The List #21

Time for the first the first The List of 2015. As usual, here are a handful of links from across the internet that caught my eye over the past week (or in this case, the past several weeks). If you ever come across something you think I'd like, feel free to send me an email or connect with me on Twitter (@samspurlin).

Re: New Wired Offices - The Awl

This memo shows what leaders putting aesthetic personal preference ahead of employee needs for doing great work looks like. My already low expectations for Wired are dropping lower.

Something Slightly Less Terrible -

Interviewer: Do you mostly focus on one project at a time, or are you a multitasker?

Loren Brichter: I’d describe my work schedule as cooperatively single-threaded with a heavy context switch cost, so I try to keep time slices on the order of about a week. So I have lots of projects going at once that usually relate to each other in some way, but I only consciously work on one at a time.

I can’t consciously multitask at all, but I think my brain works a bit like libdispatch. The subconscious can chew on a lot of stuff in parallel. So when my conscious mind switches back to some other work it put aside earlier, there are usually a couple good ideas waiting for it.

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician's Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome - Brain Pickings

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

Your Best Work - Rands in Repose

In the past five years, the teams I’ve seen work at impressive speed are the ones who self-organized themselves elsewhere. They found a dark corner of the building, they cleared out a large conference room, or they found an unused floor of a building and made it their own. While this might strike you as a case for shared common open space, it’s not. It’s an argument for common space that is not shared because these teams have work to do and don’t want a constant set of irrelevant interruptions. This is why I’m in favor of pod-like set-ups where teams working on similar technology and projects have their own enclosed space. I believe this is the type of set-up that encourages the most efficient forms of collaboration.

The Ultimate Construction of Conversation & How Do You Know When That Itch Has Been Scratched? - The File Drawer

Eric and I are starting to get much more comfortable with who we are and what we're creating with our podcast. These are two of our latest episodes and I'd love if you checked them out (and subscribed to the podcast if you enjoy what you hear)

Photo by Julie Rae Powers

The Art of Deliberate Practice

This article originally appeared on in August 2011. As I continue transitioning to my new home here at, I'm resurfacing some older articles that you may have missed from before. Enjoy!


 After reading this article all of your problems will be solved.

I'm guessing you're reading this blog because there's something you'd like to be better at. You're looking for that inspiration that'll help you conquer whatever issues you might be having. I'm sure some of you are looking for information about how to break bad habits and form better ones. Others of you are looking for help with building and maintaining your motivation. And, even though I'm sure you don't want to admit it, there's a good chance that many of you are looking for that one "hack" that will unlock the holy grail of productivity and happiness. All you have to do is keep searching and keep digging, right?

Unfortunately, you're on a quixotic quest.

You're searching for the Northwest Passage, a Fountain of Youth or a land of milk and honey. None of these things exist (although I suppose you can make an argument for hacking and picking your way through the most northern of Canada's wasteland for a Northwest Passage).

The only path to gaining the skills you want is through deliberate practice.

What's Deliberate Practice?

Deliberate practice is not flashy or exciting to watch. Yet, anybody who has a world-class talent knows that it's the only way to get better. Deliberate practice can be broken down into several different steps:

  1. Pick a target.

  2. Reach for it.

  3. Evaluate the gap between the target and the reach.

  4. Return to step one over and over and over and over and over.

Seems simple enough, right? The difference between deliberate practice and what most people do is step number three. Deliberately practicing requires that you constantly monitor the gap between what you're producing and your target. Most people just practice their techniques or skills without constantly evaluating and adjusting their performance accordingly. That's why watching someone who is practicing deliberately doesn't look particulalry awe inspiring.

Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code talks about watching a student practice her clarinet. She stumbles through a couple notes, stops, and plays them again. She slightly changes the way she plays one note and moves forward a couple more notes. It doesn't sound like music yet but this girl is deliberately learning the skills to play this song. She knows what it should sound like and each time she makes a mistake she stops, backs up, makes adjustments, and tries again. It may sound less impressive than someone who just sits down and plays the piece with mistakes but still manages to make it sound like a song, but it's far more effective.

Adopting Deliberate Practice in Your Own Life

What skills are you trying to develop in your life and are you practicing them deliberately? Obviously, each career or set of skills that you need to learn will be approached differently, but there are some general ideas you can keep in mind as you deliberately practice.

  1. Slow down: Deliberate practice is not something that can be rushed through. It’s something you have to approach slowly and mindfully. It’s not about the number of hours you put in to the practice but what you put into those hours. Deliberate practice requires that you not go through the motions of practice.

  2. Focus: Daniel Coyle compiled a list of words people used to describe the sensations of their most productive practice. Here is a partial list: attention, connect, alert, focus, mistake, tiring, and awake. All of these words point to the importance of being able to focus solely on your practicing for a period of time. Deep practice is distraction free, so turn off the cell phone, get away from the internet, and focus on practicing.

  3. Make mistakes: If somebody were to watch you while you were practicing, they would probably wonder why you are making so many mistakes. That's perfectly fine. Practice is supposed to be like that. You should be right on the edge of your abilities, which means you'll be making plenty of mistakes, because that's how you push the edge a little bit further. When I coached hockey, I always told my players that if they aren’t occasionally falling down during basic skating drills, they aren’t skating hard enough or pushing themselves hard enough during turns and transitions. Any hockey player at that level can mindlessly go through a skating drill and not fall down. But the whole point of practice is to be delicately balanced on the edge between comfort and the unknown. Practice beyond your ability and your ability will catch up.

  4. Break it down: Deliberate practice must be conducted on very small subsets of skills at a time. Instead of practicing an entire piece of music on the piano, you must practice on a very small piece of it. A master chefs doesn’t crank out a 5 course gourmet meal the first day of cooking school. Sidney Crosby did not rip a shot into the top corner the first time he ever took a slap shot. Anything you’re trying to improve can be broken down into the most basic of skills.

I've always been fascinated by the top performers in every field. What do they have in common and how did they get to that point? I suspect that the top surgeons, teachers, engineers, race car drivers, and CEOs all have a similar history and relationship to deliberate practice. If you're interested in this idea of deliberate practice, you'll probably enjoy The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

Lastly, what does deliberate practice look like in your field? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Photo by Sean Dreilinger

The Practice of Work

I sit down and turn on my computer with no expectations of what the day will hold. Sure, I have work to do but I don't know if it's going to go well or go poorly (or if there is really even any difference). I try not to get caught up in predicting how people will react to what I've created. Will people retweet this article? Will I get any more coaching clients today? Will my professor like what I've written? None of these answers affect the reality of what I'm sitting down to do right now. Without thinking of the future I bring my hands to the keyboard and begin typing. I don't let the harsh criticism of my work yesterday, or last week, or last year affect what I'm doing in this moment.

I try to lose myself in the physical movement of my work. I'm not getting dirty, sweaty, or building anything concrete. However, there are still physical sensations that surround me. My fingers move across my keyboard and make a satisfying click every time I add another letter to this sentence. I pause from time to time to take a sip of hot coffee and crack my wrists. It's still quiet outside and there is a rare January rainstorm pounding the snow in the front yard. A cat brushes my bare feet and a candle burns just out of arm's reach.

I focus on the words I'm using to craft this email and try not to get caught up in the massiveness of this current project. This one email is the tiniest drop in a bucket. I try to focus on the fact that I'm communicating with another human being. Somebody I respect and I choose my words carefully while paradoxically not spending too much time worrying about the words I choose. It's not just an email, but a transmission of ideas, dreams, information, and emotion to another person. And I do this over and over. Building a project, building consensus, enlisting help one small email at a time.

I shift my attention to a new project and pick up a pen and my well-worn and well-loved notebook. I jot ideas, draw shapes and lines, smudge the ink with my hand by accident. This is the extent of physical dirt I experience as a knowledge worker so instead of being annoyed, I relish it. It's physical proof that I do wrestle with dirty and complicated and chaotic things all day long (albeit, largely ephemeral).

I try to remember that I'm not looking for specific results or massive enlightenment through my work. I'm just showing up and doing what I do the best way I know. The less I worry about myself, about others, and just continuously plunk away in the most creative, diligent, and dedicated way I know the better I'll be. The better my work will be.

And therein lays the strangest paradox.

Obsessing over the quality and content of my work always, always, results in sub-par work. But when I just lose myself in the physical sensations, the tiniest of decisions, the continuous improvement of the way I approach my work -- that's when incredible things happen. When I let go of the expectations of what this article should be, what my next article should be, how my career should develop, how my advisor should view me, and how I should craft the next email, everything goes better.

Anything worth doing well is worth practicing and difficult things must be practiced before any kind of positive results can surface.

My work is worth doing well and being a knowledge worker and student is one of the most difficult things I've done.

Therefore, every day is a chance to go to practice again. With an open mind, without expectations, and with the diligence needed to get better;

I turn on my computer. I open my notebook. I practice.

photo via highfireDANGER