Study Hacks Blog

Top Performer is Now Open

July 24th, 2017 · 5 comments

Top Performer is an eight-week online career mastery course that I developed with my friend and longtime collaborator Scott Young. It helps you develop a deep understanding of how your career works, and then apply the principles of deliberate practice to efficiently master the skills you identify as mattering most. Over the past four years we’ve had over two thousand professionals go though this course, representing a wide variety of different fields, backgrounds, and career stages.

We open the course infrequently for new registrations  (usually twice a year). It’s that time again: the course is open for registration this week (the registration closes Friday at midnight Pacific time).

If you’d like to learn more about the course, how it works or whether it’s right for you,* see the registration page here.

If you have any questions about the course, Scott’s team will be happy to answer them here: support@scotthyoung.zendesk.com

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* To emphasize the obvious: the course is definitely not for everyone. It’s expensive and targeting those at a stage in their career where they’re able and willing to invest more seriously in advancement.  I might send one or two additional notes about the course this week, but will then return to my regularly scheduled programming.

Top Performer is Open

January 23rd, 2017 · 12 comments

The Return of Top Performer

Top Performer, a career mastery course developed over the past four years by myself and Scott Young, is open this week for new registrations.

Top Performer is an eight-week online course that is designed to help you develop a deep understanding of how your career works, and then apply the principles of deliberate practice to efficiently master the skills you identify as mattering most.

We’ve had over two thousand students go though this course to date, representing a wide variety of different professions, backgrounds, and career stages.

Registration for new students will be up until Friday at midnight Pacific Time. After this we will close the registration page so we can prepare for the new session to start.

If you’re interested in joining the new session, or just want to find out more about the course (including multiple case studies and detailed FAQs), please check out the course registration page before Friday.

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Addendum: Scott and I try to open new sessions once or twice a year, but the frequency can depend on many factors. If you’re thinking of skipping this session to join the next, the wait might be long. Keep in mind that once you sign up you gain lifelong access to the course and all future updates and sessions. And even though we start each new session at a given time, there’s no obligation to progress through the session at a set pace. You can start when you’re ready.

My Article in the New York Times and Other Miscellanea

October 1st, 2012 · 21 comments

I wanted to share a few notes about the SO GOOD launch and some related material that caught my attention recently…

Here’s an article I wrote on passion for this Sunday’s New York Times. If you’re looking for a concise description of the thesis of  SO GOOD — perhaps to share with a passion-obsessed friend or relative — this article is a great way to do it. (As shown on the right, the article moved onto the list of the top 10 most e-mailed articles on the Times this morning, so hopefully the idea is spreading!)

If you’re still looking for more about the book, check out the article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review Blog (still one of their most read articles of the past month), or the excerpt that ran at FastCompany.com.

In the meantime, on an unrelated note, my friends, The Minimalists, just published a new book: $5 Simplicity. If you’re interested in living a simpler and more meaningful life, few commentators are more thoughtful than Ryan and Josh — definitely check it out. (Also check out their blog; they’re about to move into a Walden-style cabin in Montana…should make for interesting reading.)

Also unrelated to the book, Daphne Gray-Grant has recently launched a series chronicling her experiments in applying the principles of deliberate practice to writing. Thought some of you might enjoy hearing about her adventures in career craftsmanship.

As the busyness generated by my book launch begins to fade, I’m excited to return soon to my normal style of posts. I have a lot to share about my most recent attempts and thoughts regarding the quest for a remarkable career…

The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

April 9th, 2012 · 67 comments

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.

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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 Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

March 28th, 2012 · 40 comments

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…

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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:

Beyond Flow

January 5th, 2012 · 39 comments

A Deliberate Day

Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.

This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.

Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)

After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.

Read more »

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.”

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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 · 91 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.”

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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)