The Long Game


The theory of deliberate practice is a popular starting point for online article writers. I subscribed to an alert for the term, and I generally get a few results every day (of varying quality). Its popularity isn’t surprising. Deliberate practice offers a process that anyone can use to get better, assuming they are willing to follow it carefully and put in the required hours. Articles and books on the topic often provide examples of well-known experts who followed a deliberate practice process. Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated mentions Tiger Woods pushing golf balls into the sand to make them harder to hit. James Clear writes about Kobe Bryant’s 800 jump shots before practice. But there are also examples of people who didn’t have coaches to steer them towards the right practice steps, but nevertheless achieved incredible results. I recently finished reading Masters of Doom, the story of the founders of id software. One of the recurring themes in the book is the incredible work ethic of John Carmack, co-founder, graphics engine developer, and all-around game programming legend.

Master of Doom

The id founders lived what we now recognize as the tech start-up lifestyle, working all hours of the day and night to ship their products. But even among these crunch mode heroes, Carmack stood out. He worked on the most technically complex parts of the code (generally the game engine), rarely participated in the deathmatch gaming sessions that broke out in the office, and scheduled his work hours (4pm-4am) for maximum focus.

As this description suggests, Carmack didn’t always play well with others, and the book has plenty of similar anecdotes. But setting that aside, what I’d like to consider is how Carmack reached the level of expertise required to create his gaming innovations.

Like many hackers of his generation, Carmack spent many hours in his youth experimenting with early microcomputers such as the Apple II and IBM PC. He started his career as a freelance programmer, and later took a job at a software company called Softdisk, where he met his future co-founders. As the idea of id software came together, the founders took the popular approach of keeping their day jobs while working on their new company on evenings and weekends.

Carmack’s story is an example of how to attain world-class expertise without seeming to follow any particular process. Unlike expert athletes and musicians, Carmack didn’t have a coach giving him advice on what to study next. Although he sometimes sought out technical experts, and he knew it was useful to work with people who had complementary skills, he was mainly self-directed. He figured out how to build the next generation of graphics engine through reading, experimenting, and long hours.

So it’s possible to be very successful using the conceptually simple approach that is common among software company founders. The only problem with this strategy is that it either works or it doesn’t. The reason that people who write about experts are interested in a more step-by-step approach is that it’s more replicable. A strategy that depends only on a vision and hard work is easy to communicate, and may appeal to those who are wary of step-by-step solutions. But if it doesn’t produce results, it’s hard to adjust it to make it work better. It’s like a black box of success.

Masters of Doom provides a lot of detail about id’s founders, especially “the two Johns” (Carmack and Romero). But it’s still hard to tell what produced Carmack’s ability to focus so intensively during his epic work sessions. It’s almost like he was a visiting space alien who happened to be really good at graphics programming.

Atheist Monks in Space (#)

Speaking of aliens, let’s move from this real-life engineer to a fictional scientist with his own lessons about pursuing expertise. Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is a popular sci-fi epic, but some people have trouble getting through the first few hundred pages. For those people, the action starts in Part 6, or about one third of the way through the novel. I happen to like the first five parts. They describe life in an alternate universe in which scholars (called Avout) live in walled communities called Concents. The Concents are divided into Maths, which only periodically open to the outside world. Depending on the math, the period can be 1, 10, 100, or 1000 years. In Parts 1-5, Stephenson paints a vivid picture of life in a Decenarian math. In the process, he illustrates the benefits of disconnecting from the world to enjoy some quality thinking time. By having his characters disconnect for decades or centuries, he magnifies the results, often to comic effect.

Early in the book, Erasmus, the young narrator and protagonist, finds himself in a kind of detention following a run-in with the mathic authorities. As a form of penance, he is required to perform various pointless intellectual exercises such as memorizing the digits of pi. The exercises come from a kind of twisted textbook known as the Book.

Erasmus’s confinement has various consequences that are important to the plot. But what struck me about his time with the Book is how casually he applies himself to the required work. Memorizing several thousand digits of pi? Hardly worth mentioning. A multi-hour oral exam on the contents of the first five Book chapters? Not a problem.

Of course, Erasmus is a fictional character, so he can be provided with any superpowers that are required to move the plot along. But there’s more to it than that. One of the rules of the mathic world is that avout cannot reproduce. Therefore, they are genetically identical to the people who live outside the concent. The concent maintains its population by accepting new avout at Apert, when the gates open. So the intellectual feats of the Avout are completely due to the environment they live in. Voluntarily isolating themselves from the distractions of the outside world gives them space to think about problems that take serious concentration to solve.

Twitter Got Him Too?

It has become a cliché (though an accurate one) to observe that online culture is preventing us from getting real work done. We all know we’re supposed to turn off our phones and email alerts when it’s time to concentrate. But it can be instructive to see examples of people who take this idea beyond the occasional hour or two of focus. Carmack spent years working 12-hour days to become a world-class expert in computer graphics. Neal Stephenson requires four consecutive quiet hours to make meaningful progress on one of his enormous novels. (Though in the years since he wrote that piece, even he has succumbed to the allure of Facebook and Twitter. None can escape, it seems). And if nothing else works, there’s always the option of spending ten years in a secular monastery on another planet.

(Image credits: Albertas Agejevas, Random House via Wikipedia)