Breaking up with the first draft

I spent some time over the summer re-learning how to write better documents at work. As I look back at the lessons I learnt by observing what I actually changed in how I approached writing, the biggest one was willingly breaking up with the first draft.

Barbara Minto in “The Pyramid Principle” made a strong impression when she said the biggest writing problem most people have is learning to separate the thinking from the writing. She poked fun at how the first draft takes on an “incredible beauty” in the author’s eyes that we don’t like to disturb.

I found her observation to be spot on. We write the first draft for ourselves – to clarify our own thinking. And, if we embrace the process of rewriting, we write subsequent drafts for our intended audience.

There’s a meta learning in this too – we have a tendency to get comfortable after an initial learning period in any new skill. It takes a lot of effort to fight inertia and break out of version 1.0 into the next. And, then again to the next. To get better, we need to embrace “what got you here won’t get you there,” push for feedback and learning, and embrace reinvention.

It is how getting better works – in life as in writing.

Hard skills and real skills

In a conversation with a friend who is in the midst of building out a team, I asked about the the top skills he was looking for. Two observations –

1. The top three skills that he spoke about at length were – attitude, mindset, and self awareness (especially about blind spots).

2. We spoke about a few skills which were contenders. But, not one was a “hard” skill – analytics, problem solving, etc.

I was reminded of a post by Seth Godin to stop calling skills “soft” just because they weren’t easily defined. This conversation reminded me that it is these “real skills” that matter – they make great organizations and noteworthy careers possible. Or, as Seth put it  –

Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it.

That’s fine, it’s the baseline.

Now, add to that: Perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience.

What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?

I am really bad at that

When we say “I am really bad at that,” what we are really saying is that it isn’t worth our effort to get better at it.

It is perfectly acceptable to decide it isn’t worth investing in a certain skill or habit. It may not be the best use of our limited time.

But, it isn’t right to pretend we aren’t capable of getting better. That’s just a way to let ourselves off the hook. And, while it might seem perfectly harmless to let ourselves off the hook on something trivial, it spirals quickly into skills and habits that aren’t so.

We can get better at anything we want to get better at. And, the first step to doing so is by fixing language that allows us to let ourselves off the hook.

Interpersonal skills vs. Intrapersonal skills

Job descriptions frequently cite interpersonal skills – or variants like the ability to influence cross-functional stakeholders – as a required or preferred qualification. While intrapersonal skills get the occasional mention (“self starter” or some equivalent), they don’t seem to ever make it up to the list of top 3 skills required.

What are intrapersonal skills and how do they differ from interpersonal skills? While interpersonal skills deal with the communication between two people, intrapersonal skills are about the communication we have with ourselves. They deal with our mindset, our approach to analysis and learning, and our response to situations.

We’ve likely had plenty of training on interpersonal skills. But, when it comes to intrapersonal skills, we are, for the most part, on our own. And, that’s a big miss because it is in our interest to focus first and foremost on our intrapersonal skills.

Interpersonal and intrapersonal skills are analogous to personality and character. There’s a saying that personality opens doors while character keeps doors open. That’s just one way of saying that the best long term indicator of your ability to build trustworthy relationships is your character.

Or, put another way, your interpersonal ability is only as good as your intrapersonal ability in the long run.

Skills and knowledge

The big insight with deliberate practice is the idea of focusing on skills instead of knowledge.

The obvious example is learning, say, tennis. Sitting in a tennis theory class that explains how to use the racket isn’t all that useful, obviously. It makes intuitive sense for us that we must get out on the field and try things. And, as we try things, we will hopefully have a coach who corrects us when we do the wrong things. That is the difference between developing the skill of how to hit the ball versus simply possessing the knowledge of how to hit the ball.

While this connection is easy to make when we think of sports, it is harder to make this connection with knowledge work or science. In a fascinating deliberate practice experiment in the University of British Columbia, Professors converted a part of the Physics curriculum from lecture notes to in-class discussions facilitated with interactive questions and clickers. The idea here was to move from knowledge transmission to actually helping students develop the skills of reasoning like real world physicists. They executed this with graduate students who were teaching for the first time and improvement was fantastic – 2.5x on a standard test compared to the control group.

skills, knowledge, deliberate practice

This has all sorts of implications for how we think about training in the professional world. A lot of training is still about knowledge transmission versus skill development. And, even if it is skill development, it is done once a year.

As I get back to the working world post graduation in a few weeks, there are a couple of interesting questions on my mind – how do I use the principles of deliberate practice in my work? and how do I use the knowledge vs. skills idea to develop processes to get better?

Deliberate practice has transformed the way we get better in fields like sports and music. It will be much harder to use its principles in fields where progress is less easily measured. But, it can be done.

We’ll just have to stay with the problem a lot longer.

The law of painful progress

I had a realization when I was learning how to play the guitar – if my practice sessions didn’t have me wincing in pain, I wasn’t making enough progress.

This realization served me well in the 8 months I took lessons as I made faster progress than I had initially expected. The results were evident too – weeks when my practice sessions were more painful always yielded more progress.

The law applies to every skill, of course. The more we feel the pain, the more we’re likely making progress. There is no painless progress.