On the Road to Learning - Part II

Raju Gandhi
  • November 2014
  • Learning

In the first part of this article series, we saw how we can identify with an incremental mindset. We also explored how we could identify the start and end points of our journey using the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition and then chart a 'game plan' to get there. In this second, and final, part of the series we will explore the notion of 'deliberate practice'. We will also look at some tools and techniques to improve our comprehension and retention of the material at hand.

Making the Journey

Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

- Vince Lombardi

One aspect that is mentioned a lot when it comes to learning is the notion of practice, and it was this notion I struggled with the most. We grow up being told to be good (or great) at something we need to practice -- be that playing catch, or practicing the violin. What then separates the superstars from the rest of us? Is it that these superstars practice much more, or is it something else?

Let us consider typing. Some of us learned touch-typing as students, and although we type every day for several hours, how much have we improved at it? I would venture to say that my typing speed has remained the same for the past decade or so! Isn't that practicing typing? And if so, how come I haven't improved?

The issue is too often we conflate practice with repetition. Go back to the time when you were learning something new, like typing. We paid attention to how our hands rested on the keyboard, and which fingers were to be used for specific letters. But after a while, we got comfortable, less attentive, and the task reduced to something we did on autopilot. Practice became mindless repetition.

There are several disadvantages to this kind of practice. First, we do not grow our skill set past a certain point, and we begin to feel frustrated. The time and effort invested in 'practicing' does not seem to yield any payoff, so we dismiss getting any better in lieu of not having the necessary talent. Another disadvantage is the wasted time and effort which could have been better utilized for something else. Furthermore, there is the residual effect of having one or several non-productive practice sessions: we walk away dreading the notion of practice.

The final disadvantage, and probably the one most rife with peril, goes back to our earlier discussion of hard versus soft skills. If we are not diligent when we practice, we run the risk of instilling some bad habits. Remember that we most often practice hard skills, and if imbibed incorrectly, the resulting bad habits are notoriously difficult to undo.

All of this begs the question: is there a better way? To answer this question, we can turn to one of the world's most renowned physiologists, Dr. Ericsson, and his research on expert performance, which is detailed in the landmark paper The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance [GAN1] (Dr. Ericsson's research has provoked several books, one of which is Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How [GAN2], which in my opinion is a slightly easier read). In his paper, Dr. Ericsson defines exactly what 'deliberate' practice is, and how it differs from conventional activities such as work and play. In the following sections we will delve deeper into the notion of deliberate practice and see how we can use it to be better and more efficient learners.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice insists that we be more mindful during practice. It provides a systematic and structured approach to practice -- one that requires us to replace a mindless undertaking with a scientific one. Deliberate practice asks that we set small, clear goals and make slow, incremental progress toward them. It asks that we maintain a tight and constant feedback loop. Every step along the way we need to be conscientious of our successes and failures. This not keeps us engaged when learning but also serves as a mechanism to verify what works and what does not.

Daniel Coyle offers a three pronged approach to deliberate practice in his book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills [GAN3]:


When practicing, we can be in one of three 'zones' -- The 'Comfort' zone is where we know exactly how are we to perform a particular task. This is the zone we normally operate in. Here our success rate is pretty high, since we are comfortable with the material at hand. Unfortunately, being in this zone does little to expand our expertise. On the other hand, often we find ourselves in the 'Survival' zone -- an example here would be needing to hot-fix code in a technology or domain we know little or nothing about. Most of the time we rely on luck: try something, cross our fingers, run the code, and see if it worked. If not, hack, run, rinse, and repeat. In this zone we only care about getting the task complete -- no 'real' learning happens.

The target zone for optimal learning is between the 'Comfort' and 'Survival' zones. This is the 'Sweet' spot where we are just outside of our comfort zone, but not far enough that we end up flailing. In order to learn we need to identify and solve problems that make us uncomfortable, but ones we can solve given a few tries. We should focus on small and specific elements of the skill, and add complexity only when we get comfortable with a particular aspect.

To practice 'reaching' in programming, I can offer a few suggestions -- Koan quizzes (for example Ruby Koans [GAN4]) are popular to learn the basics of many programming languages. Each Koan builds upon the previous ones, slowly teaching the various aspects of the language. Another resource would be online quizzes such as 99 Lisp Problems [GAN5] or Project Euler [GAN6]. Michal Fogus, one of the authors of The Joy of Clojure [GAN7] recommends keeping a list of pet projects that you may have already tackled in your favorite language or framework [GAN8]. When learning a new language, merely port one or more of those projects to the new language. The advantage here is that we already have the necessary domain knowledge -- all we have to do is figure out how to write it. As long as we are constantly finding ourselves in the 'sweet' spot, we will be making progress.


The second aspect to deliberate practice is repeating. Repetition is key to hardwiring the 'hard' skills so that they become automatic and instinctive. Andy Hunt, in his book Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware [GAN9], suggests we create a 'play' environment so that we can embrace repetition and 'good' failures (the bad kinds are the ones that leave us flailing and frustrated). With source control, tests, and automation tools like Gradle [GAN10] or Rake [GAN11], we can create a playground that provides us with a safety net, allowing for creativity. Let us consider an example: tackling the 99 Lisp Problems [GAN5] in order to learn Clojure. The first problem involves finding the last element in a list. We attempt a recursive solution using +loop+ and +recur+. Test, commit. Perhaps Clojure offers an API for it -- how about +last+? Write, test -- wash, rinse, repeat.

Stay engaged

The main characteristic that separates deliberate practice from routine practice is being mindful. Focus is everything -- this might mean that our practice sessions often end up being pretty short. When practicing we need to be completely in the zone. Did something go wrong? Stop! Let us step through what transpired and attempt to identify what we might have overlooked. We often get caught up in solving the problem when we should be performing a post-mortem of where we went wrong. On the flip side, if something did go right then we need to stop and relish the moment -- think about what we did correctly -- was it our stance, our focus, our approach? Make a note of this, because this is exactly where you want to be every single time.

One of the most easily accessible resources to learn new material from is a book. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading, it is all too easy to get comfortable. Rather than actively reading and questioning the material, we just read, or worse, skim the material, expecting to remember the material afterwards. Fortunately, to stay engaged while reading, there are various techniques we can employ. For a comprehensive study on the art of reading I recommend How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading [GAN12] (I assure you the irony of that statement is not lost on me). One technique I have successfully employed when reading non-fiction is SQR3:

  • Scan Start by scanning the chapter or section. Note all the headings and sub-headings, including any illustrations or charts. This gives us a feel of the landscape.

  • Question As we scan, we think and note down some questions that may be pertinent to the material. For example, what is the main point being made here, or how does this fit in with what we know or have learned so far? If no questions come to mind, the easiest approach is to convert the heading into a question -- for example, from a heading titled "The latent power within us all" (from Robert Greene's Mastery [GAN13]) we could pose the question 'What is the latent power within us?' or 'How can we leverage this power?'

  • Read Now we are ready to read. As we tackle each section, we attempt to find answers to the questions we listed. The idea here is make ourselves proactively seek out answers. It is OK if we can't find answers to all the questions we posed in the 'Question' phase -- don't cross them out yet. Going forward we still might find the answers we are looking for, or this may become a research item for later.

  • Recite Once we are done reading, we go over the material we just read and attempt to regurgitate it in our own words. This ensures the material really stuck with us. Finding a partner-in-crime to 'teach' works really well here - your significant other, a colleague, or a rubber-duck sitting on your desk [1]. Teaching the material is a great way to 'really' learn it.

  • Review Finally we review -- did all the questions we posed get answered? Are we comfortable with the material? If not, we can go back and revisit some of the areas where we might not have clarity. Finally, we write down a short summary of the material we learned in our own words -- focusing specifically on the 'highlights'.

Recording Memories

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

- Oscar Wilde

Another technique to help stay engaged when practicing is to keep a notebook. I realize we live in the digital era of smart phones and tablets, however there is still a lot of value in writing things down using good old pen and paper [2]. Writing slows us down and it helps us remember better [GAN14]. Furthermore, it allows us to leave the linear nature of text and play with figures and diagrams; a way to connect disparate portions of the material and find associations that we may have missed.

When I decided to embrace the idea of note taking, I did what every developer worth their salt would have done -- I searched the web to find the ideal notebook. I found references from several people claiming their love for brands such as Moleskine [GAN15] or Rhodia [GAN16]. I cannot deny the quality of their products -- I own several of each -- all of which lie on my bookshelf, unused. It turned out their price tags made me reluctant to be playful with my notes. I would wait for each thought to be 'perfect' before I would transcribe them, which obviously defeats the purpose of having the notebook in the first place! My advice here would be to start inexpensive. These days I wait for the 'Back to School Sale' sale (no, that is not a typo) -- I end up picking up a dozen or so spiral bound notebooks for under a dollar each. Then go to town with them -- write, doodle, draw stick-men; anything that helps me understand, and cement the material I am currently learning.

Capturing Moments

Visual journals are created in a secret language of symbols. Intentional or not, they are private maps only their makers can follow.

- Jennifer New

Another approach to note-taking is the use of mind-maps. If you are not familiar with mind-maps then Tony Buzan's The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain's Untapped Potential [GAN17] is the definitive resource -- Tony Buzan is considered by many as the father, and inventor, of mind-maps, and this book is chock-full of great advice and examples. Mind-maps provide for non-linear note-taking and are a great resource to make associations and visualize concepts. In short, mind maps make learning a lot more fun!

Stretching your Legs

All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I will not pretend to be a psychiatrist or even to understand the science underlying it, so I will leave an in-depth discussion of the benefits of exercise to the experts. John Ratey, a world renowned psychiatrist and author of several books presents a compelling case for it in his latest book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain [GAN18]. Exercise prepares our brains better for learning -- exercise improves our focus, decreases stress levels, and increases our motivation. In short, working out our bodies has a profound effect on our minds and our ability to learn!

If you remain skeptical I have a few action steps for you. Start by reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain [GAN18] -- I believe it is a great motivator for exercise. Then, go see your family doctor and ask for suggestions on how to get started. I promise you won't regret it.

For some of us who enjoy strength training, or other forms of exercise such as yoga or tai-chi, John Ratey recommends incorporating a cardiovascular component to your exercise regimen. Again, please see your doctor prior to starting a new program. The idea here is to get moving -- really moving. Any activity that increases your heart-rate is a potential candidate such as running, racket-ball or Zumba(R).

Taking in the Views

The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.

- Thich Nhat Hanh

I mentioned earlier that our deliberate focus sessions tend to require intense focus. Unfortunately we live in an age where thoughts are expressed in one hundred forty characters or less, and distractions are only a browser tab away. Learning something new almost guarantees that we are often going to get stuck, and often our knee-jerk reaction is to look for a diversion. Unfortunately not only is this counter-productive, it also has the side-effect of lowering our cognitive abilities over time [GAN19]. To counter this, I recommend meditation. Meditation not only improves our focus and attention, but it also preps us in handling distractions better. Furthermore, recent studies of the brains of those who meditate regularly suggests that the very structure our brains is altered as a result! [GAN20]

Granted that we all don't have hours on end each day to meditate so we will turn to Victor Davich and the advice he dispenses in his book 8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life [GAN20]. He introduces us to eight different kinds of meditation over a period of eight weeks, each being eight minutes long every day. There's nothing to lose -- in fact now we have an even better excuse to be sitting around doing nothing.


The beautiful thing about learning is that nobody can take it away from you.

- B.B. King

We have now reached the end of our journey. When we stop to think about it, learning itself requires learning -- Dreyfus models, S.M.A.R.T goals, SQR3, deliberate practice ... The list goes on. So is it worth it? Absolutely! Let us keep aside the fact that in our profession the ability to keep abreast of new technologies and paradigms is in itself a saleable trait. What's more important is the time we spend -- if we are to learn something we might as well do it right, much like anything else we deem significant to our personal growth.

With that said, I bid farewell my friends -- or rather aaojo [3].



  • 1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_duck_debugging
  • 2 I have tried several note taking apps on the iPad -- unfortunately none compare to pen and paper. YMMV. I realize that text notes are notoriously hard to store and search. It turns out that I very rarely need to commit everything I write to a digital store -- and the dual effort to transcribe anything hand-written of significance to my laptop acts like another Review session
  • 3 Loosely translated meaning "Keep coming back"