It’s a new year, and it’s about time for a hard truth: practice, when done properly, isn’t fun. I’d love to be able to tell you that it is – that the transcendent joy you get when you practice a skill gives you the best feeling in the world – but that’s not true, and if you pursue that end you’re going to misuse your practice time. The father of the analysis of practice is Anders Ericsson; his 1993 paper on deliberate practice is a must-read for anyone interested in mastery. In that paper, he distinguishes three different sorts of activity:
- Work is the execution of a skill for an external reward (for instance, a paycheck)
- Play is the execution of a skill for an internal reward (because it makes you happy)
- Deliberate practice is the execution of a skill specifically to improve at that skill
Those distinctions alone leave open the possibility that practice could be fun, but when you start to dig into the depths of activities that are specifically designed to help you improve a particular skill, it turns out that they share very little with the general activities you see in play (or in work, for that matter). Daniel Coyle provides an example of this in The Talent Code. He describes a video of a schoolgirl practicing the clarinet. She’s an average player, but during one six-minute section of the video, she practices deliberately, and improves markedly as a result. Watching the session, however, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why this particular bit was important, because it certainly doesn’t look like she’s enjoying herself – where later in the session she’s playing through tunes, here she’s constantly stopping and starting. It doesn’t sound like music, or what we naively think of as practice, but it’s the best thing she could be doing. The point is that the actions that produce the most improvement aren’t closely related to the more common performances of a skill. In a martial art, you may practice a single turn hundreds or thousands of times in order to perfect a tiny piece of a long form. The practice itself isn’t fun, which means we have to trick ourselves into enjoying it by considering the future rewards. Aside for developers: one consequence of this finding is that side-projects don’t cut it as practice. If you want to improve in your technology and you think you’ll do it in the course of building some application that you have a need for, you’re heading down the wrong path. What eventually happens is that the external reward (of having some tool that you want to use) will inevitably overtake the skill-improvement aspects of the process, and, while you’ll end up with something useful, you won’t have improved as a developer nearly as much as if you’d spent that time practicing more effectively.