Rising Above The OK Plateau

From Brain Pickings:

Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. After about fifty hours of training — whether in skiing or driving — people get to that “good-enough” performance level, where they can go through the motions more or less effortlessly. They no longer feel the need for concentrated practice, but are content to coast on what they’ve learned. No matter how much more they practice in this bottom-up mode, their improvement will be negligible.

The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain’s urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what’s not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.

This probably also applies in work situations as well, where skills are rapidly acquired in the early stages of careers but can then easily hit a plateau by encountering the ‘that’s how we do it here’ barrier which naturally stifles further improvement. In fact, in annual appraisals, I can’t ever remember getting the question ‘what have you learnt this year’, it was always ‘what have you achieved this year’.

In a related theme, I came across an interesting article on Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning inspired by the works of the famous mathematician Richard Hamming (my emphasis in bold):

From Rule 6:

As Hamming says, because “there are so many ways of being wrong and so few of being right, studying successes is more efficient, and furthermore, when your turn comes you will know how to succeed rather than how to fail.” In addition, he notes that “vicarious learning from the experiences of others saves making errors yourself”

From Rule 8:

A prerequisite, of course, is native talent. But even for the talented, no amount of utilizing smart methods can substitute for sheer duration of effort. Gladwell has suggested that about 10,000 hours of application are needed to become a true expert in a particular field. While some have quibbled with the universal validity of this suggestion, we think it is a fairly good estimate of what you need to put in. Also, these long hours need to be quality time without distractions. Easy to say, hard to do.

Rule 9 (Have a Vision to Give You a General Direction) states:

A key to learning how to learn is to be economical and to structure your efforts according to the general direction in which you want to move. Hamming writes: “It is well known the drunken sailor who staggers to the left or right with n independent random steps will, on the average, end up about √n steps from the origin. But if there is a pretty girl in one direction, then his steps will tend to go in that direction and he will go a distance proportional to n.”

You too need an attractive vision of where you want to go. As Hamming points out, “having a vision is what tends to separate the leaders from the followers.”

Finally I’d say that a really important skill to develop is the ability to listen to, try to understand deeply and then have the courage and humility to act on advice from people with a much larger vision that yourself. I’ve rarely done this myself and know of few other people that have, but looking back over my career it’s something I certainly could have given more attention to. Here’s a sample story (see the bottom bit). This relates to Rule 9 above of course, but only in an indirect manner.


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