I am a huge fan of Cal Newport, the 30 year old associate professor of computer science behind the studyhacks blog. One of the first things I read of his that really resonated with me was his concept of deep work. Now, his concept is probably somewhat different to most other people’s – he is in a research position in a university which means his whole job revolves around deep work. Having said that, I think deep work, on some level, is essential to becoming an expert in whatever endeavour you undertake whether it be work, sport or some other interest.
Thinking back to when I was working in government intelligence, the majority of the people there may have been competent at their job, they may have even been good. There were precious few, however, that were great at their job. People came to work, got their coffee, did their work and left it all at the office when they went home for the day. If you want to be really good at your job, this is not enough. You see the best people in any organisation and the difference between them and the rest is that they never take the attitude that near enough is good enough, and they always put in extra when other people don’t.
The real key though, is deep thought. Deep thought in the workplace is a constant cycle of doing your work, analysing it, forming new ideas, testing them and starting again at doing work. Two good examples I can think of are judo and chess (coincidentally I enjoy both). To become good, really good at either of these doesn’t just take practice. I could play a hundred chess games and not learn much, although I’d undoubtedly get better. Likewise I could do a hundred judo classes and it would be much the same. To become good at chess you have to immerse yourself in it – you have to do practice problems, play many games and analyse the results. Likewise in judo, to become good you can’t just turn up to practice or competition – you have to start thinking of combinations, of counters and you have to work on variations of throws etc that will work for your body type. In both you have to come at it from all angles, constantly exploring avenue of thought.
The most important thing, however, is doing deep thinking that is actually guided. Cal noted some time ago on his blog that literature driven research was far better than speculative research for actually getting results, because you need to have deep knowledge before you can come up with genuinely new and useful ideas. Speculative research is fun and exciting, but it rarely gets the same results because it is not based on existing knowledge. Now transfer this concept to judo and chess. The next step in becoming really good in either after practice and your own deep thought is studying the masters. This is a huge part of chess at the highest levels – studying the games previous masters played and breaking them down. This helps the player identify patterns and modes of play they would not learn by practice and their own deep thought alone. Judo is no different – talk to anyone worth their salt and they will have a favourite judo player that they study. They will watch hours of matches on youtube and be constantly analysing big competitions to improve their game.
The results speak for themselves. I play a decent enough amount of chess, I do some practice problems and the like. I have little problem soundly defeating anyone that doesn’t play much chess. When I play against someone with a good international rating though, I am a lamb to the proverbial slaughter. It isn’t just that they play more than me (don’t write this off though, it is still very important), their deep work puts them at another level. I can see basic patterns of attack and defense, however the internationally rated players I have matched with knew my intentions after my second move of the game. Likewise in judo – those of us that are or have been serious competitors have little problem defeating people that aren’t at that level. Finally, in intelligence work, I pick up things that most of my colleagues miss.
When you compare judo and chess to intelligence on the topic of deep work, you really run into problems. Judo and chess both have paradigms for reaching excellence in their field. Intelligence doesn’t. There is no deep thought going on; even worse there is no recognition that there is even a need for deep work. There were a rare few people in my organisation whom I knew that were doing it, but they were literally one out of every hundred. The problem was further exacerbated by the fact there was no such thing as a lessons learned centre or anything like that. Any sort of failure is better off forgotten, and there is apparently never enough time to do anything that isn’t working towards a mission. This is a huge mistake and the reason I have lost a lot of respect for government intelligence. My masters degree in intelligence/counter terrorism generally got an “oh, that’s nice” response from most people in the building when they found out. What I was doing during that degree was, however, deep work. We were constantly looking at intelligence failures and successes, different historical scenarios, the psychology behind intelligence and so on. This is why I saw things more clearly and deeply than most of my colleagues. They took things at face value and that was it, because they saw it merely as a job to get done.
Before I wrap this post up, I think there is definitely a need to discuss the role of deliberate practice when it comes to expertise. I don’t believe you can reach expert level in anything without both, as expertise is a two sided coin. As Arnold says, “you have to do the reps”. If you aren’t playing lots of games of chess, or doing a lot of throwing in judo, or doing a lot of intelligence work, then deep work on its own is merely mental masturbation. It is pointless pontification on things you don’t have enough experience in because you haven’t put in enough of the hard yards. You have to start with a good foundation – doing the hard, repetitive, boring (at times) work. Only when you have a very solid grasp of things can you start going deeper and making discoveries on your own.