Book review

Practicing deliberately for excellence

peak

Malcolm Gladwell had popularized the ‘10,000 hour’ rule to expertise in his popular book ‘Outliers’. As per his formulation, anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of effort could excel in a particular field. What one required was determination and raw effort. He had based these conclusions on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues and now Anders Ericsson (with Robert Pool) in his new book ‘Peak’ has tried to clear the muddied waters surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

You can read an excerpt from peak here , where Anders himself clarifies that it doesn’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to develop expertise- for some it takes longer while for others it is much lesser. Also that the number of hours required varies form domain to domain;  and that for exceptional performance you may need another additional 10,000 hours; he adds all that nuance but the most important caveat is that not any effort will do, it has to be 10,000 or more hours of ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it differ form mere blind efforts? As Scott Barry Kaufman brilliantly explains in this article:

Deliberate practice involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. This involves goal setting, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, developing highly complex and sophisticated representations of possible scenarios, getting out of your comfort zone, and receiving constant feedback.

And this is over and above purposeful practice , which again is a different beast from mere effort or repetition and involves, well-defined specific goals, focused efforts, , feedback and getting out of one’s comfort zones. Add to that specialized learning (and teaching) techniques available in a field, learning from a coach or mentor to constantly push oneself beyond one’s limits, the use of mental representations and  conscious and intentional improvement efforts and you have a perfect recipe for deliberate practice.

However, important caveats apply.  Deliberate practice is useful/ applicable only in highly specialized domains (what a downer!).

But as they note midway through their book — and I believe this is a really important caveat— the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Important points to note here: for most messy fields, like say expertise in psychology, the 10,000 hours rule may not apply as there are no clear techniques for being a  better psychologist that one can learn from a  coach/ mentor and improve by getting instant feedback on one’s skill as a psychologist – so there is little room for deliberate practice…..moreover deliberate practice as I understand applies more to development of skills and not so much to knowledge, so many academic disciplines will likely remain out of its ambit.

I myself have been guilty of wrongly understanding and applying the 10,000 hour rule- my about page proudly proclaims that I have developed expertise in psychology by the hard way- by putting in more than 10,000 hours of self-study- however as long as the 10,000 hour is rightly applicable to domains in which one can learn under the guidance of a coach and consciously keep improving and pushing limits, my 10,000 hours of self study is unlikely to make me an expert or anything like that as per the research is concerned.

However, I can think of one example from my life where I did indulge in deliberate practice. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, it was while preparing for a high stakes educational assessment called JEE (entrance test of IITs‘), and this may be applicable to other high stake testing like GRE/GMAT /SAT also.

One can consider the final exam / test as a performance and all the prior preparation like mock tests etc as practice. Now, I used to study in  a coaching class under the guidance of an expert teacher in mathematics, and the teacher (Mr Bansal) used to stretch us beyond our comfort zones by constantly exposing us to problems that were difficult to solve and also helping us see what we can do to improve and where we needed to put in more efforts. Although the whole duration of preparation was about an year, and I definitely did not become a maths expert after that, it was enough to crack the JEE, but the larger point is that if that sort of deliberate practice was continued, I might have become an expert in maths.

So having just said above that deliberate practice may not apply to academic pursuits,  on second thoughts I would grant that it may apply very well to some academic pursuits by building skills of thinking and solving problems.

Creativity of course would be a different beast and as Scott rightly notes may involve more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But while everyone may aspire for creativity, and its origins still remain mysterious, Anders with ‘Peak’ had demystified how to be an expert in any field.

‘Peak’ is a much needed and timely book that will help you apply the principles of deliberate practice to all parts of your life , including your work life, and can take you to the next level- of course you will have to put n the right efforts, keep motivated , find the right coach , but the sky is the limit once you decide to achieve expertise in the domain and Anders is there to help.

Do yourself a favor, do read this book on expertise , by the world’s foremost authority on the subject and then choose a domain and stick to it. You may surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve

Book review: A Lethal Inheritance

Rethink Mental Illness

Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Today, i.e. 15th may 2013 is being celebrated as a mental health blog day by APA and in the spirit of the day I am posting a review of ‘A Lethal Inheritance’ by Victoria Costello. It is a book chronicling how ‘ a mother uncovers the science behind three generations of mental illness‘  and is an apt topic for the day highlighting the importance of public education and discourse about the topic of mental health.  this blog pots and book review is a homage to all the people who silently suffer from mental illness, most of the time undiagnosed, or even after diagnosis kept under warps due to associated stigma, and their family members who face the burden of not just care-giving but the counterproductive and unnecessary guilt that many of them either by themselves feel or are made to feel by indirect societal gestures.

 

Let me also take this opportunity to apologize to Prometheus Books and Victoria :  the book had come out a year ago and I was sent a review copy promptly, but could not review it earlier. Better late than never!

 

The book, as the subtitle reveals, revolves around three generations of Victoria’s family (this book is autobiographical) :  her two sons Alex and Sammy, which have their own mental health challenges  and  the unraveling of one of them: a first time encounter with a psychotic experience which could be quite disconcerting for everyone involved: leads her on on her journey to trace the roots of this malady affecting her family and also on a scientific pilgrimage where she  continues to search for reasons, symptoms and preventive measures for the various mental health conditions afflicting her family’s  three generations.

 

If the third generation is her sons, the second generation comprises of her and her sister Rita. While she struggles with undiagnosed/ untreated depression for most of her life, her sister is found struggling with serious substance dependence and addiction- which in the end cost her her life.

 

The first generation consist of an Irish immigrant grandpa in USA, whose claim to family fame, is that nobody wants to talk about his death: a purported accident where he feel asleep /drunk on the railroads and died. Now Victoria is a journalist and a good investigative journalist at that. Not satisfied with the account her mother has narrated to her, she undertakes an investigation of her own that leads to surprising discoveries like the fact that her grandpa had dies seven months before hew mother was born , rather than afterwards as believed. Also that his official death transcript reads as died from accidental drowning in a lake, thus casting doubts over the real conditions surrounding his death and also raising a question, could we ever really know if someone had committed suicide or died accidentally even if the incident was of yesterday and not many years before. The fact that his grandpa was an alcoholic, an immigrant laborer most probably facing economic stress and suffering from some mental illness, and likely committed suicide, based on the guilt/ disgust and many other emotions it aroused in his relatives (wife , daughter etc) points to the various ways genes (Irish inheritance) and environmental factors come together to wreak havoc.

 

The book is large part sensitive narration of one’s own story, some part thrilling investigative journalism and remaining parts informed scientific documentation of symptoms, risk factors, early signs, preventive measures and genes-environment interplay in the making and unmaking of mental health. While the scientific facts are up-to-date, they wont be path breaking as this is not mostly a scientific book- its value lies more in a first hand account of how a family deals with mental health issues and how there are common genetic risk factors that manifest in various forms- from a teen having conduct problems and eventually psychosis, to an adult in the grips of substance use and addiction, to a mother fighting and feigning at the same time that she does not suffer from depression, to a long dead grandpa who was alcoholic and probably committed suicide, to traces of violence in other relatives.

 

The book is also important as it highlights that mental illness and genetic risk does not respect diagnostic boundaries- from depression to conduct disorders to substance use to psychosis – all manifest in the same family tree and were perhaps myriad manifestations of a same common inheritance.

 

 

 

My recommendations; read it, read it as a piece of fiction , as an autobiographical account; as an educative opportunity to know more about mental illness and risk factors or just to get a first hand experiential account of what it meas to live under the weight of a lethal inheritance- read it whichever way you like, but you are bound to come out with an enhanced and more nuanced perspective that would be richer for having read this .

 

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Business Sutra: the marriage of management and mythology!

Tathastu

Tathastu (Photo credit: .::RMT::.)

 

Regular readers of The Mouse Trap will know that I have an abiding interest in all things mythological; also by profession I am a middle manager.  Top this with the fact that I am a fan of Devdutt Patanaik and have written a couple of posts before about his work, and you will not find it strange that I could not pass a chance to review his latest book, Business Sutra, which successfully entangles mythical narratives and interpretation with sound business and management principles and practices.

 

The book appears voluminous, with more than 400 pages, but is easy to read and like his 7 Secrets trilogy, is path breaking in its format. On an average, each page contains an illustration/ hand-made cartoon, making the read lively and entertaining.  Mythical narratives are used to elaborate on management principles in the main text, while in-text boxes contain real/ made-up anecdote from the industry to deepen our understanding of the issue involved.

 

While the book deserves to be savored just for its innovative form, the content itself leaves you more than satisfied. Business is seen as a yagna – where a Yajman offers services/ products in the form of Svaha to the Devta– which is the consumer of the service/product and once the consumer has been seduced to except the svaha, he is under obligation to return favors in the form of Tathastu. The tathastu is the return on investment (svaha) that the yajman gets.

 

Re-imagining business as a yagna is a little counter-intuitive, even for someone as steeped in Indian culture as me, so I can sympathize with my readers, if they do not get the hang of this- for really appreciating the analogy you have to read the book.

 

To give a taste of things, I’ll list the principles that have been clubbed under the heading of decisions:

 

  1. He who takes a call is a Karta.
  2. Every one is a potential Karta
  3. A karta who allows and enables others to take a call is a yajman.
  4. A yajman has the power to take and give life.
  5. The size of the contribution does not matter.
  6. All calls are subjective.
  7. All decisions are contextual.
  8. Not everyone can handle the burden of uncertainty.
  9. Every decision has a consequence.
  10. Decisions are good or bad only in hindsight.
  11. Decisions are often rationalized in hindsight.
  12. If the decision is bad, yajman alone is responsible.
  13. If the decision is good, yajman is the beneficiary.

 

As you can yourself see, the principles he elaborates on  are not revolutionary- but the way he entwines mythology and makes a business case out of ancient wisdom is mesmerizing. All said and done, after reading the book, you will come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of Indian mythology and how that affects the Indian culture, than you will know of  how to manage in a MNC context.

 

This book is  a great read for those who are enamored of India, its mythologies and its culture, or are even fascinated by the human essence and psyche (like I am); but for those who are steeped in western principles of results oriented business culture, this may not provide tangible solutions to perplexing business and management problems.

 

While Devdutt may have aimed high, at revolutionizing the way management science is defined and delivered, only time will tell whether the svaha that Devdutt has offered to the readers gets a triumphant Tathastu from them. As for me,  Amen / Tathastu!

 

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

 

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Epic Love Stories: a book review

taking oath, on abdicating his right to the th...

taking oath, on abdicating his right to the throne, in order to get the fisher girl married to his father . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although this blog is mainly about psychology, I have interests in mythology and have earlier reviewed Devdutt Pattanaik‘s ‘7 secrets of Shiva’, under the Blogadda’s book review program. So when an opportunity to review Epic Love Stories by Ashok Banker came under the same program, I could not resist myself. While Devdutt Pattanaik reinterprets myths in modern light and draws explicit analogies , Ashok Banker sticks to a retelling of the myth in its original spirit- and how beautifully.

Banker has come out with a set of five such short books in the epic love stories series- based around Mahabharata, and two of them were sent for me to review- they arrived today and as they were comparatively short and intriguing, I ended up the better part of my evening reading them and musing about the themes depicted.

The first book I read was the one story I was already sort-of familiar with- that of Bhishma and Amba (a love story that was never meant to be). It s a simple tale of abduction by Bhishma of three princesses from a swyamwara, so that he can bequeath them to his cousin as his wives. While the elder princess Amba starts by hating her abductor, :on the course of the journey back to Histanpur, seeing the valor and protection offered to them by Bhishma, she falls for him.

One can easily mistake this for one of the earliest depictions of Stockholm syndrome, but then one would miss the point that Bhishma didn’t abuse or harass the princesses , but rather saved their lives, although, in a way he had also abducted them.

If the success of a fiction is judged by its ability to induce in the readers a willful suspension of disbelief, Ashok has succeeded brilliantly. You could almost visualize and rationalize the different sorts of arrows, javelins, canons etc used in the fight between Bhishma and his pursuers. So could you feel the chemistry building up between Bhishma and Amba. Ashok also ends at the right note, leaving Amba forlorn and spurned and headed toward nowhere.

The other book in the series I read was ‘the love triangle that changed destiny’: a story about Devyani, Sharmishta and Yayati.  Despite what the appearances looked like, it was not a simple love triangle story. Rather there were multiple stories embedded in it, some providing the context to the story- embedding it in the eternal fight between Asuras and Devas for supremacy- while others subtly highlighting the Varna system– how people can become a Brahmin, despite being a raj-kstriya by birth, or how a Brahmin could elevate others to brahminhood or curse them if need be- how Brahmins and Kstriyas existed, an dsometimes thought them superior than the other- what the different Dharmas of different Varnas were, the slave-hood and the Kings right (nay indeed Dharma) to sleep with the maids, and beyond this all there is an overarching theme of Sanjeevini or Eternal life or at least life that could be lived a thousand years or a life where one’s old age can be exchanged with someone for his youth—all questions that make one ponder that if we got life elongated or became immortal, would we still remain the same animals – driven by same lusts to retain our youth/ or will we be more driven by human concerns- the same Dharma obligation to feel fulfilled in our productive years by doing our duty?

Tough questions that remain lurking in the background, while ostensibly the story is mostly about whether you can trick someone into love or whether it follows naturally and from within.

This was a slightly longer read, but again the narration is fantastic and one keeps turning page after page, especially fro someone like me who had forgotten the original story and was rediscovering the myth.

Overall it was a nice evening spent – musing about the theme of love in the epics, about unwed mothers and sages siring sons, about swayamwaras and apparent choice wielded by women, about the good things in life like keeping Vows and sacrificing for your parents and about the darker side, where maids are treated as proprieties and inter-varna marriages are problematic and where someone could forcibly take someone as his or his cousins wife.

There is such a richness of emotions and wisdom, if one were to revisit the epics and try to appreciate the universals behind such folklore- its to the credit of authors like Banker that they are able to pull people back to such subjects.
This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

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Dont Worry, Be Happy

Today launches a new web portal called happier.com, that purports to be a personal trainer for your happiness. I have been beta-testing the site for some time (full disclosure : I got a free 30 day account to beta test it) and though I haven’t really tested it exhaustively , the site looks promising. you can choose what goals you set for yourself (like finding and using your signature strengths in daily life) and there are exercises, journals, tests and questionnaire to keep track of your progress. I had taken the VIA signature strength test earlier too( its freely available elsewhere too) and the results were more or less the same. Seems the strengths do not change much. My top strength is courage and valor and I never knew how to usefully apply that in daily life. At hapier.com there are suggestions on how to use every strength in daily life. what I didn’t like was the speed of videos and the length of videos (they are very short length videos).

Below the fold is press information about the happier.com release and more information can be gleaned from here:

happier.com Launches
A personal trainer for your happiness

September 18, 2009 – Philadelphia, PA – happier.com is a new website launching on September 23, 2009 designed to help people not just be happier but “do happier.” This innovative website provides online tools and exercises for users to make an immediate positive impact on their lives. The website allows users to participate for free by taking 4 validated tests with instant feedback on strengths, optimism, happiness and positivity. More than 100 exclusive videos from the world’s leading happiness researchers and practitioners are also included in this section of the site. Premium users can subscribe for just $5 a month for access to more than a dozen research-backed tools customized to increase happiness, resilience, optimism, engagement, and meaning.

Doug Hensch and Andrew J. Rosenthal co-founded happier.com to inspire people to be happier and more resilient based on the field of positive psychology. They worked closely with Martin E.P. Seligman Ph.D, an exclusive consultant for happier.com, who is the “father of positive psychology” and a noted professor from the University of Pennsylvania.

More than a decade of research has shown that everyone can proactively improve their happiness, leading to more fulfilled and productive lives. Happiness in America is at an all-time low, and happier.com was designed to help alleviate this problem.
“Users start feeling happier after just an hour or two on the site, and within weeks, we start to hear phrases like ‘life changing’ and ‘just the solution I was looking for.’ The site, happier.com, offers proven solutions for real improvement,” says Andrew J. Rosenthal, co-founder of happier.com.

happier.com is the first set of easy-to-use and engaging online happiness-boosting tools backed by the science of positive psychology. To date, the online tools, videos, blog and iPhone application have been used by more than 40,000 beta-testers.

For media inquiries or for additional information please contact Christa Guidi, Cashman & Associates at 215.627.1060 or cguidi@cashmanandassociates.com or Courtney Sochacki Cashman & Associates at 215.627.1060 or Courtney@cashmanandassociates.com.

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