I played the viola in middle school and I was really good at it. I had never played an instrument in my whole life and had only picked up the viola because as a fifth grader I thought the visiting orchestra students from Fort Settlement Middle School were so cool. I didn't want to play the violin because that was too mainstream. The cello and bass were nice but I wanted to carry my instrument to school every day to look trendy. So I picked the viola. And I loved it.
I didn't know what playing the viola would be like and how I would learn. I didn't understand that I could eventually get to the point of playing soundtracks like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. Heck, for the first 6 months all I did was pluck on the strings and didn't even use the bow.
But the important thing was that I played the viola every single day. I didn't miss a single day of practice (for the most part) and I continued to get better. My teacher taught us new scales and new notes one string at a time. I eventually did learn how to play with the bow. I took off my practice tape that told my fingers where to go after they learned on their own where they belonged. I perfected my vibrato. I became a true viola player.
All because I was consistent. Well, not only consistent but consistent with the right intention.
We've all heard the talk about consistency online and how it is the best (and sometimes touted as the only) way to get good at something. You see it in blog posts and podcasts. People reference the 1000 hour rule as if Malcolm Gladwell is some kind of God. Blah blah blah. We get it.
But why does it work and is being consistent enough? That's what I want to talk about today.
The psychologist K. Anders Ericsson wrote a book in 2016 called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise that synthesized his research on how one becomes an expert in something. I first came across Ericsson's work in a podcast interview of Andy Matuschak where he discussed the idea of deliberate practice. I read a little more about this in Andy's notes and found some compelling arguments.
The biggest point he made is that deliberate practice is needed to continuously build foundational skills with the idea that perfecting and implementing these foundational skills is what leads to expertise. He explains this through an example of how athletes and musicians do this:
"Top-tier athletes are fanatically disciplined about improving their foundational skills—skills which transcend any sport, the same kind of agility drills you might see an army recruit do. Top-tier musicians do likewise: Lang Lang, for instance, is still working on his scales after 30 years as a concert pianist. They’re not just doing rote drills: they’re working to improve those skills critically, poring over performance videos and working with coaches."
Basically this means that if you keep doing the basics and get really good at them, then you can use that to do more complex things and become an expert. Pretty obvious if you ask me. You have to walk (really well) before you can run.
However, if we think about what we typically do on a day to day basis in our jobs, things get a little more interesting. Andy notes the following:
"Sure, knowledge workers regularly take on “growth opportunities,” like a new job that will push them beyond their prior skill sets. But their day-to-day activities are focused on __doing the job,__ not (usually) on building whatever skills are deficient. This is akin to a soccer player only playing games as a way to get in shape, rather than lifting weights and running drills."
Our days are spent in email and meetings rather than building on foundational skills. This is mostly due to the fact that it's hard to define what foundational skills are for "knowledge workers" and partly because we don't think that investing in basic skills (like writing and synthesizing ideas) have immediate ROI.
If we really want to get better at "knowledge work," we need to do what athletes and musicians do and be consistent in the fundamentals. But of course, this is hard and we'll discuss why below.
I want to take a quick second to explain a key difference between consistency and practice. Practice is working on a specific set of skills over and over again. Consistency is essentially routine practice - making sure that you are showing up each day and at a minimum going through the motions.
For me in orchestra, this was measured in a weekly practice record I used to fill out and get my parents to sign. The grading was simple - if you practiced 540 minutes or more in a week you got a 100. Anything less you lost points. It was an easy 100 if you could just put in the time.
But there is a catch to all of this. Putting in the time is not enough.
“Consistency is necessary but not sufficient.” - Me
If you show up every day and do the same thing over and over, yes you are being consistent but you aren't getting better. Consistency is only helpful if you are also pushing yourself to the upper bound of your comfort zone so that you can expand it over time. Andy does an excellent job explaining this in terms of homeostasis (he got me with the science reference):
"So if you aim to develop a skill, you need to challenge homeostasis. By pushing into a ‘new normal’ beyond your current comfort zone, your body will respond by making that state easier. At that point, the ‘new normal’ will become the new homeostasis set-point, so you’ll need to push yourself even harder to keep growing."
It's interesting because this advice is so obvious when it comes to something like going to the gym and lifting weights. You would never keep lifting 100 pounds after it became easy because the next step up is 120 pounds and you know you need to do that to get stronger. However, with things like writing, thinking, programming, etc. the metrics aren't as clear so we forget that we have to keep pushing. We get complacent and are fine with the status quo and that's when we begin to stagnate.
This is where having a coach to guide you in your deliberate practice can come in handy. We don't all have this luxury but if someone is there to find your areas of weakness and help you come up with a plan to address those then you can keep getting better at something over time. In Andy's words:
"[P]ast a certain level of performance, effective [d]eliberate practice... typically requires an expert coach’s knowledge about practice methods, as well as their supervision and feedback. For instance, an expert coach (typically also or formerly an expert practitioner) will invent new tasks (based on their knowledge of practice methods) to overcome weaknesses."
Before I auditioned for region orchestra I took a handful of weekly viola lessons. My teacher made me practice out of a Suzuki book and do exercises I had never done before. He made me do them over and over again until I got it right and then gave me harder ones to do once I mastered the basics. It was a lot of work and many times I didn't want to do it. But I did. That year I ranked as the number 2 best viola player in the region auditions. I guess it worked.
You already know why. It's hard because it takes effort and work. Effort and work are not as fun as play and so we don't want to do it. Go one step further and Twitter will tell you that you should love your work so that it doesn't feel like work and so you'll want to do it. This is nice in theory but everything - even things that you love doing - will be hard at some point and you won't want to do it. Why is that? Personally I think it's about delayed gratification.
I think there are two types of delayed gratification: certain delayed gratification and uncertain delayed gratification.
So how do we stay consistent given this uncertain delayed gratification but also knowing that consistency is important and can lead to positive outcomes?
The first step is simple and something the Philadelphia 76ers have been saying for years: Trust the Process
Of course that's easier said than done so here are some tangible actions you can take: