"The reality is we learn best when we focus on the smallest possible things, when we do deliberate practice on one small skill that is a component of a much wider thing" - Laszlo Bock.
I'll tell you something although you may not believe it: my first job ever was as a lifeguard. During my teenage years, during the summer holidays, I used to work for more than ten hours a day under the sun as a lifeguard in Celle Ligure, a beach 30 km from Genoa. In order to become a lifeguard, you need to get a license after taking a course and passing a final exam.
So soon after my 16th birthday, in October, I went to register for this course, and I discovered it would take 6 months. What? I thought it just last a couple of weeks, I thought at the time, since the job is so easy: you just watch the sea, and likely nothing will ever happen since the Mediterranean is so calm. I thought: 6 months for what? Why does it have to be so long? The truth is that, in between the first classes, I understood why: it is because the sea is never the same. It always changes. And I know you'd be like: "What, Andrea? What does this mean?". It means that, in life and in business and in a rapidly changing world, we have to prepare for all scenarios.
And this is why I picked this quote to open this article - which is a transcript of the episode 9 of my new Podcast, Metanoia Club - an episode in which we will understand that yes, lifelong learning is key, but only if done under constantly different scenarios.
Who is Laszlo Bock, you might be wondering? Laszlo built and led Google's people function for 10 years, responsible for attracting, developing, retaining, and delighting "Googlers." He believes that giving people freedom and supplementing our instincts with hard science are steps on the path to making work meaningful and people happy.
During Bock's tenure, Google was named the Best Company to Work For more than 30 times around the world and received over 100 awards as an employer of choice. In 2010, he was named "Human Resources Executive of the Year" by HR Executive Magazine.
He is the author of "WORK RULES! Insights from Inside Google to Transform How You Live and Lead", which has been named one of the top 15 business books of 2015, and in 2017, Laszlo Bock and his co-founders, Wayne Crosby and Dr. Jessie Wisdom, started Humu, an HR management platform, to make work better through machine learning, science, and a little bit of love, as he describes on his Linkedin.
He has over 1 million followers on social media, and one of the things he talks about a lot is the importance of intellectual humility, and of life-long learning. At the same time, though, he interestingly says that the key is not in life-long learning in itself, but in doing it under constantly changing conditions. That is what he talks about in the following excerpt:
"Somebody shared that story with me. This guy was a student at Stanford University, and he was going to a fraternity party, and it was an awful night - one of those nights we get out here when it rains, thunder and storm, and dark. At 11 o clock he heads out to this fraternity party, and he drives by the golf course at Stanford, and he sees one guy there just hitting balls, at 11 o clock in the driving range. And at the time he had no idea of who he was, right? So he goes to the party, comes back at 3 in the morning, the same guy is still out there, hitting balls. In the rain, in the middle of the night, in the thunderstorm. So he goes there and he goes up to him and says: "Tiger, why are you doing this?", and Tiger Woods' response was "It doesn't rain that often in Northern California, so this is the one chance I have to practice". And the lesson you take out of that is that there's something to the notion of deliberate, concentrated practice, that anything we do, the conventional view on training, learning and development is "I am going to take a course on Microeconomics, and I am going to be an expert at microeconomics", or "I am going to work at being a better leader and I am going to do these 10 different things and I am going to get better at what I do"or "I am going to be a great CEO and these are the 12 things I am going to do". The reality is we learn best when we focus on the smallest possible things, when we do deliberate practice on one small skill that is a component of a much wider thing".
I wanted to start off getting back to our sea analogy: I mentioned earlier that the sea is never the same, but I am definitely not the first one to have used the analogy of water to describe the inherent dynamism of the world: Eraclitus first did.
Eraclitus of Ephesus, a philosopher who lived in the period 540-475 BC, said that we will never step in the same amount of water twice, because the river changes all the time, as it is constantly new water that flows in it. Eraclitus coined the Greek expression "panta rei" to remind us that "everything flows". This expression arises from the notion that everything is mobile, transitory, transient, and assumes that everything is in movement and nothing remains static. Think about it: In just a tiny fraction of a second, the composition of molecules at one specific point in the river will have changed, rendering it impossible to enter the exact same river twice. But this concept is not limited to the physical flow of rivers. According to Heraclitus, it also applies to life: „Change is the only constant in life.“ And everybody will intuitively agree with this notion of constant change in life.
Yes, the truth is, this view doesn't apply to rivers only, but to everything, in life and in business.
Because, during my lifeguard course, what would be the point of taking several classes training and repeating rescue movements in a pool - with still water, in a protected environment, being able to pull out of the water in case you don't feel comfortable -, and not therefore just training for a calm sea, when instead you might need to rescue people when the sea is rough, with huge waves, strong sea current and you may never have trained under a condition like this? The sea can be extremely cold or, in the middle of a storm, it can induce electric shocks through lightning that can place your life at risk. How to deal with all these scenarios? If you only train in a pool, even if you repeat the rescue techniques more than 10,000 times, you will not be prepared for the infinite meteorological conditions, and for the unpredictability of the real world.
I know that put this way it seems almost obvious, but the truth is that, in reality, we do the opposite: the way we approach education, training, and personal and professional development today, is through repetition. Let me explain this better.
A few years ago I read the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, an author I love. In this 2008 book, he examines what are the factors that led individuals and companies to succeed and become outliers, such as Bill Gates and the Beatles, among others, and part of that success is attributed to what he calls "the 10,000 hour rule". Gladwell uses several examples in Outliers when introducing this rule: one is the research done by Ericsson that focused on violin students at a music academy in Berlin. The study found that the most accomplished of the students had put in 10,000 hours by the time they turned 20. Gladwell also estimates that the Beatles put in 10,000 hours of practice playing in Hamburg in the early 1960s, and that Bill Gates put in 10,000 hours of programming work before founding Microsoft.
This rule says that the key to achieving a level of complete mastery of any skill and becoming one of the best in the world in a certain field is to practice that skill for 10,000 hours, or about 20 hours a week, for 10 years.
Doing a quick calculation, that means 40 hours a week for 5 years, or 100 hours a week for 2 years. Since a week has 168 hours, we have to be realistic and understand that it is humanly impossible to dedicate that number of hours to just one activity. So, if you want to excel in a certain area, you need 5 to 10 years of practice - if you're a normal person who sleeps, eats, has a social life and so on...if you're human, let's say.
I won't dispute that this theory is valid and works for sure, as I have no doubt you master any skill if you practice for so long, but I want to focus on the fact that this theory doesn't make much much sense in the current world, for three main reasons: the first is that when you spend so much time repeating a task or habit, you have a huge opportunity cost which is equivalent to the opportunity to develop multiple other skills, abilities or knowledge - which is more important these days, in a world that requires not only specialists, but more and more generalists, as David Epstein says in his book "Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. The truth is that the best term I heard until now is the term "specialized generalists", in a blogpost by Shane Parrish on his blog Farnam street: he says that the generalist and the specialist are on the same continuum; there are degrees of specialization in a subject. There’s a difference between someone who specializes in teaching history and someone who specializes in teaching the history of the American Civil war, for example. Likewise, there is a spectrum for how generalized or specialized a certain skill is.
Some skills — like the ability to focus, to read critically, or to make rational decisions — are of universal value. Others are a little more specialized but can be used in many different careers. Examples of these skills would be design, project management, and fluency in a foreign language.
The economist, philosopher, and writer Henry Hazlitt sums up the dilemma:
"In the modern world knowledge has been growing so fast and so enormously, in almost every field, that the probabilities are immensely against anybody, no matter how innately clever, being able to make a contribution in any one field unless he devotes all his time to it for years. If he tries to be the Rounded Universal Man, like Leonardo da Vinci, or to take all knowledge for his province, like Francis Bacon, he is most likely to become a mere dilettante and dabbler. But if he becomes too specialized, he is apt to become narrow and lopsided, ignorant on every subject but his own, and perhaps dull and sterile even on that because he lacks perspective and vision and has missed the cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects."
The best scenario then? By many accounts, it’s being a specialist in one area, while retaining a few general iterative skills. That might sound like it goes against the idea of specialists and generalists being mutually exclusive, but it doesn’t.
A generalizing specialist has a core competency which they know a lot about. At the same time, they are always learning and have a working knowledge of other areas. While a generalist has roughly the same knowledge of multiple areas, a generalizing specialist has one deep area of expertise and a few shallow ones. We have the option of developing a core competency while building a base of interdisciplinary knowledge.
In the past, when you would specialize, you were preparing yourself for a linear, stable and predictable career in a Cartesian and analogic world, but that doesn't work anymore: you need to have multiple expertise that reflect the complexity of the world and prepare people for non-linear careers, and constant changes.
Look at my own trajectory: as I mentioned, I am Italian and during high school, I studied Latin, Ancient Greek and philosophy, among others. It was a humanities high school called Liceo Classico. But then, in between one year and the other of high school, I worked during summer as a lifeguard, in Celle Ligure, the small coastal town in Italy that I mentioned in the introduction. After that, I moved to Milan to pursue my degree in Economics, but during the last year of college, when everyone else was deciding to have their exchange program in the USA, I decided to have mine in Egypt, where I studied Arabic for 6 months at the American University in Cairo. Then I went back to Italy and my first internship was at my father's chemical company, called Italmatch - that since you might notice by the "match" in the name, I was likely destined to work at Tinder one day. After that I went to pursue my Masters in International Relations at Johns Hopkins in DC, and during my second year, I worked as a consultant to the Department of State in a renewable energy project in El Salvador, in Central America. Today it's been 10 years I live in Brazil, working first at Groupon and Tinder, therefore in tech startups, then at L'Oreal, pushing the digital transformation agenda, and now I work as a keynote speaker: and the question you may ask yourself - actually, that I am sure you're asking yourself, is: "Andrea, what are you good at? What's your specialization?" Or the classical question when you meet someone new at an event or dinner: "So, what do you do?".
And you know what? I have no clue about how to answer that. And for a long time I was so frustrated by this, so frustrated because of all the opportunities, all the money, all the time I wasted to become a specialist at something.
But when I understood more and more about how the Digital world worked, this frustration turned into something else: it turned into the understanding that the secret of successful leaders and professionals nowaday lies in the ability to follow non-linear paths, to unlearn and relearn all the time, and to develop the necessary flexibility to be ready for anything under constantly different scenarios.
Let's move on and let's get to our second reason why I refute Malcolm Gladwell's theory, which is simply the fact that specializing in a new field takes just too much time, and the world is changing so quickly that getting too attached to a fixed knowledge or belief does not follow the speed at which the world, technology and the customer are changing? Let me ask you if you have ever had the feeling that you change something within your company - let's say, you roll-out a new CRM technology - but the roll-out process takes so long, let's say 6 months, that when you look at the technologies in the market, yours is already obsolete because many new options emerged?
The third reason is that this statement alone is wrong. It is not about the repetition part: it would be more correct to say that to truly master an area of knowledge or a skill, you need to repeat it constantly but under constantly changing and different contexts, conditions and variables. What's the point of repetition if it always takes place under the same scenario? Practice would simply not be preparing you for the infinite combination of the largely unpredictable situations and circumstances of the current business environment!
Let's get back for a moment to what Laszlo said before: he said that we perform best when we deliberately practice a small skill, a constituent component of a much broader range of professional skills, under different conditions. For example, it would have been useless for Tiger Woods to train mechanically and repetitively to hit the ball on a beautiful day - a sunny, dry day - and to convince himself: "I am the best in the world". That would be the macro skill, but in the situation described by Laszlo in his speech, by training under the most diverse conditions, he was developing the micro ability to be the best of the world under the rain, under the sun, when it's extremely windy, in the heat, and so on… it is the sum of these micro skills that truly made him the best in the world in golf (although not in life, since we all know about the many problems in that sphere of life).
The same goes for any other sport, or any situation in your life or career. Let me use jiu jitsu as an example: I have been practicing jiu-jitsu for 14 years, I am a black belt, and in jiu jitsu there is a practice during training called drilling, in which you repeat a jiu jitsu position methodically and repeatedly, so that you almost by osmosis get that move automatic and it can be applied almost without thinking. This is great, on the one hand, but the big problem is that if you don't train the same position in real fighting situations, it's no use doing this in a context where the opponent is not resisting, or counterattacking, as in real life or real training. Does training drills help? Of course it certainly helps, but this training alone won't allow you to say "I'm going to be the best in the world in jiu jitsu", because fighting situations are infinite, and you need to be ready for all of them by exposing yourself to them.
Now jumping to the world of business, I wanted to use as an example a challenge that the Pharma industry faces: there is a great challenge in the area of clinical trials of new drugs. The bottleneck is that they are performed on people who, during the testing phase, need to be monitored in hospitals and in a safe environment and, therefore, give up normal routines for a while. As real-world patients live their normal lives under real conditions while facing their diseases, clinical trial results may not encompass all real-life situations. Now with telemedicine and with the Internet of Things, with sensors and other digital innovations, it is possible to minimize this issue - but the delta between standard conditions and real conditions remains a very important point to consider in a clinical trial execution strategy.
To conclude this episode, I would like to lay down what are some points for leaders to consider: overall, this episode's reflection about specialized generalists and training under a constantly changing environment shows us that we need to learn to react quickly, proportionally and efficiently in response to changes in the external environment. If I can draw a parallel with a totally different field, namely physics, the third law of Newton, which is also known as the law of action and reaction, states that when two bodies interact, they apply forces to one another that are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction. It is exactly the same!
I know, this proportional reaction is not easy at all in life and business, first because it asks us to change behavior (which we hate, as human beings), but in particular because it asks us to dramatically change the way we design Training and Development in our companies.
See, oftentimes we associate Training, Development and Learning with repetition, or with memorization, but it's not about that: it's about the critical thinking that it sparks, and it's about the exposure it gives us to different areas of knowledge, that we should combine in creative ways.
As leaders, we have to work with HRs and other leaders to design hands-on Training and Development paths that create specialized generalists and that do not only expose us to our field of knowledge, but that provoke us to follow non-linear development paths that reflect the complexity of the business world today.
I'd like you to think about this as an assignment during this week, let me know how it goes!
Source : https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-lifelong-learning-must-under-constantly-changing-conditions3483