The Deliberate Practice of Disruption by Venkatesh Rao

Instead of attempting to succinctly summarize “The Deliberate Practice of Disruption“, I will get right to some excerpts. A word of caution: there is some psychobabble in the article. However, the article is sufficiently thought provoking that it does not detract from the many interesting points raised by the author.

Recently, I concluded that our understanding of expertise, especially in the sense of the 10,000 hour meme, is seriously flawed. Even though there is something real there. And I don’t just mean the understanding conveyed by Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the idea. I include the primary researchers such as K. Anders Ericsson on whose work the popular accounts are based.

The problem isn’t what you might think. It’s not the basic model of 10,000 hours of practice coupled with metacognition that’s the problem. The observation that you can get to useful levels of skill short of mastery in less time doesn’t fundamentally challenge the model. Nor is there a serious problem with the ideas that practice is necessary or that practice without metacognition is insufficient. That’s all true enough. Nor is the idea vacuous and tautological as some suggest.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and  bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work of researchers like Ericsson is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” (Wikipedia) or “music, science, golf and darts” (Ericsson’s own website).

Notice something? They’re all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Open vs Closed Worlds

Sharply circumscribed and regulated domains are what I called closed worlds in TempoThe opposite kind with fuzzy, permeable boundaries and low regulation are open worlds.

Of course, in reality there are no closed worlds, except in our heads. It takes a certain amount of violence (such as physical violence or regulatory policing) to keep the external world closed and in correspondence with our mental models.

We define closed worlds by consensus on top of fundamentally open ones, by abstracting out a finite game from an infinite one and appointing guardians to police in the real world the boundaries that are mainly in our heads. One effect of this process of closing a world is that it necessarily drives a shift from trader (commerce) values to saint (guardian) values.

So it is not surprising that three of those four items in each list are in fact not significant economic trades at all, and the ones that are (medicine and science) are practiced under such highly regulated conditions (the healthcare sector and academia respectively) that they might as well be artificially closed domains.

These competitively compromised economic sectors, incidentally, suffer from a phenomenon known as Baumol’s disease: low rates of productivity increase through innovation, accompanied by cost increases that create increasingly unsustainable microeconomic conditions. I won’t talk about that in this post, except to note that it is a direct result of the specific model of deliberate practice that prevails (thanks to protection via closure) within those domains.

Disruptive Metacognition: Finding Ugly Awkwardness

It’s easy to get to the broader notion of deliberate practice. The base layer is still the same. You’re still practicing the skill for 10,000 hours.

It’s the metacognition that is different. Instead of finding creative flow, you seek out ugly awkwardness that nevertheless intrigues and tempts you.  You figure out what feels uncomfortable and “wrong” in some sense, but also alluring, and figure out why. There are no judges to tell you if you’re right. There are no aesthetic standards to internalize. There are no performance standards other than what you’ve yourself done before or the behaviors of people you choose to imitate because you can’t think of anything yourself.

And most importantly, there is no clear understanding of whether variation from your own past behavior or others’ behaviors should be considered error or innovation.

Under such conditions, repetition for 10,000 hours becomes important not as a way to achieve perfection, but as a way to get the law of large numbers to work in your favor. Because with some low, but not vanishingly low probability, some of those “errors” can turn into mutations/innovations that can be developed further. Doorways that lead down very generative forks that have never been explored before.

Being open to these “errors” requires that your experience of what you are doing not be completely mediated by symbols. When playing the violin, it is fine to let the symbolic understanding of music performance guide your understanding of the music, but it should not blind you to, for instance, errors that suggest improvised use of violins as weapons or baseball bats.

So disruptive metacognition is irreverent and transgressive. It does not respect received sacred/profane distinctions. It does not justify extended practice on the basis of “pay your dues” but as a means of exploration. It does not seek flow as an end in itself, divorced from the effects of performance. While sustaining metacognition can be whimsical in an approved way, it cannot be offensively playful in the sense of irreverently crossing the boundary separating sacred and profane. Only disruptive metacognition can do that.

The entire article can be read here.

H/T John Cook

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