Deliberate practice will help you advance in your career.
To get better runners run, writers write, musicians play. So all knowledge workers need to do is know?
Quite the opposite is true. The things you think you know — the illusion of knowledge — are the biggest enemies of improvement.
When you’re convinced to know something, learning something new means you have to change your mind. But people don’t want to change their minds; a principle psychologists call cognitive laziness.
“We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995,” Adam Grant writes in Think Again. “We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.”
But if knowing is counterproductive to improve as somebody who gets paid for thinking, what is it then that makes you better? The following habits can help you improve as a knowledge worker.
Work and think through writing.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman wasn’t a writer. Yet, he wrote — a lot. In an interview about his journals, a reporter asked: “And so this represents the record of the day-to-day work.” But Feynman rejects: “I actually did the work on the paper.”
The reporter doesn’t believe Feynman: “Well, the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” But Feynman says: “You have to work on paper, and this is the paper. OK?”
Many people still don’t get what Feynman tried to explain to the reporter: Writing is working because it facilitates thinking. When you write, you tie yourself to your train of thought.
You’ll also get more creative. Research shows the best ideas will arise once you flow into the writing process. So the more you create, the more creative you become.
Don’t know where or how to start? Block time-slots in your calendar, use a journal or empty document, and answer one of these prompts:
- Which problem needs to be solved? What do you know about it?
- What are you not seeing right now?
- Which idea can’t you stop thinking about?
Build a personal knowledge management system.
A personal knowledge management system (PKM) helps you seek, consume, capture, connect, and apply whatever is kept in your head. Well-implemented it’s the career booster.
While most PKMs are kept private, some thinkfluencers learn in public. My favorite examples include Andy Matuschak’s working notes library, Maggie Appleton’s Digital Garden, or Luhmann’s digitized slip box.
Luhmann was living proof for an effective system. During his life, he wrote 70 books and 500 scholarly articles. He said this was only possible because of his Zettelkasten, the German word for slip box.
I’ve been using the Zettelkasten with Roam for three months, and I can already see how it’s improving my reading and thinking.
A Zettelkasten can work as an idea-generation machine. You discover related ideas that you hadn’t thought of in the first place. As your notes grow, you will start seeing patterns. These patterns can serve as the basis of your original work.
On each slip are either literature notes (your synthesis of other people’s ideas) or permanent notes (your original thought).
Writing permanent notes is tough. You have to distill the quintessence from your thoughts. That’s why it’s also a great metric for tracking your progress as a knowledge worker.
Seek constructive feedback, always.
Feedback is the fuel for improvement but getting feedback is tricky. Most people don’t like to get direct feedback. Whenever you ask, “What can I do to improve,” you’ll likely receive a polite but fluffy “you’re doing so well, there’s nothing I can think of.”
Use proven reading principles.
Do you ever finish a non-fiction book and worry whether reading is a time-waster? If you feel like a book can’t help you improve, it’s likely because you don’t know about crucial reading principles.
Reading non-fiction takes anywhere from six to nine hours — a significant time investment. These hours aren’t wasted if you read for entertainment.
But if you carve out the hours from a busy day to read books like Thinking Fast and Slow, you’re likely looking for something more than joyful reading time.
To make reading effective, you need to factor in the two components of learning and memory: the learned information itself and the so-called retrieval cue that helps you find the material you learned.
Here’s how you can do it.
- Elaborate. Use your own words to explain what you read and connect it to things you already know. After reading an interesting sentence, scribble your thoughts on the book’s page or your note-taking app.
- Retrieve. You learn something not only when you connect it to what you already know (step one) but when you try to access it. So after finishing a book, map out a summary from your memory.
- Space out self-testing. The more time has gone since you read a book, the more difficult it is to recall it. But by revisiting your summaries once in a while, you likelier remember what you read.
“What I know for sure is that reading opens you up. It exposes you and gives you access to anything your mind can hold.”
Teach to learn.
You learned something new, but you struggle to explain it to other people? You likely don’t know what you think you know. Mortimer Adler said: “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”
So the best self-test to check whether you genuinely understood something is to explain and teach it to others — your co-workers, your family, your friends.
Pick the topic you want to remember, pretend you explain the content to a 12-year old (as simply as you can). Identify where you struggle to explain and fill your knowledge gaps by rechecking the original source.
Self-reflect and learn from experience.
After workshops, podcasts, public talks, interviews, I take a piece of paper and draw to columns: what went well and even better if. Then, I fill them with everything that comes to my mind.
We don’t have to be visibly active to learn. Progress starts with self-awareness. If we aren’t aware of a problem, we can’t improve. Here are two questions worth answering by Julie Zhuo, a former Facebook VP:
- When you remember your last success, what were the traits that enabled you to succeed?
- What are the three most common pieces of advice from your team or boss on who you can improve?
The key to managing yourself is understanding your strengths and weaknesses. And a great way to do this is by reflecting — the active decision to think about your past.
Or, as researchers put it: “Reflection is the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience.”