Becoming an Expert. One Day at at Time.

Over at Study Hacks, which if you read this blog often, you know I both adore and argue with often, Cal Newport is talking about his strong belief (and I’m with him here) that to become successful, we need expertise.

He got started on this, this time (he addresses this a lot) in thinking about Draper University, which, he says, focuses on “soft skills,” skills that are useful and yes, necessary, for success — networking and generating ideas, for instance —  but aren’t, he says, enough.

Newport is all about hard work and focus (he argues that even “following your passion” is a problematic piece of advice, since so often true passion for a work comes not at the beginning of learning it or working in it, but later, after one has become expert at the work).  And, he points out, really changing the world doesn’t usually come just by wanting to change it and going off to do so.  As he says,

“If you want Google you need a pair of guys who were well along in Stanford’s PhD program and who were well-versed in the state of the art Information Retrieval literature.

If you want Microsoft you need a nerd who obsessively honed his programming skills and was willing to spend sleepless months mastering the opcodes of the first microprocessors.

If you want to sequence the human genome you need an entrepreneur who first spent a decade working in academia and at the NIH mastering the latest advancements in biogenetics.”

I’m all for following passions, I really am.  But I agree; learning how to actually stay the course is of extreme importance.  Simply watching doctoral students makes this clear to me; the students who finish the degree aren’t necessarily the most brilliant ones, the ones who come in and get all the prizes and blow everybody else out of the water.  They’re the students who one day at a time, one task at a time, persevere.

Passions and interests can show us where we might want to go.  But there’s no substitute for the weeks and months and years of learning a craft.

Now then!  What if, oh my coaching guru, the daily task on my list, that will help me become an expert, the small homework job I’ve got to do today, is a job that I do not want to do?  Huh?  Cause didn’t you tell me that I should be working towards having a day full of things I wanted to do?

Yes.  Yes, I did tell you that.  So!  My advice if you’re working on becoming an expert and you’re getting tired of the steps you have to take to get there:  1) Use whatever method you’ve got to listen to your deep self; is this indeed a goal you want? (I like the “writing the answer with my weak hand” technique, but your mileage may vary.)  2) Use the same method to find out if your deep self doesn’t want to do this task.  Cause you might be surprised.  You may have much more energy for this than you thought at first.   3)  If indeed this really is a goal you want to reach (and please, please, do NOT be in ANY doctoral program if you don’t really truly want to be there), but your deep self doesn’t want to do the task in front of you, are there things you can do to make the task more enjoyable?  Work with other people?  Work in a different place?  Work at a different time of day?  Get your exercise in first?  Give yourself 30 minutes of dancing around the room first?  In other words, how can you take care of yourself while you go the distance?