Software and Computer Engineering

Driving and Deliberate Practice

It's not the time that you've spent doing it that counts the most. Time, of course, is an objective measure and a reasonable indicative of experience.

But we don't see people who spends years driving around every day in traffic becoming Formula 1 drivers.

It's quite possible to have spent 10 years of time repeating your 1st year experience. On the flip side, it's also possible to develop way more experience in a compressed timeline if the conditions are just right.

Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who studied the science of expertise and peak human performance, emphasized the concept of deliberate practice as the medium to attain higher levels of performative skill.

Deliberate practice has two key elements:

Practicing just above the current expertise level

If the presented challenge is just too easy, we will of course be able to do it, but we will inevitably just grow uninterested and bored.

On the other hand, if the challenge we set for ourselves is way beyond our level, we won't have the tools or knowledge to solve it, most likely failing at it and becoming frustrated.

The ideal challenge is just about above our current expertise level: just easy enough that we have the tools to understand the problem and tackle it, but just hard enough that we can't see the solution right away.

By struggling with the challenge in this manner, we hone and elevate our existing skills and also develop new ones.

It's deeply rewarding and satisfying once you are able to succeed. However, in case you are not able to do it, you've identified a gap on your knowledge, which is also highly valuable.

Breaking it up, then bringing it all together

Another aspect of deliberate practice is breaking up the components of a challenge, and working at each of the component skills required individually.

For example, coming back to the driver analogy, when you are new at it just sitting in the driver seat and being told to drive is overwhelming -- there are so many things to remember at a conscious level.

The way to improve is to simplify the scope and focus on tackling each part: let's first try and drive in a straight line, with no traffic, just turn on the engine, get to the first gear, drive a bit forward, break, and turn off the engine. Repeat.

You will most likely stall the car a few times, but at the same time you will develop a feeling for how each control affects the behavior of the whole vehicle.

Once the above routine is nailed down and you are comfortable enough as to never stall the motor, time to sprinkle in more gear changes, turning, and so on.

The takeaway is that: to ever hope to do the full performance -- driving the car in city traffic -- you must be able to perform each component skill -- accelerating, breaking, turning -- at almost an automatic level.

The final step is to take it all together and perform the full routine in reality, since just driving on a straight line on gear one forever won't ever make you a capable driver.