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The most important thing that will unlock your career

April 28, 2020

The most important talent may be the talent for practice itself.
– Atul Gawande.

There is something about looking at other disciplines and professions that inspires me. It clears my view of my work in a way that I couldn't without that external stimulus. And it makes me wonder and challenge the default way of working and thinking about our work in the startup world.

Many studies talk about the importance of experience and accumulating 10000 hours of working on a topic to become an expert on it. That 10000 feels like a magical number, a milestone, and yet it sounds like it's something that as long as we show up for work, in a few years we'll have those 10000 under our belt and we'll be super senior engineers! This seems to be the way for promotion for many companies indeed: spend enough time in your industry, and those years can be an indication of seniority.

But we know time ≠ experience. You could've lived the same professional year over and over, applying the same solution to different problems, and growing nothing. And you can have just a few years of work experience, yet have a polished skillset that only people with many more years at the same job have.

How is that possible? Some attribute it to luck and serendipity, others to raw talent. Sometimes it can be a mix of both. But the best path to achieving it, and something that was a huge revelation for me a few years ago, is the idea of deliberate practice.

Many studies show that elite performers like world-class violinists, chess players, athletes, etc., have mainly one difference between them and lesser performers: the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. It's not only the years they've been at it, but it's also how they've been working on their craft.

It's not a matter of hours practiced alone, either. Some lesser performers sometimes are working even harder than the world-class ones. One of the most famous pianists of the 20th century, Arthur Rubinstein, once stated that nobody should have to practice more than four hours a day, explaining that if you needed to practice more than four hours a day, you probably weren't doing it right.

How about you? Do you practice your craft, other than doing your best when working?

Musicians and athletes spend most of their time preparing for the great show or competition. It would be unthinkable of them to rely on those huge moments to be the only amount of work and practice they have, and impossible to guarantee they'll be doing their best in that situation.

As developers, though, we spend most of our time on our great show, we are working on features that are needed by our users. We need to perform our best 8 hours a day, five days a week, and any improvement on our skill sets comes through the sheer luck of coming across a challenge big enough to help us grow, and small enough so that we can handle it.

Is that it? Isn't there something we can do about that? I believe we can. I think that dedicating all those hours in an environment that demands that top performance from us is a huge opportunity to learn about ourselves and analyze what the most important things we should work in small chunks through our deliberate practice regimen are.

It doesn't matter if you're a developer, a designer, a marketer, or whatever: you can break down your job into different skillsets and actions that you use and perform multiple times a day, and figure out a way to practice them in isolation.

Like a guitar player that memorizes scales, then works on their right-hand dexterity, and then the left hand before putting it all together, you can:

  • Improve your efficiency with your tools.
  • Learn to do better (and quicker) refactors on complicated codebases.
  • Get used to writing code guided by tests.
  • Get better at breaking down projects and analyzing edge cases.

And with good deliberate practice, you can make it all be second nature to you, and become world-class at what you do too.

Hit me up if you want some more specific tips on deliberate practice, I'd love to hear more about your context and help you come up with some ideas to apply and level up more efficiently!

As always, thanks for reading 🙏

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