About these notes

Hi! I’m Andy Matuschak. You’ve stumbled upon my working notes. They’re kind of strange, so some context might help.

These notes are mostly written for myself: they’re roughly my thinking environment (Evergreen notes; My morning writing practice). But I’m sharing them publicly as an experiment (Work with the garage door up). If a note seems confusing or under-explained, it’s probably because I didn’t write it for you! Sorry—that’s sort of an essential tension of this experiment (Write notes for yourself by default, disregarding audience).

For now, there’s no index or navigational aids: you’ll need to follow a link to some starting point. You might be interested in §What’s top of mind.

👋 Andy (email, Twitter, main personal site)

PS: My work is made possible by a crowd-funded research grant from my Patreon community. You can become a member to support future work, and to read patron-only updates and previews of upcoming projects.

PS: Many people ask, so I’ll just note here: no, I haven’t made this system available for others to use. It’s still an early research environment, and Premature scaling can stunt system iteration.

Athletes and musicians pursue virtuosity in fundamental skills much more rigorously than knowledge workers do

Top-tier athletes are fanatically disciplined about improving their foundational skills—skills which transcend any sport, the same kind of agility drills you might see an army recruit do. Top-tier musicians do likewise: Lang Lang, for instance, is still working on his scales after 30 years as a concert pianist. They’re not just doing rote drills: they’re working to improve those skills critically, poring over performance videos and working with coaches.

By comparison, Knowledge work rarely involves deliberate practice. Knowledge workers seem surprisingly unserious about honing fundamental skills like reading (People seem to forget most of what they read, and they mostly don’t notice), note-taking (Note-writing practices are generally ineffective), developing ideas over time (Knowledge workers usually have no specific methods for developing ideas over time). Core practices in knowledge work are often ad-hoc, and knowledge workers generally don’t seem to pursue a serious program of improving in those core skills. I suspect that this is in large part because the possibility of improvement isn’t salient: Salience of improvement drives skill development.

What might it mean for knowledge workers to fanatically pursue virtuosity in these fundamental skills, in the way that athletes seek in their fundamental skills?


References

Emergent Ventures grant application, 2019-05-13

Matuschak, A. (2019, December). Taking knowledge work seriously. Presented at the Stripe Convergence, San Francisco.

Knowledge work rarely involves deliberate practice

Athletes and musicians pursue virtuosity in fundamental skills much more rigorously than knowledge workers do. One likely reason is that athletes/musicians engage in Deliberate practice, after Ericsson—that is, activities focused specifically on improving skills.

Sure, knowledge workers regularly take on “growth opportunities,” like a new job that will push them beyond their prior skill sets. But their day-to-day activities are focused on doing the job, not (usually) on building whatever skills are deficient. This is akin to a soccer player only playing games as a way to get in shape, rather than lifting weights and running drills. Typical work and performance environments don’t constitute deliberate practice.

Ericsson claims (2016, p. 98) that there is no deliberate practice possible for knowledge work because there are no objective criteria (so, poor feedback), because the skills aren’t clearly defined, and because techniques for focused skill improvement in these domains aren’t known. I’m skeptical of the finality of these claims, in the face of e.g. Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work, Spaced repetition memory systems make memory a choice, etc. But it’s true that at least for the moment, there’s nothing as straightforward as weightlifting that you can do to improve yout communication skills.

There’s significant tension between this line of reasoning and Enabling environments focus on doing what’s enabled / Enabling environments focus on creating opportunities for growth and action, not on skill-building. Those articles would seem to claim that top-notch tennis / piano academies are not enabling environments… which is almost certainly false. There’s potential tension also with How might we situate tools for thought within intrinsically meaningful contexts?

See also §Taking knowledge work seriously (Stripe convergence talk, 2019-12-12).


References

Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (1 edition). Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Peak - Ericsson and Pool

Nielsen, M. A. (2004). Principles of effective research (Technical Note No. 0404). The University of Queensland.

Many people don’t spend enough time on self-development. If you stop your development at the level which resulted in your first paper, it’s unlikely you’ll solve any major problems. More realistically, for many people self-development is an incidental thing, something that happens while they’re on the treadmill of trying to solve problems, generate papers, and so on, or while teaching. While such people will develop, it’s unlikely that doing so in such an ad hoc way will let them address the most important problems.