Why “pursuing your dream” is wrong (2/2)

In Part 1 I argued that career satisfaction is built, not found.  The implicit problem is that if expertise tends to precede true passion, and world-class experts spend at least 10,000 hours honing their crafts, where along the trajectory of career development can we say, “I have given it a fair chance, and it is time to move on”?

Excellence Arises from Practice

Few professional musicians were born with talent. As one of the most celebrated music composers ever lived who would wake up at twilight feeling compelled to write down a pine chorus of musical notes lest he forgets them in the morning, Beethoven is one of the best examples of someone who pursued his passion as a career. However, Beethoven’s genome did not contain a score of music genes, and he did not love music as a child. In fact, he had been forced to practice the piano constantly as a child (and he would get a old-fashioned beating whenever he made a mistake). After being forced to garner expertise in piano, he subsequently developed a profound love for it, sometimes opting to practice all night instead of sleep.

This leads us another one of Beethoven’s inspirational quotes:

Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the pine.

In other words, the secrets for the art and knowledge come above and beyond, but not in lieu, of practice.  Although practice is critical for performance-based professions like music, practicing the right way can help reinforce passion in all career choices.

The problem, then, is the mathematical fact that there are not enough years in a human lifespan to dedicate to more than a couple of 10,000 hour stretches on work proficiency.  Is there anyway we can maximize our skill acquisition process?

Practicing the Right Way

So Good They Can’t Ignore You argues that athletes and musicians instinctively understand how to utilize deliberate practice in improving their own skills, but knowledge professionals often have trouble consolidating the thinking process into discrete practicable elements.  This is a novel way to approach knowledge-based careers.  As recent as 2011, literature in medical education continues to find deliberate practice a revolutionary method of teaching medical students to think like physicians.  Traditionally, an applicant’s educational pedigree is often paramount in obtaining a good position in medicine, scientific and finance precisely because test scores and laboratory/field exercises deployed in medical, graduate, and business schools continue to be considered the gold standard for learning.  Ironically, once hired these same masters of traditional learning sometimes fail miserably at meeting the metrics of productivity in the real world.

One reason why this discrepancy occurs is because skill acquisition is both difficult to get right and hard to measure.  In a new 2013 book The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything… Fast!, Josh Kaufman outlines his own method of rapid skill acquisition through an application of a well-researched concept called “deliberate practice.”  In 1993, Ericsson et al. published a paper to describe the role of deliberate practice – motivated, effortful learning coupled with immediate feedback and repetition – in the development of expertise.

While Ericsson and Gladwell both push for a long, slow procesPart 2s of focused learning to become an expert, Kaufman argues that an organized learning process can expedite the process.  Kaufman’s “Ten Principles” breaks down the essential elements of skills acquisition in a way that makes it a direct application of Getting Things Done by David Allen: deconstructing large task into smaller parts, tackling each part separately, and recognizing that different contexts are ideal for different tasks.  Once you internalize the learning, Kaufman, Ericsson, and Gladwell all agree on the next step – practice, practice, practice.


While conventional wisdom teaches us that those who are geniuses of their field must have either been born with talent or have found their own undying passion for the craft, Gladwell explored success and found only its correlation with hard work.  Indeed, passion alone can quickly fizzle and like a match exhausted of its initial burst.  However, an interest backed by continuous skill refinement is bonfire lit on a well-stacked fuelwood.  The relevance of deliberate practice in work passion is this: although true expertise requires over five years of full-time dedication, learning enough to kick start a skills acquisition process to slowly become So Good They Can’t Ignore You requires a much smaller investment.  While the effectiveness of the process outlined in by Josh Kaufman may turn out to be user-dependent, knowing that the initial learning curve can be overcome methodically is encouraging for dream-job pursuers who wish to become expert craftsmen in their career.

[ Part 1 | Part 2 ]

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Howard Chen
Vice Chair for Artificial Intelligence at Cleveland Clinic Diagnostics Institute
Howard is passionate about making diagnostic tests more accurate, expedient, and affordable through disciplined implementation of advanced technology. He previously served as Chief Informatics Officer for Imaging, where he led teams deploying and unifying radiology applications and AI in a multi-state, multi-hospital environment. Blog opinions are his own and in no way reflect those of the employer.

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