Pain and Practice

Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting.  There are no gains, without pains…(Benjamin Franklin)

Pain is an indicator.  It warns us of disease.  It tells us when we’re hurting ourselves or being damaged in some way.

It can also signal when our practice is leading to growth and when it is not.  Muscle growth results from microscopic muscle tears that cause pain, but also result in muscle tissue that is rebuilt with greater density.  We get stronger.

Deliberate practice focuses on those aspects of our work where we fall short, that we don’t do well, that are hard.  This in turn creates frustration, a kind of psychic pain, or anxiety that we won’t accomplish the goal our practice is meant to accomplish.

Mastery is learning to stay with the pain long enough to achieve breakthrough to the next level.  It’s learning to continually work the edge between growth and damage, between faith and discouragement, between where we are and where we want to be.

Working that edge is always hard, is always painful, because there is always a gap between where we are and where we are going.  And working the edge means working on that part we haven’t yet learned to do, lifting a weight we haven’t lifted; working till the pain is nearly unendurable, but not quite.

That is hard to do alone.  The experts nearly always have a mentor, a coach, someone to push and pull them along, to encourage them when they get discouraged, to build faith in them that they can accomplish their goal, to point out the best steps to take along the way.

But no one can do the work for us.  No one can take away the pain for us.  Pain is the price of breakthrough, of transformation.

Trust Your Practice

There will be days when your practice seems futile, when all your work feels like cutting diamonds with a blunt instrument.  You write down a plan, take your measurements, practice the cuts, and then your first cleaving strike shatters the stone into a million worthless flakes.

Failure is part of the practice.  Failure is the feedback that makes your practice better.

It is perseverance that changes your blunt instrument into a razor’s edge.  It is perseverance that changes your frustration into the patience necessary for the tree that is you to blossom and bear fruit.

The hardest part of practice is trusting in its efficacy, even as your progress flattens out, as it inevitably will.

Look at figure 38.1 (actually the first figure in the paper) in this link to Ericsson’s paper, “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance”.  Notice the curve labeled “Expert Performance.”  That curve appears logarithmic to me.

Suppose the trajectory of expertise is logarithmic.  If the 10,000 hour rule is true (it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert), and we take the base 10 logarithm of 10,000, then we get log10(10,000)=4 to be the benchmark or threshold of expertise.

Now notice that log10(10)=1, log10(100)=2, log10(1000)=3, and log10(10,000)=4.  In other words, just 10 hours of deliberate practice yields 25% of the skill of an expert, 100 hours yield 50% of the skill, and 1000 hours 75% of the skill.

It takes another 9,000 hours of deliberate practice to acquire the last 25% of skill required to become an expert.  Can it be that it takes nine times the practice to be an expert that it does to be merely competent?  Perhaps that’s why so few of us are experts.

Progress beyond 1,000 hours comes extremely slowly.  It takes more than determination to be an expert.  It takes faith and hope; the faith that your practice is making you better, even when is no visible sign that it is, and the hope of finally mastering that which brings you joy.

A Model of Practice

Models are an abstraction of reality.  A model well made can help us understand how the thing modeled works, or how things modeled work together, or provide us with a lab for experimenting or practicing new things without real world consequences.

A model can be as simple as a thought experiment, such as Einstein chasing a beam of light.  Or it can be as complicated as the computational models used for whole genome shotgun sequencing.

What does this have to do with practice?

Models help us understand things, especially with regard to inputs and outputs, with cause and effect, with observation and inference.

Building a good model requires careful observation.  Careful observation involves using as many of the senses as possible, measuring the inputs and outputs, describing qualities, and noticing changes.

The flight simulators used by the military and airlines are nothing but carefully designed models that replicate the cockpit experience of flying as closely as possible.

We can put these ideas to work in our own practice.  Consider recording the time you begin practice, and the time you stop.  Were there any distractions?  Was there any noticeable progress?  Try to describe the experience as closely as possible.  What kept you from practice?  What structures could you put in place to make avoiding practice more difficult?

Are you more likely to practice if you do it first thing in the morning, or as soon as you get home from work?  Are there certain rituals you can invoke that prepare your mind and body for practice?  If a practice goes particularly well, or poorly, get out your practice journal and try to describe what was different.

Try to write a succinct statement of what a perfect practice looks like and feels like.  Include any rituals of approach, of warming up, of cooling down, and writing down any insights gained from your practice.

Build a flight simulator of your own.

Seeking Feedback

The feedback we can give ourselves is limited by our perspective.  The light of our own knowledge and understanding casts shadows that only the light from another consciousness can see into.

Even something as seemingly objective as “doing 21 pushups” might be seen differently in the eyes of a personal trainer than from our own perspective down on the floor counting them off.

Sometimes just getting a fresh pair of eyes to look at a problem, a process, or an impression of me can provide an immediate epiphany or insight.

So if we really want to improve our practice, we are going to want to seek out others to provide us with feedback on what we’re doing, hopefully from someone who has already mastered what we ourselves are trying to master.

Depending on the degree of technical expertise required this can be fairly hard to do.  Do we go to school, hire ourselves a teacher, or seek out a mentor?  Sometimes I find it more helpful to talk with another practitioner, some like myself who is on the practice path to mastery.

Particularly in the realm of interpersonal relationships, getting outside feedback is critical to improving our ability to listen, to speak, and to be empathic.  In fact, relating to others is a hard thing to practice alone.

When you ask for feedback, expect a bitter draft.  Others see our faults more readily than we do.  And people speak more readily of things negative than they do the positive.  Even so, accept it gratefully knowing you can improve your practice and your relationships thereby.

Don’t try to justify yourself, or take insult at faults found.  Remember that you asked for it, and that the critic has blessed with feedback as well as criticism.  Only let it reflect on your behavior and not on yourself.  If you’ve performed poorly, it is behavior that can be changed and improved; it does not mean you are a bad person.

Building Better Feedback

The main purpose of feedback is to provide corrective action to behavior required to achieve a desired goal.  Feedback is a key step in learning how to learn.

Effective feedback involves a sort of triangulation:

1)   a specific goal,

2)   some kind of metric that measures our distance from achieving the goal, and

3)   A process for improving the practices intended to achieve the goal.

In order for feedback to be effective we need to be able to describe both the goal and the behavior in terms as specific as possible.

The most descriptive terms are generally measurements of some kind, such as to run a 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds.  Maybe that’s what makes such avid fans and participants of sports: they are generally so measureable.

Other goals are harder to describe.  For instance, perhaps you’ve recently read a book.  Was your goal merely to read it, or to understand it?  If the latter, then how do you know you’ve understood the book?  Do you have a process for making this determination for yourself?

Suppose you’re using Mortimer Adler’s criteria for understanding a book.  Then you’ll need to be able to at least answer these four questions:

1)   What is the book about as a whole?

2)   What is being said in detail, and how?

3)   Is the book true, in whole or part?

4)   How is it significant?

How far you are from answering those questions gives you some idea of how far you are from achieving your goal of understanding the book.

Sometimes measurements can seem counterproductive.  I have an app for my computer to measure my meditation progress. It works well and measures a strong correlate, “coherence,” but it’s rather distracting.  I feel like a pitcher who’s focused on the fans instead of the next pitch.  So while I don’t use it every day I do believe that “regular” use of the app can be indicative of the effectiveness of my meditation practice.

What Practice Isn’t

My practice is writing a 250 word essay every day; not a research paper, not a novel, and not a book review.  While that might not seem like much of a distinction, it’s important for me to keep in mind, because if I don’t remember what my practice is I will quickly get lost in what it isn’t.

I want my reading to inform my writing, but not dictate it.  I want my interests to guide my research, but take care that my research doesn’t kill my interest.

One of the pitfalls of deliberate practice is that we can be so concerned about practicing the right way that we lose sight of the practice itself.  That is, I’d rather listen to Dory (Finding Nemo) and keep on swimming than stop swimming because I might not be swimming the “right” way.

The last few days I’ve been trying boil down an enormous tomb of research into a 250 word essay.  It totally put the brakes on my writing.  I want to continue chewing on that tomb, and hopefully it will inform my future posts, but I can’t stop writing just because I haven’t digested it yet.

I have to continually remind myself what the heart of my practice is and make sure I do that core every single day.  One of my favorite books is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.  He elegantly and hilariously describes this inner struggle with resistance, the greatest obstacle to practice.  And nothing is more important or difficult than sitting down to practice that thing we’ve been called to do every single working day…one of the strangest ironies of life.

The Dilettante’s Practice

How does a dilettante turn the 10,000 hour rule into a viable practice for herself?  The dilettante’s dilemma is that she is too interested in too many things to devote herself to only one of them.  She is a liberally educated vocational ignoramus.

Take heart, those of you insulted by my last remark; I walk among you, am one of you.

In one of Ericsson’s papers on deliberate practice and expertise, he gives a graph of expertise which looks logarithmic to me.  That is, the levels of skill that result from the accumulated hours of deliberate practice appear to me to be logarithmically related to the number of those accumulated hours of practice.  Intuitively this makes sense to me; our skill level tends to increase rapidly in the beginning, but then begins to plateau.  Even so, the logarithm is a monotonically increasing function.

Suppose that this function is in fact logarithmic.  The base ten log of 10,000 hours is four, while that of 1,000 hours is 3.  In other words, if this relation were in fact to hold true, then 1,000 hours of deliberate practice would yield 75% of the skill level of an expert.  Might this level of skill be competent?

Now consider our dilettante again.  Suppose she were to practice in domains orthogonal to one another; that is, one domain casts little, if any shadow upon another.  For example, math casts quite a long shadow on physics, but hardly any at all on dance apart from rhythm.

Suppose she had four or five of these orthogonal domains of practice in which she was “competent,” that is, had one thousand hours of deliberate practice in each; say math, dance, drawing, history, and meditation.  Consider what her experience of the world is like, its richness and depth, versus the world of the violinist who has given 10,000 hours of her life to the deliberate practice of the violin.  Could it be like the difference between Flatland and the world we live in?

What price glory?