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Developing the required talent. Part I. Personal training

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2011. Developing the required talent, part 1: personal training. Intercom January: 32–33.

In 5+ years of writing this column, I've somehow managed to neglect two important topics: how to develop the talent required to use this theoretical information in your daily work, and how a similar approach can help your audience acquire expertise in areas that they consider important. In the workshops I give, a recurring theme is that mastering the basics frees up time you can use to learn other things that make you more effective—and better still, time you can spend on the fun part, which is solving your audience's problems, whether those problems are conceptual (understanding) or practical (doing). This approach was based on my personal experience, but Geoffrey Colvin's new book (Talent is Overrated) confirms that I've been on the right track.

Colvin notes that there are two keys to achieving mastery. First, you must accept the counterintuitive notion that talent is not something you're born with. Barring serious disability, most of us can develop talent if we're willing to invest enough time. Second, you must understand the distinction between what Colvin calls deliberate practice and repetition. Though repetition eventually confers competence, deliberate practice is how we perfect a skill. Mastering a profession requires us to identify the skills that most need improvement, then intensively hone those skills until we perfect them.

In this article, I'll explain what this means for you, as a practitioner. Next time, I'll explain how you can use this knowledge to help your audience excel.

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice has several key characteristics. It must be designed to:

These criteria separate the kind of deliberate practice that leads to improvement from mindless repetition that dulls the mind and ensures mediocrity.

Improve your performance

Our knowledge of audience and task analysis facilitates this initial step, but this time we're the audience. Start by identifying the basic skills that support your work. For example, if you communicate using graphics, you'll need to master software such as Illustrator and Photoshop. Each time I create graphics for this column, I waste hours relearning necessary skills because I use both programs so rarely: I know what I want to "say", but find it hard to create graphics that say it. Were I earning a living creating graphics instead of teaching others to create effective graphics, I'd need to invest enough time to master both programs.

It's difficult to identify one's flaws and bad habits, but an expert coach or mentor can identify your flaws and guide you to potential solutions. I'll talk more about this later, under "Feedback".

Stretch yourself and stimulate thought

As is the case with physical exercise, sticking within our comfort zone means we'll never improve. Those who excel learn to look beyond what's right before them and see clues that others miss. To spot those clues, stretch yourself by looking farther ahead, behind, and to both sides than you typically do, looking for clues that will guide you before, during, and after you use a skill. Learn to think through what you're doing, based on those clues, before, during, and after you do it. Start with specific goals, and identify the steps that lead to each goal—but figure out how you'll know when you've reached each milepost on the way to your goal. As you work, monitor your progress, and modify your approach if the clues suggest you've missed a signpost because the situation changed.

Evaluate your thought process to reveal things that are slowing you because they're unnecessary or because you're doing them inefficiently—then eliminate or mitigate these problems in the future. After each information design is complete, evaluate the results to identify where you succeeded, failed, or could do better next time. Then improve your plans for the next time, and implement that improved plan. Do this even for routine work—particularly the kind of work you could do in your sleep. The goal is to force your mind into gear instead of remaining comfortably in neutral. But stretch, don't tear: aim for reasonable improvements so you'll see tangible progress rather than risking failures that eliminate the incentive to try again.

Deliberate practice must be mindful, which means that it requires intense concentration. Fatigue typically limits practice sessions to between 1 and 1.5 hours, and it's hard to spend more than 4 hours per day at this intensity level even if you have that much time available. To increase the efficiency of this practice, seek both better ways to think and the knowledge that you need to support those thoughts. This is like having both a powerful engine (thought) and the fuel that engine requires (knowledge): neither is much use alone.

Deepening and broadening your knowledge reveals new strategies and reduces the risks of reinventing the wheel and rediscovering errors others have made. This lets you expand and revise your mental models of the general context in which you work and the specific context for each task you perform within that larger context. This knowledge must integrate tightly with a framework (such as a mental model) that provides an efficient "retrieval structure" so you can fit new information into your existing knowledge, remember and retrieve that information more easily, and understand what is truly important and thus, what to focus on as you work.

One problem with deep knowledge is "domain blindness": you become so knowledgeable about your domain that you no longer think outside its box. To open your eyes again, learn to identify and question your assumptions. Ask yourself: "For this statement, belief, or solution to be true, what conditions must be met?" Those conditions are your assumptions, and if they aren't valid for a given situation, rethink your approach.

Permit and encourage repetition

Find time to practice. At the 2005 annual conference, I presented more than a dozen tips that each free up time for practice so you can improve old skills or learn new ones. It's like continuous process improvement, but for you rather than your employer. Colvin reports that mastering any field typically requires about 10 years of intensely focused practice of the basic skills that underlie the overall activity. The good news is that's the time requirement to create a prodigy; lesser levels of mastery take much less time. Still, you'll require persistence and patience; genius doesn't happen overnight, and particularly in the beginning, you may not see clear signs of progress. The earlier you start, the sooner your skills will improve, but to get there, you must push through your initial resistance to working that hard. Well-designed practice keeps you motivated by reassuring you that you're making progress towards your goal.

Provide ongoing feedback

Feedback involves critiquing your results and deciding whether and how to modify your approach. The most effective feedback comes from a coach or mentor who has objectivity ("distance") that you lack. Where one isn't available or practical given your various workplace constraints, seek an expert you can emulate. If you can't find one, ask your STC colleagues for an introduction to someone who can mentor you or for examples of stellar work you can learn from.

Mastery takes time

In my September/October 2010 Intercom article, Subjecting Theory to a Reality Check, I reminded you to keep your brain engaged while applying any theory. Deliberate practice is no different. For example, just because most people require 10+ years to achieve mastery doesn't mean you'll take that long; each of us undoubtedly varies in our ability to benefit from deliberate practice. Moreover, STC members are already a long way along the road to mastery. Like Miller's "magical number seven" (see my April 2006 Intercom article), what's important is the underlying principle (here, "it takes time"), not the number.

How can you motivate yourself to invest the required time? The research on expert-level performance shows that both intrinsic (personal) and extrinsic (organizational and environmental) factors are important. Intrinsic motivation is crucial, because only you can find the willpower to practice hard enough to excel. But extrinsic motivation can't be neglected, since encouragement and rewards (e.g., praise) give us reason to strive. At some point, intrinsic motivations take over: we develop an intense desire to excel because of the emotional and other rewards provided by our efforts. If those rewards fail to materialize, possibly you're in the wrong profession, and that's an important discovery too.

Additional reading

Colvin, G. 2010. Talent is over-rated. What really separates world-class performers from everybody else. Penguin Group, New York, NY. 234 p. + index.

Ericsson, K.A.; Charness, N.; Feltovich, P.J.; Hoffman, R.R. (eds.) 2006. The Cambridge Handbook of expertise and expert performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 918 p.

Hart, G.J.S. 2005. Improving your editing efficiency: software skills, soft skills, and  survival skills. p. 364–369 in: Proceedings, STC 52nd Annual Conference, Seattle. Soc. Tech. Comm., Arlington, VA.

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