How I practice at what I do

Following up on my post a few days ago, about the value of deliberate practice for knowledge workers, a number of you asked me what form my practice takes.  A few of you were skeptical, but it is long since established that practice improves both your writing and your memory, so surely it can do much more than that for your thinking.  Here is a partial list of some of my intellectual practice strategies:

1. I write every day.  I also write to relax.

2. Much of my writing time is devoted to laying out points of view which are not my own.  I recommend this for most of you.

3. I do serious reading every day.

4. After a talk, Q&A session, podcast — whatever — I review what I thought were my weaker answers or interventions and think about how I could improve them.  I rehearse in my mind what I should have said.  Larry Summers does something similar.

5. I spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to crack cultural codes.  I view this as a comparative advantage, and one which few other people in my fields are trying to replicate.  For one thing, it makes me useful in a wide variety of situations where I have little background knowledge.  This also helps me invest in skills which will age relatively well, as I age.  For me, this is perhaps the most importantly novel item on this list.

6. I listen often to highly complex music, partly because I enjoy it but also in the (silly?) hope that it will forestall mental laziness.

7. I have regular interactions with very smart people who will challenge me and be very willing to disagree, including “GMU lunch.”

8. Every day I ask myself “what did I learn today?”, a question I picked up from Amihai Glazer.  I feel bad if I don’t have a clear answer, while recognizing the days without a clear answer are often the days where I am learning the most (at least in the equilibrium where I am asking myself this question).

9. One factor behind my choice of friends is what kind of approbational sway they will exercise over me.  You should want to hang around people who are good influences, including on your mental abilities.  Peer effects really are quite strong.

10. I watch very little television.  And no drugs and no alcohol should go without saying.

11. In addition to being a “product” in its own right, I also consider doing Conversations with Tyler — with many of the very smartest people out there — to be a form of practice.  It is a practice for speed, accuracy in understanding written writings, and the ability to crack the cultural codes of my guests.

12. I teach — a big one.

Physical exercise is a realm all of its own, and that is good for your mind too.  For me it is basketball, tennis, exercise bike, sometimes light weights, swimming if I am at a decent hotel with a pool.  My plan is to do more of this.

Here are a few things I don’t do:

Taking notes is a favorite with some people I know, though my penmanship and coordination and also typing are too problematic for that.

I also don’t review video or recordings of myself, for fear that will make me too self-conscious.  For many people that is probably a good idea, however.

I don’t spend time trying to improve my memory, which is either very bad or very good, depending on the kind of problem facing me.  (If I need to remember to do something, I require a visual cue, sometimes a pile on the floor, and that creates a bit of a mess.  But it works — spatial organization is information!)

I’ve never practiced trying to type on a small screen, though probably I should.

I’ll close by repeating the end of my previous post:

Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?”  If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

Better training has brought big improvements to the quality of athletics and also chess, and many of those advances are quite recent — when is the intellectual world going to follow suit?  When are you going to follow suit?


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