Does strict focus lead to highly productive deliberate practice or disconnection and myopia?
Does engagement lead to productive collaboration or distraction?
I faced a curious conundrum recently when someone pointed out that I was equally supporting two apparently contradictory positions. A few weeks ago I wrote a long essay exploring the phenomenology of continuous learning. That was largely a story about developing one’s own internal capabilities. The implied hypothesis was that by focusing deliberately on certain forms of creative discipline, an individual can develop exponentially superior capabilities in the long run.
On the other hand, a common theme throughout much of my writing has been the value of collaboration, intellectual diversity, and knowledge sharing. The basic hypothesis underlying this line of thinking is that individuals can develop superior results in the long run by actively engaging with communities of similarly enlightened confederates. As such, learning is conceived as a social activity.
One strategy emphasizes individual learning while the other emphasizes group learning. One suggests isolation and focus while the other suggests engagement and openness. Both dangle the same carrot – compounding gains in knowledge and capabilities. Can both be correct without contradicting each other?
Let’s dig a little deeper…
The argument for individual learning derives largely from two popular notions: flow and deliberate practice. Ideally, consistent deliberate practice improves an individual’s ability to achieve flow. Deliberate practice trains the mind, habituating the flow state. Regular achievement of flow then further accelerates the learning curve. Cal Newport concisely outlines the characteristics of deliberate practice (condensed from a list originally produced by Geoff Colvin):
- It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
- It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
- Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
- It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
- It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
- It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
Though #5 notes that it’s hard, the individual practiced in deliberate practice should develop a superior ability to achieve flow. With achievement of the flow state comes all the benefits associated with accelerated learning:
Flow has a strong, documented correlation with performance enhancement. Researchers have found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance in the fields of artistic and scientific creativity, teaching, learning, and sports.
Flow also has a strong correlation with the further development of skills and personal growth. When one is in a flow state, he or she is working to master the activity at hand. To maintain that flow state, one must seek increasingly greater challenges. Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches one’s skills. One emerges from such a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great “feelings of competence and efficacy”.
(citations were removed from this quote for readability, see original)
If internal flow so thoroughly magnifies our capabilities, would we ever want to distract ourselves with hassles of teamwork?
Participating in Flows
This conundrum revealed itself while spending a week working with a team whose goal it is to create an ecosystem of tools that sustain and amplify scenius. The lifeblood of scenius is knowledge flow. The more knowledge flowing the better your chances of sparking scenius. The obvious reason is that the knowledge brought to a community by each individual is compounded as it is shared and recombined with the knowledge contributed by all other community members. This is what John Hagel and John Seely Brown have described as the collaboration curve:
There’s a classic story in economics primers illustrating the power of network effects. It tells how the first fax machine gave little value to its owner–after all, there was no one else with whom to send and receive faxes. As time went by, however, the value of that first machine increased as other people bought fax machines, and soon its owner could send faxes to the far corners of the earth, and receive them in return.
The point of the story is how the value of a node in a network rises exponentially as more nodes are added to it. These are called network effects.
Now let’s add a twist to the story. What would happen if, at the same time more fax machines joined the network, each machine rapidly improved its performance? The result would be an amplifying effect on the first level of exponential performance. One exponential effect occurs from growth in the number of nodes. A second amplifying effect arises from the improving performance of the machines themselves.
Fax machines, of course, don’t perform better as you add more of them to a network. But people and institutions do. And that’s where the concept of network effects gets more interesting–when we apply it to how people might perform better.
Surely not just any collaboration will do. Certain parameters must be established to ensure clear communication and a sufficient signal-to-noise ratio. But when the environment is just right magic can happen. In Kevin Kelly’s words:
Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.
You act like a genius. Are you actually genius…or are you simply buoyed temporarily by scenius?
We have two approaches offering apparently opposite prescriptions. One prescribes more time spent quietly engaging in deliberate practice. The collaboration curve suggests that we should spend more time sharing tacit knowledge in the pursuit of scenius. Both promise that properly following these prescriptions will unlock compounding performance improvements.
We might simply conclude that each strategy has merit in its appropriate domain. The disciple of deliberate practice will achieve accelerating performance gains in individual creative endeavors. The surfer of networked flows will achieve accelerating performance in collaborative endeavors. One becomes a genius while the other nurtures scenius.
There is however a more satisfying possibility…
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself;
I am large — I contain multitudes.
Abstracting from our natural fixation on the individual perspective, it becomes clear that both prescriptions are in fact identical. Both notions of flow have the same inherent meaning – optimizing communication between nodes in a network. In the cultivation of scenius, the networked nodes are individual people. In the cultivation of genius, the networked nodes are the multitudes within one’s own mind. The state of flow described by Csíkszentmihályi is a state of scenius occurring within the brain of a single individual. It occurs when an individual, through deliberate practice, cultivates his internal environment in the same way that a community pursuing scenius cultivates its interpersonal environment.
There is however, one critical flaw in the deliberate practice hypothesis. The third principle quoted above states:
Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
Feedback is easy to obtain if your goal is to be a violinist or a quarterback. In each case the task is well defined and the base of prior art is prodigious. If your task entails creative destruction then the sources offering meaningful feedback are far less obvious. And therein lies the point of this reconciliation exercise. Scenius plays the role of coach for learning curves that are uncoachable…learning curves that cannot be plotted in advance and lack prior art. Scenius provides the flowing genius with an environment in which to test hypotheses and validate conclusions.
Rather than being contradictory, each strategy, while distinct from the perspective of the individual, is critically important to the other. A genius without a scene is just a nutty professor. Scenius without genius is merely a mutual admiration society. If each strategy does exhibit compounding effects then the best strategy is to alternate between the two…riding out the duration of a deliberate learning curve before shifting focus to a collaboration curve. Building then testing. Exploring and exploiting…
photo courtesy of craft_uas