Study Hacks Blog Posts from December, 2011 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

December 28th, 2011 · 17 comments

The Deliberate Student

I just received the e-mail reproduced below from a computer science major who successfully applied the deliberate practice hypothesis to his academic work.

This is good food for thought for students home for Christmas break. As you think about your fall and make plans for your spring, remind yourself of the following essential truth:

When it comes to studying, there’s a huge difference between doing work and doing useful work. If you’re not putting a lot of thought into navigating this distinction, you’re probably mired in the former.

On to the e-mail…

  • “I’m a computer science major with little background in programming. I took a data structures course this semester, and scored below average on my midterm.”
  • “I actually studied pretty hard for that exam, but obviously failed to make the distinction between ‘hard work’ and ‘hard to do work’.”
  • “Last week, I decided to use deliberate practice to weed out my weak points by going over the more difficult problem sets in extreme detail. I ended up breaking the curve for the final.”[Cal: see here and here and here for more on applying deliberate practice to master technical topics.]
  • “I think the reason I failed to fully reap the benefits of deliberate practice on my midterm was that I avoided it (subconsciously), because it was mentally taxing. But that’s one of the reasons why it works.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player

December 23rd, 2011 · 93 comments

The Piano Player Confessions

I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.

This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.

Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.

“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.

I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.

As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.

Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

The Ambitious Minimalist: Musings on Impact, Simplicity, and the Good Life

December 22nd, 2011 · 17 comments

A Simple Tower

My friend Chris Guillebeau just published his latest manifesto. It’s called The Tower.

In the manifesto, Chris asks: “what truly matters?”

“The purpose of life,” he eventually answers, ” is to create something meaningful that will endure after we’re gone.”

What caught my attention today was an article Chris wrote promoting The Tower. It was a parable about a farmer who realizes that a simple life in his fields — a life devoid of distraction and undue stress — was not enough.

“Deep inside his soul,” Chris writes, “the farmer wanted a challenge.”

It’s not just the content of Chris’s article that interests me, but also where he posted it: on Leo Babuta’s minimalism blog, Zen Habits.

Whether or not this was his intention, Chris hit upon a crucial tension in our corner of the self improvement world.

To understand this tension, keep in mind that Zen Habits is the flagship of the powerful minimalist movement. This is a movement that rejects stuff and busyness; it drives people to give away junk they don’t need,  stop acquiring, and live cheaply, which in turn lets them step away from overly-demanding jobs, debt, and long commutes.

It’s most visible proponents have gone so far as to move into tiny houses that they build by hand and that can be pulled around on a trailer.

Minimalism is a powerful idea. Clutter and demands in our lives leads to clutter and demands in our minds, which in turn leads to stress and unhappiness (c.f., Winifred Gallagher’s under-appreciated book, Rapt). And if our current cultural situation is anything, it’s cluttered.

But Chris’s post highlights the achilles heel of minimalism. We are also wired to make an impact (c.f., Victor Frankl). Once distraction is cleared from our lives something meaningful needs to fill the vacuum.

When I browse the most pure of the minimalism blogs, like Tammy Strobel’s compulsively readable Rowdy Kittens, this background attraction toward legacy pulls at my attention. I crave simplicity. But I also crave challenge.

Bringing together these two cravings, in my humble opinion, might be one of the most original and effective ideas to come out of our piece of the web; a point of convergence that the different schools of advice blogging — lifestyle design, minimalism, the passionistas, evidence-based success strategists — are all blindly evolving towards; perhaps even a grand unified theory of building a happy life in modern America.

Of course, I’ve been nibbling around the edges of this convergence for years here on Study Hacks.

My student readers have had my mantra drilled into their head time and again: Do less. But do the very small number of things you do very well.

My readers in the career world are increasingly hearing a variant of this theme: Choose one thing to do really, really well, then leverage this value to take control of your career.

There is, however, a lot of work to be done to advance this convergence. (For one thing, I can’t hold a candle to Leo or Tammy’s ability to evoke the contentment of simplicity.) Which is why I was happy to see Chris stroll over to Leo’s world, admire the uncluttered view, and then ask, “now what?”

(Image from Rowdy Kittens, taken by Tammy Strobel.)

Abandon Your Big Idea. But Don’t Give Up Your Big Ambition.

December 8th, 2011 · 32 comments

Project Problems

Earlier today I answered an e-mail from an undergraduate at a well-known college.

She was studying neuroscience. A true believer in the Study Hacks student canon, she had pared down her commitments so she could focus her attention on her major and a related research position.

But then came the second paragraph: “I have a new project that I want to put together,” she said. “Something about the neuropathology of abnormal psychology.”

She admitted that she was having trouble with this ambition because no one at her school did behavioral neuroscience research.

“But I really want to get involved in that area,” she emphasized. “How do I find someone to work with me? I’m stuck.”

I told her to abandon the idea.

Read more »

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 2nd, 2011 · 48 comments

Bad New for Strivers?

Two psychology professors, David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed with a typically snarky title: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters. Many helpful readers were quick to forward me the link.

The authors of this piece start by asking a simple question: “How do people acquire high levels of skill?”

They note that research in recent decades — pioneered by Anders Ericsson, among others — has emphasized the importance of practice, and that these findings have been “enthussiastically championed” by popular writers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, perhaps due to their “meritocratic appeal.”

They then trip their intellectual trap: “This isn’t quite the story science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters.”

To support this view, they cite their own research, recently summarized in a paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science, which shows that people with larger working memory capacity end up better piano players.

I’m mentioning this article because we’ve been exploring what I call the deliberate practice hypothesis — the idea that applying deliberate practice techniques to a knowledge work environment can lead to huge gains in ability and value. The question at hand is whether this New York Times piece should give us reason to pause.

I read their paper, and my conclusion is that it’s not yet time to abandon deliberate practice to start searching for your innate talent.

Here’s why…

Forget About the Final 7 Percent Until After You Maximize the First 93

What struck me about Hambrick and Meinz’s paper is that it emphasized the necessity of deliberate practice for high achievement.

Consider, for example, the graph at the top of this post, which was pulled from their study. Both lines in the plot show how performance on a piano sight reading task improves with increases in working memory capacity, a trait that the authors argue is innate.

The red line shows this improvement for players with lots of deliberate practice and the blue line shows the improvement for players with less practice.

The key take away is that the  impact of deliberate practice dominates the impact of memory capacity. Practicing more makes you over twice as good. Going from low to high working memory capacity, on the other hand, yields only a minor improvement for an already well-practiced player.

When they finished crunching the numbers, and doing the proper controls for practice quantity, the authors found that this memory capacity accounts for less than 7% of a player’s ability at this task.

From a scientific point of view, this result is important as it clearly identifies a separation between innate and acquired skill.

But from a practical perspective, it’s essentially irrelevant. The fact that these findings are so rare, and that these authors are so excited about such a small effect size, only emphasizes just how small a role innate ability seems to play in achievement.

In other words, unless you are trying to become the world’s top piano sight reader, the 7% advantage of having been born with a vast working memory capacity is not going to play a major role in your achievement.

Now let’s return to the setting that concerns us here at Study Hacks: knowledge work. The deliberate practice hypothesis assumes that almost no one in this setting is working in a way that approximates deliberate practice. In the context of the Hambrick and Meinz study, most of your coworkers are therefore on the blue line from the graph above.

This, of course, only reinforces the idea that embracing deliberate practice can have a profound effect on your ability in this work setting, as this embrace will vault you to the red line. From this lofty perch, minor differences in innate talent won’t matter. Your overwhelming value has already been definitively established.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Figure from Psychological Science)