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?

  • Ben Franklin practiced writing by taking an essay he found compelling and, without referencing it, rewriting it in his own words; then studying the differences between its language and his own. (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p17)
  • Susan Sontag 7/5/72 (As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980)

A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?

  • 2022-03-07 Interview with Pat Metheny in Believer, via Subtle Maneuvers:

Metheny has a devotional relationship to music. He dismisses the idea of talent in favor of disciplined work, and is known for practicing the guitar for eight hours a day. He tours nearly constantly, performing over three hundred shows a year. For each one, he spends four hours in preparation: he avoids conversation, runs purposely mindless exercises, and abstains from all food. After the show, he writes ten pages of notes on the performance, critiquing the sound, music, and environment. He has never tasted alcohol or tried any drug, in order to stay focused on music.


I first asked the core question (“what might it mean for knowledge workers…?”) in my Emergent Ventures grant application, 2019-05-13

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

Last updated 2023-07-13.