Building a practice of deliberate practice

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to get the most bang for my buck out of my time away from work.

Finding my path

It took me a little while to find my feet and my path to programming.

Z and I were chatting the other day about recognizing our emotional / anxiety / stress cycles and something she said made a lightbulb go off for me.

I realized that every time I feel frustrated or down, I decide to start a company and/or get an MBA.  It’s not because I’m frustrated by some big problem and have a brilliant idea of what to do about it.  It’s because I’m frustrated with myself and think that getting the stamp of approval of an prestigious MBA or saying f-you to my job/crappy manager/whatever by starting my own company will be the panacea to my ills.

I wanted to be respected.  I wanted to be successful.  And I wanted to fit in.

I have a tendency to do what my friends do (a terrible, terrible habit!) due to a desire to fit in and gain their respect.  I started out college as a math/bio major and then in my junior year switched to international relations since all my friends were history and poly sci majors.  Math/science was considered dull and very un-hip.

I didn’t really enjoy the work, but I found a niche that I did enjoy – theory of technology – and exploited that the best I could.  My thesis advisor senior year even asked me point blank: how is what you’re doing international relations?  And to be honest I didn’t have a great defense.

Later, even though I felt I was on the wrong path and was unhappy with my job, I felt paralyzed from making any changes.  In my early-mid 20s I still felt young enough to defer any difficult decisions to my older self (I hate my job now but by 35 I’ll be a wildly successful businesswoman.).

By the time I hit 29 the magical thinking stopped working.  29 to 35 isn’t a whole lot of time for me to start loving my work.  However, I was worried I was too old to make a change and figured I should stay the course and find a way to make peace with my job. But I just couldn’t.  I flip flopped between googling ‘am I too old to start over?’ and feeling young and exuberant and ready to take on the world.  And, of course, all the while I was anxiously scouring the internet for hope time kept right on ticking by.

So it’s no shocker, with all this brewing, that when I finally took the plunge to quit my job in Feb to focus on learning to program, within a week I was researching competitors and interviewing potential users to validate an idea I had for a company.

I was scared.  I was scared that I was suddenly on my own and that my friends would all think I was a failure.  Saying I was starting a company made sense to people.  Saying I was learning to program because I wanted to make art robots did not.

Luckily, I realized within a few weeks that I had no interest in being an entrepreneur.  And with that out of the way, I finally recognized the cycle for what it was – my fear and need for outside recognition – and was able to move on.

Learning to learn

Now that I had found my path and realized that I really did want to learn to program, I had to learn how to learn.

The next struggle was to tackle the feeling of being too late to the game.

I felt years behind where I wanted to be, and felt I needed to catch up.  I had a million ideas of projects to build, but zero skills whatsoever.  My first instinct was to dive in and start building projects, figuring that I would be driven to learn things in order to bring my ideas to life.

This kind of worked.  But with each project I realized a bit more how much I didn’t know.

So next came a recalibration period.  I learned what I didn’t know and how far I needed to go.  But still I felt anxious at my slow pace of progress.

Was I actually getting better?  I had no measuring stick.  No way of knowing.  And the more I realized I didn’t know, the harsher my inner critic became.

Deliberate practice

The second half of last week I felt pretty lost.  I had a great tutoring session last Tuesday.  I then spent Wednesday preparing for an interview for the Recurse Center on Thursday.  After my interview, I felt a little deflated.  I was off track with my Calculus and Algorithms classes, I had homework from my tutor, and I just felt all over the place.

I tried to get back into the next week’s Calculus lecture on Friday, but after I watched the videos I didn’t feel like I had truly understood the material.

I had planned on working over the weekend, but ended up taking both Saturday and Sunday completely off.  I spent time with my family, went to an art show, went for a nice long walk, and just relaxed.

I thought a lot about what the next month(s) might look like.  I heard on a podcast recently the quote by Bill Gates that people tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in one year and underestimate what they can accomplish in five.

I thought a lot about quitting.  And how the reason the above is likely true is because we give up when we don’t see results as quickly as we’d like.

I thought a lot about committing to change.  There’s a line in Dr. Tim Pychyl’s procrastination podcast that really hit home for me about changing habits being a lifelong pursuit and, if that sounds like too much to bother with, what is life if not the pursuit of bettering ourselves?

Finally, I thought about committing to learning.  I didn’t just want to watch all the Calculus videos on 2x speed and pump out exams a la Scott Young.  I wanted to deeply understand the material so that I could apply concepts from one area to problems in a completely different area.  For example, I was recently trying to analyze the running time of algorithms by taking the limits of the formulas, but I was getting funky answers.  I knew I needed to take limits (using my Calculus hooray!) but I couldn’t figure out how.  The form of the equations for big O notation was different from the form equations take in my Calculus class and I was having trouble applying the concepts.

So what’s the point of all my rambling?

All this is to say that I decided earlier this week to really commit to learning.  But, I wasn’t just going to do a lot of practice problems.  I didn’t think that was the best use of my time.  Instead, I spent a few hours researching learning strategies and formulating a real, achievable plan.

I also realized that mixing subjects just doesn’t work for me.  In other words, doing Calculus for a day and then switching to Algorithms for a day doesn’t work.  It was putting pressure on me to finish a week’s material in a day so I could feel that I had wrapped up a lesson before moving on.  This meant I wasn’t taking the time to really dive into concepts since I was more focused on the output (getting a good score on the quiz, getting the right answers from the programming project) instead of the process.

I listed out some general concepts I didn’t feel I had a good grasp on:

  • limits
  • general info about proofs (e.g. what is a proof by induction?)
  • proofs of trigonometric derivatives
  • rusty on some basic algebra/geometry like completing the square, solving trig equations
  • tree traversal
  • priority queues
  • etc etc etc

I plan to spend at least 3 hours per concept.  This includes writing out proofs, solving them by hand on my own, doing practice problems, and whatever else it would take to develop an instinct for the material.  I want to get to a place where things just ‘felt’ right or wrong.

Giving up on shortcuts

I listened this morning to this old Freakonomics episode about How to be great at anything.  It dives into the idea of deliberate practice, and the story about the psychologist – singer is such a great example.

I used to approach learning as a goal-oriented practice.  I wanted to learn concrete thing X which would then allow me to do concrete thing Y.  The goal was to be able to do Y.  Not to understand X.

Now I’m thinking of it more as a lifestyle.  I’m committing myself to “slow learning” and mastery, and also to the knowledge that I may never get ‘there.’  No more of this learn X in 30 days BS!

This is not to be equated with lackadaisical learning.  It’s not that I’m slowing down and only studying an hour or two a day.  If anything, I’m ramping up and getting more intense.  I’m reorienting my mindset and digging in for the long haul.