Othismos and the fine structure of mastery

As usual I’m tussling with the question: Why are some engineers just so much more effective than everyone else?; my current line of thinking being provoked by a series of books by Steven Pressfield.

First, let’s take with a pinch of salt the current flavor-of-day idea that “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” is both necessary and sufficient to achieve “world class performance”. Even K. Anders Ericsson, one of the academics involved in the research upon which that idea tries to sit, has gone to the length of writing a rebuttal article (MS Word), to try to tone down some of the hype. But let’s at least consider, for argument’s sake, the following as unobjectionable.

To get Really Jolly Good at something (i.e. let’s forget the “being as good as Mozart”, or even the lame “world class” superlatives — we’re just talking about being good enough that the rest of the world can’t ignore us) we should bear in mind that:

  1. Innate “talent” in the form of something like a gene for aptitude in Java or C++ is not, within broad limits, particularly important
  2. What is important is you have to do the thing a lot. Not necessarily 10,000 hours — maybe a lot less, or a lot more — but you can’t get to be Really Jolly Good without putting in a Decent Chunk of hours
  3. You can’t merely “do” the thing. This is the “deliberate practice” component. You have to push hard at it, work at the edges of your ability, get good feedback from an effective feeder-back (a.k.a. teacher/coach/mentor), and generally have an attitude that a Scottish friend of mine once called “borderline mental”.

Now at first sight, the above may appear to be blindingly obvious — work hard at something if you want to improve — but I think that is superficial. What I’m interested in here is what that last item looks like up close, because the more I look the more I reckon that the kind of deliberate-ness required for excellence is not at all like regular, common-or-garden hard work. And if there is anything innate in all this stuff — and the more I look, the more I think there is — it’s not “talent” per se, but my friend’s “borderline mentalness”. To get really good at stuff you have to do it a lot, and you have to do it in a way that most people just wouldn’t tolerate doing themselves. In other words, by definition you’re going to take diligence and hard work to a level that many would consider excessive, and just plain weird. So what exactly does that weirdness look like?

As I continue to read around this topic, and experiment with my own working on stuff, so far I can, on the surface, identify two  broad classes of weirdos. There are those who “love their work”, and those who are “acquainted with pain”. But I say “on the surface” because I think the two components typically arise together. That said, my main interest here is with the second aspect, if only because I think the first one is already being beaten to death in the popular literature to the extent  that many people are being left with the overly simple conclusion that all you have to do is “find your passion” and you’ll be happy every working hour of the rest of your life. I think that’s hokum partly because happiness is a far bigger project that can be fulfilled at work, but specifically because I think that finding one’s passion (even if such a unique-sounding thing existed) doesn’t appear to mean endless working bliss, not if the accounts given by Mason Curry in “Daily Routines” are to be believed. Many acclaimed authors, engineers, artists, and scientists report sustained pain and effort in maintaining endeavours (even though the pain is sometimes punctuated by periods of intense joy). So, if not bliss-inducing passion, then what? What is the deal with “acquainted with pain”?

And so here’s the Pressfield link. Two of the broad areas on which he writes are: how to be creative (e.g. “The War of Art“, “Do The Work” — both highly recommended); and historically accurate military fiction. One of the latter is “Gates of Fire“, a novel about the Spartan/Greek defense of Thermopylae against the Persians. I’ve often used military language in describing mastery, and Pressfield does the same in connecting actual warfare with the war he maintains goes on within an individual as they try to push themselves into their creative work. Pressfield, however, does it far better than I do.

One striking example is his description of the fine detail of the psychology of Greek Hoplite warriors, as they went to battle in their phalanx formations. Via what seems to be pretty rigorous research, backed by interviews with modern soldiers, Pressfield describes that internal struggle that every warrior faces and has to overcome to move forward. It is particularly apparent in that part of the battle known as the othismos (Greek: ὠθισμός, “pushing”). The exact nature and significance of the othismos is debated, but essentially it is that portion of the battle where opposing phalanxes have clashed together and proceed to shove, stab, and generally maim/kill the opponents, in an attempt to break them. OK, but how do 2,500 year old military tactics have any relevance for the modern day craftsman?

To see the connection, consider what those elite warriors represented in terms of training and determination. From early years they had been “trained” in the conventional sense, although that went far beyond merely knowing how to pick up a sword and not to drop one’s shield. Psychological training — and training in the management of personal fear in particular — was included. Then, even after training, they drilled and practiced continually, even in peace time. Then, in time of need, they would march hundreds of miles to engage the enemy. Then, after all that, they would throw themselves into combat conditions that make modern warfare — despite its far higher killing power — appear far less personal.

But there’s more. After all those years of training, and honing, and learning, and drilling, and marching, and fighting, when it came to the point where no normal person would criticize anyone for saying “Enough! No More!”, they executed othismos.  Therein lies an important key to mastery and excellence. There is something about some people that means they declare “Enough! No More!” far later than everyone else. They’re not satisfied with just writing an “acceptable” software design specification; they push beyond that, to write a Really Jolly Good plan (if not a downright excellent one). They’re not satisfied with code that just works. They want it to be clean, robust, “industrial strength”. They’re not willing to shrug when they find there may be a bug in the code library and leave it to someone else to fix; they push past that, digging into the library to find the bug and present the solution.

Crucially, none of this is about training content, or methodology, or “stuff” in general. This is about what is going on inside the individual’s head. It is a highly personal thing that points to a significant component of the difference between the merely average and the elite — the latter are acquainted with the pain of pushing past what the average allow themselves to be satisfied with. The elite, to use another military analogy — the Navy SEALs — embrace the suck.

If this is true in any significant way, one problem is that I don’t think we can teach this. We can certainly amplify it, demand it, encourage it. But I suspect we first have to select for it. Also, I say “if this is true” because I can’t say I’ve fully convinced myself yet. Also, I don’t know what the balance is — between bliss-inducing passion, and tolerance for pain. Pressfield talks of three components of esprit de corps — honor, shame, and love. Those seem to me consistent with a drive to push past one’s boundaries both because doing so is cool, and because not doing so is uncool. So I don’t want to over-stress the othismos angle. But so far, I think it’s one that is being under-stressed and a bit of compensation is needed.

Last point is directly to you dear reader. Do you recognize any of this struggle in yourself? Can you personalize any of this? How hard do you “push” when learning? What about when delivering to an employer or client. Are you aware of hitting your boundaries and pushing against them? I suspect that repeated failure, then used to build strength, goes hand in hand with the above. How often do you try so hard to improve that you fail?

This entry was posted in mastery.

3 comments on “Othismos and the fine structure of mastery

  1. bmeacham says:

    Not infrequently I find myself pushing past what the average allow themselves to be satisfied with, but I don’t often find doing so painful. Or if it is, I suppose that I just don’t notice the pain much. I a recent struggle I found myself sometimes elated and sometimes dejected. After a while, I learned to avoid getting caught up in such emotions and instead just get the work done.

    Good essay. Thanks.

    • Tommy says:

      Hadn’t seen this when I replied to your earlier comment and pointed you here. But one additional comment, bringing in meditation and contemplative practice.

      One of the central aspects of a meditative practice such as Vipassanā, is the development of the ability to notice the deep texture of one’s experiences. For example, in Theravada Buddhism, an important milestone in the development of one’s ability is when one is able to notice that any apparently constant unit of experience on closer inspection is seen to arise from nothing, have substance for a period, and then become attenuated back to zero again in a sequence known as “arising and passing away” or, sometimes, the A&P. Crucially, while the A&P is clearly defined in various important pieces of the relevant literature, and seems to be universally understood and experienced by practitioners of sufficient experience, it is largely unknown by the non meditator.

      Both in my own experience, and from the accounts of others, I have a suspicion something similar or at least analogous may occur in the experience known as “gritting one’s teeth and getting on with the hard work”. I’ve noticed, albeit only on a couple of occasions so far, that the experience of pushing through resistance on a difficult task actually has a finer structure than at first sight. In particular there are multiple levels of discomfort, several of which offer the appearance of victory once one has pushed past them, but which in fact are merely illusory “outer barriers”, standing in front of the resistance proper that one must push through to reach the deliberate practice zone, part of which is being sufficiently close to the edges of one’s comfort zone that real improvement can begin. On the one hand, this may seem obvious. We know that to gain physical strength one must push weights that are challenging, and we must make sure that they really are challenging and not just a little heavier than we’d like. So perhaps it’s clear the same will apply in the brain. But it wasn’t clear to me, and it was a genuine epiphany when I observed it for the first time.

      I guess my point, if there is one, is that there is a lot we can usefully learn about the composition of deliberate practice, but that in the same way that meditative insight must be experienced directly and not just known *about*, so too may aspects of insight into our learning selves be something that no matter how many books we read, or TED talks we see, we’re going to have to experience, up close and personal.

  2. […] Othismos and the fine structure of mastery: going beyond, embracing the suck […]

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