August 23, 2019

Recently, I haven’t been able to get this question out of my head:

What do you do for your career that is like doing basic drills in sports?

This question is so good because it prompts insights which are both general and surprising. It makes you think on the building blocks of your vocation. The general first principles, like a footballer’s first touch. It challenges you to distil your work into its elemental constituents. It also suggests surprisingly simple ways you might improve your skills.

Expert athletes have mastered complex motor patterns. With modern knowledge of sports science, it seems obvious to us that you can break these down into simpler parts which you can then practice individually. Climbers break their routes into individual moves, then practice the most difficult ones over and over. Dancers and martial artists learn a similar way. This approach isn’t only applicable in the physical domain. Chess masters use it. And recently, it has been applied to learn business cases.

I wonder to what degree anything can be broken down like this. Climbers have a library of skills. Every simple climbing move is like a word in a high-level language, made up of an alphabet of subroutines like foot, finger, hip and shoulder placement. These moves can then be strung together into routes - sentences, punctuated by the grammar of pausing to rest, or of renewing your grip with chalk. Is there an equivalent syntax of proving a theorem? Of deciding on an investment? Of making a new friend?

Part of the challenge is rendering your thought patterns explicit. Consider something like writing this blog post: what is actually going through my mind? I have a general idea of what I want to write, and how I want to convey it, but it is difficult to atomise explicitly.

Another challenge is linearity, or lack thereof. Climbing is linear: you do move A, then B, then C, all the way to the top of the route. Chess is linear too. But the writing process is nonlinear: I don’t write each sentence consecutively, one after the next. Instead, when interesting ideas are evoked, I take notes as I go along, and write sentences which may appear later on or not at all. Most of this post is being written simultaneously. The structure emerges over time.

You can still drill writing, even though it has emergent structure. You can practice writing compositions of different length. To practice essays, write blog posts. To practice blog posts, write tweets. The smallest composition in language is the pun. I think writers love puns not only because they are funny, but because practicing them improves your writing.

To improve complex skills like writing, or physics, you need to start small. Small toy-models of physical systems are valuable because you can clearly see the effect of changing a parameter. Likewise, it is easy to see the effect of changing a sentence in a blog post; harder to see its effect in a book.

With mental tasks, starting small allows you to see what’s going on under the hood”. In a pun, there are only a few word associations to follow. The writer can see the moving parts. Practicing puns builds language intuition, which is harder to gain from longer writing. The body of words in an essay evoke a sea of connotations; these drown the writer’s mind. She is left with a general sense of tone, but cannot say exactly what gives that impression.

Many successful people practice drills in their own field. Investor Ray Dalio honed his intuition by reading archive newspapers and market reports in chronological order, placing bets as he went along. Writer A.J Jacobs forces himself to generate new ideas, setting aside twenty minutes to brainstorm every day.

Above all else, the sporting analogy suggests one simple idea: Practicing the basics pays off. Entrepreneur Naval Ravikant advocates practicing the fundamentals of business, science, and mathematics again and again. All great athletes relentlessly drill the basics. Identify the basics of your own work, and practice them. Like a tennis player mastering his serve, consistent, targeted practice will lead to big improvements.

Thanks to Brian Timar and Ned Davies for reading drafts of this post.

List of Drills

These are drills for different activities. I hope to add more over time. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Writing and language



Making friends