Thursday, February 16, 2012

Practice Perfect Driving

I remember very clearly the day I taught my kids to swear. Oh, this was no well thought out exercise based on principles like expanding my child’s world view in a carefully controlled environment. Nope this was, Oh SSSHHHHOOOOOOT ..... (or something close to that).

In my defense, this started out as a good idea. Really - stay with me. Each year after the Winter’s first snow fall, I take the car up to the High School parking lot and reacquaint myself with treacherous driving conditions. I purposefully lock the tires, yank the steering column and such to put the car into an "uncontrolled" condition.

I then, deftly, regain control. This is called "Deliberate Practice" and is intended to make sure that if I ever need this skill, it is available as almost instinct.

Being short on time, I decided to do my annual practice en-route to the store with my kids in the back seat. Everything was going well, and the kids were actually enjoying the experience as well as the witty banter emanating from the driver’s seat.

I hit a patch of black ice, and the previously controlled, now uncontrolled Saturn Vue turned into a 2,000 pound bumper car. I am convinced that even the most gentile of us has a curse instinct that flows freely under perfect conditions. Uncontrolled car; helpless kids; rapidly approaching telephone pole - Perfect.

At the last minute, the front wheels did find traction, and I pulled out of the slide safely. Nonetheless, my children were introduced to at least one string of colorful metaphors.

Deliberate practice is the task of preparing for your work, that does not include your work. It is not merely enough to say, "I’ve been a developer for ten years, therefore I’m ten years better than I was." In fact, you may actually be worse as a result of only being required to execute a narrow set of skills.

When you consider that the human tendency is to gravitate towards that which comes easy to us, then it follows that activity inertia and free choice tend to cause us to reuse the same set of skills again and again. If you have a really good hammer, nails abound!

Most of us drive the same car, over the same roads, at the same times of day again and again. Same with work. We focus on a narrow set of problems with a narrow set of tools in a narrow business context.

To stay sharp in our craft, we need to Deliberately Practice the skills we may or may not be using each day. Yes, this means configuring servers in ways outside our normal context, or learning a programming language we don’t need right now. This could mean reading a book (with practice exercises) on architecture.

Deliberate Practice is not easy, and is not meant to be. It is meant to expand your capabilities, keep you sharp, and make you more valuable.

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