? Didn’t my professor see my genius? If writing was so easy for me, why didn’t I do the work, crank out my papers, get an “A”, rub my hands together and move on to the next? Because I wasn’t that good yet and I needed more practice.
4) Know how success is being measured. Be deliberate and mindful with your practice. Is your success measured by customer happiness, shortest in-depth product or service summary, personal happiness, or repeat business? Knowing how the success of your skill is being measured will provide you with specific areas to focus on.
5) There is always something more to learn. Neil Gaiman, after writing his fourth novel (American Gods) and a catalog of graphic novels, told Gene Wolfe he had finally learned how to write a novel. Gaiman recalls Wolfe’s reaction: “he smiled at me and said ‘You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're on.’”
The stronger grasp you have on your skill, the better you are able to experiment with it—which leads us to “play”, the next pillar in this series.
Andrew J. Wilt
SEI Junior Consultant
Week 1: SEI Dock Model: Introduction
Week 2: SEI Dock Model: Pillar I, Health
Week 4: SEI Dock Model, Pillar III: Play