How Do You Get Better at What You Do?

On his site, Marginal Revolution, American economist Tyler Cowen mentions that he has developed a habit of asking his peers the often, long-pause-inducing question:

“What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practising scales?”

Cowen asks this question because he is acutely aware that, unlike professional musicians, intelligence and knowledge workers of the modern-day cannot accurately measure the improvement of their work. Whether you’re a product designer, software engineer, writer, or online educator; you likely lack the metrics and markers for your progression - and it’s in asking this question, that Cowen forces us to consider the one variable that may just give us these things. Deliberate practice.

In a blog post by the former Facebook Product Design VP, Julie Zhuo highly recommends early-career designers to focus on the quantity of work produced. To clarify the importance of this, Zhuo refers to a study conducted by a professor at the University of Florida, Jerry Uelsmann, who divided his class of photojournalism students, into two groups.

The professor explained to the class that each group’s work over the semester was going to be assessed differently. Whilst the first was graded solely on the amount of work they produced (ie, 100 photos submitted gets you an A, and 80 gets you a B, etc.); the second group was told that they only had to produce one photo by the end of the course and that their grade was going to be awarded based on how “near perfect” that photo was.

To his surprise, the professor found that the photos of the best quality were brought forward by those in the class who were told to focus on quantity. You see, in the process of producing a body of work, these students got an intuitive feeling for which of their photos were better. With their curiosity heightened, they engaged deeply with each batch of photos by testing a variety of compositions, lighting, and focal length and thus experienced firsthand which elements enabled the great photos to rise above the not-so-great.

Meanwhile, despite spending hours attempting to come up with the formula for what made the “perfect” photo, the other students didn’t get their hands dirty and the outcome of their work didn’t live up to their apparent theory of perfection.

Zhuo uses this study to highlight to inexperienced designers the importance of repetition in order to improve, of creating as many different variants as possible when designing a solution to a particular problem and of honestly scrutinising each solution for its pros and cons. Katie Dill, the VP/Head of Design at Lyft, also attributes the experience gained from having produced a large quantity of anything - be it sketching, prototyping, or designing interfaces - as a key contributor to the improvement of creative work. “It’s all about mileage,” Dill explains in an interview, “meaning that the more you do the better you’ll get.”

It’s all about mileage… the more you do, the better you’ll get - @lil_dill

From my experience, I’ve noticed that any good designer, developer, or manager I have ever worked with has usually had quite the healthy habit of admitting that their first solution to any problem is not the best, but the great ones usually found joy in the process of churning a stream of high output.

I learnt, early on in my company’s existence, to push past the need to seem capable of creating the perfect solution in one go. To not demand perfection from my work without having wrestled with numerous ideas first. What this means in practical terms is that I focus on creating as many screens as possible when building a prototype of a particular part of the app’s experience.

The harsh reality of this is that upon finally arriving at the “perfect” solution for a user’s problem, I sometimes need to delete nearly 100 screens in order to not create any mix-up with the end solution’s 5–10 screens; and whilst this deletion at completion does momentarily pull me away from the satisfaction of getting to the peak of my mountain, it never truly takes away from the joy of climbing. The screens that don’t make the final cut are really not worth crying about because they are simply the temporary manifestation of the exploration of my ideas… my way of practising my scales.

Robert Greene mentions in his book, Mastery, that “there are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from. […] The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity about how things must be done,” and it’s this repeated failure that can be best accessed when we simply, practice.

Tyler Cowen followed his first musing on this topic with another blog post that gave his answer to the very question: “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practising scales?” In it, he explains that he writes every day and that much of this writing is laying out viewpoints that are not his own, as a means of practising understanding and analysis. Similar to this, Cowen has regular interactions with “very smart people who will challenge me”. In fact, Cowen even challenges himself by intentionally listening to highly complex music and asking himself “what did I learn today?” every day.

From the extensiveness of this list, we can infer that his collection of strategies took tremendous excogitation and effort  -  but do not let this throw you off developing your own. This effort was induced because practice is a very powerful method of preventing mental laziness and ensuring growth and improvement in your intellectual work. So choose your scales and start practising them. Day in, day out. Start improving. And if you fear the longevity of this process - stop asking how long it will take and instead, ask how far you can go.

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Don’t hesitate to say hello and let me know how you’re practising your scales on Twitter: @justincampbellp

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Easter egg: It took me 6 rewrites to make this post, but it’s okay - that was all just practise.

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