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.

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Organizational Habituation

There’s a bit of a habit bandwagon on the move at the moment, with a rash of books, software apps, and so forth all helping us to understand the Trigger->Action->Reward structure of habitual behaviours, and how to use that understanding to build our own positive habits. In Verilab’s client work, and beyond that to other SMEs with whom I work, however, I’ve noticed what appears to be, in the group environment and even overall organization, a strong analog of habits in the individual person. I dislike gratuitous creation of neologisms, so I’ve looked for a phrase to denote this phenomenon, but haven’t been able to find one. So I’m naming it now. I’m calling it “Organizational Habituation”. Continue reading

Code Class as Soul Craft

We look for “proxies for greatness” in potential new members of the Verilab team. It can take some time to find out if someone is good, because in the end “good” in this context means something like “consistently delivering desired results”, and you can only see that over time. But there are clues early on that a person may be, or may become, good. Those are the P’s for G.

One is mentioned by philosopher-turned-mechanic, Matthew Crawford in his Shop Class as Soulcraft. In chapter eight, “The Further Education of a Gearhead: From Amateur to Professional” he tells the story “Of Madness, a Magna, and Metaphysics” in which he takes on the task of bringing back to life an old and neglected-by-underuse 1983 Honda Magna V45. A key part of the repair was fixing the clutch hydraulics. Continue reading

Depth, Precision, Persistence

The flood of books on expertise, and mastery has been going on for some time now. From popularizers like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, to expertise scholars like Anders Ericsson and his co-editors in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, and including the thoughts of those who have demonstrated expertise and mastery, such as Josh Waitzkin (chess and martial arts) in The Art of Learning, Matthew Syed (Table Tennis) in Bounce, and also those experimenting in methods of becoming expert, such as Cal Newport in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, a wide range of ideas have been gathered together under a single banner.

I’ll explore those and more in future posts, but what has struck me as I’ve studied this area is the prominence of three specific ideas that all those widely ranging accounts seem to share. They are three characteristics that the training and studying approaches of all experts seem to have in common. Regardless of the field of expertise, without fail the training and studying is deep, precise, and persistent. At first sight, those can seem obvious, but let me take each in turn and describe what I think it’s attached to. As you read these, consider what they might look like in the development of expertise in programming, and particularly in chip verification and design. Continue reading