Thursday, April 7, 2016

Practice and Play

If there’s one thing that I spend a good amount of free time doing, it’s playing video games. As a child, I’d have to say I was addicted. Recently (after reading the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer’s article on "Deliberate Practice" but before reading "Mindset" by Carol Dweck), when asked if I practiced video games to get better, I initially thought I did not. “Video games are just something I do for fun. I don’t try to get better; it just sort of happens,” I thought.

Upon reflection, I began to question that kind of thinking. When I stopped to consider what I was really doing when playing a game, my thought process change quite a bit. Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned article and book, I stopped seeing practice through real-life experience and instead started viewing it through a different lens; a lens that says practice is, by necessity, a struggle. Is it, though?

To continue briefly with my video game example, I paid little to no notice about improvement. I never thought of what I was doing as practice. However, much of the experience is based around just that. Some games have you fighting for the high score, some have you in competition with other players, and some have the player progressing through increasingly difficult scenarios. Most games require some development of skills, a process that many games even coach you through whether the player realizes it or not. At the same time though, a video game is meant to be a positive experience. Otherwise, it’s not worth playing. In other words, practice and play can be occurring at the same time even without the person realizing it. It doesn’t have to be agonizing.

The question is whether this translates to other tasks. It’s one thing to enjoy practicing something designed for short-term entertainment, but it’s quite different in other areas of work for different lengths of time. Consider the professional musicians and athletes of the world. After years of practicing a musical instrument or playing a sport, burn-out is certainly possible or even likely. Doing something day-in and day-out for ten or twenty years would drive some people crazy or at least ruin the fun of something they once enjoyed. That isn’t to say their work has to be all struggle and effort. There can be enjoyment in it.

Unfortunately, not being at that level in my field yet, I can’t exactly say whether or not practice can be fun or not at extremely high levels of performance. I’d imagine, though, that a professional athlete or other expert-level performer wouldn’t have made it to that level without some intense enjoyment in their work. Managing internal motivation is a big factor, so finding enjoyment in the activity is essential to ongoing deliberate practice.

There are also plenty of people who aren’t practicing to be the next 'great' and are only trying to improve on a particular skill. In these cases, it’s a little more likely that practice can be fun. If not fun, maybe it’ll be tolerable. The first step in achieving this may be with Dweck’s idea of growth mindset vs. fixed mindset. From a fixed mindset, as I said in my last post, practice doesn’t lead to improvement. What’s less fun than practicing something when you believe you’ll never improve? In a growth mindset though, it’s not so bad. In this mindset, you appreciate the learning process.

For example, I recently started reading about accountancy. Nothing too advanced; just the basics. I’m doing this so I might increase my value to potential employers by gaining another new, practical skill. A few years ago, the word accountancy could have put me to sleep, and now I’m going out of my way to learn it.

Part of what changed was my mindset. Now, instead of being overwhelmed and confused by financial terminology and practices, I feel great to be working at it. Every chapter read is a new milestone and another goal accomplished. Somehow, it doesn’t even feel like work. I just sit back in the morning with my book and my coffee and the sun shining through my window. Together, it makes for a pleasurable experience.

So practice can be an enjoyable occurrence. For me at least, it was about finding the right mindset and environment. It was about setting and accomplishing my own personal goals and having a good grasp on what I hope to gain. Being good with financials is a step towards finding better work, and the sense of accomplishment is all I need to keep at it. Other activities might be pleasurable if you make a game out of it. I don’t have a whole lot of advice there since I’m trying to learn that last ability myself, but being able to turn a boring situation into a fun one sounds great. 

Just because it’s practice doesn’t mean it has to be a struggle. It can be fun, too. With the right combination of practice and play, you may not even know you’re doing it.

1 comment:

  1. Here's a few things to ask that you didn't quite get at in this piece.

    (1) How long does it take for the practice to matter and for improvement to be observed? My guess is that most people are impatient and don't appreciate how much practice is required for real and substantive improvement. Time on task, definitely not the sole predictor of learning, still does matter. So one issue is whether people do put in the needed time and when they do is it by intentionality or by play.

    (2) There is a different but related notion to play called immersion. The question is whether the activity demands your full attention and concentration and, if it does, why you are willing to give those things. To the extent that people are trying to multiprocess, they are not immersed. So there is a matter not just of play or not but of how intensive that is. Immersion is maximal intensity.

    (3) The last comment, and here I'm reacting specifically to the part you said about accountancy, is how much goal setting there is in advance of play, and then what is the relationship between the setting of goals and the nature of the play. If it is all goal setting and there is no immediate reward from the activity, it is hard to see how that can be play. Is there a way to set goals and then turn it into play afterwards?

    I mean these three to be interrelated. Sometimes you have to consider the whole rather than look at things component by component only. Finally, I wonder where the blogging fits for you on the fun-work dimension and if you can imagine moving it more in the direction of fun. We haven't seen you move off getting the posts done on Thursday, an indicator of some work aspect to this activity. For this particular post it is more remarkable given that we didn't meet last week. So there is something there to sort out.