Implicit practice: a sight reading parable

Part of “Letters from the Lab”, a series of informal essays on my research written for patrons. Originally published March 2022; made publicly available August 2022. You can also listen to this essay (16 minutes).

The best scientists, entrepreneurs, and engineers I know pour themselves into their work. You couldn’t capture their working hours on a timecard. Their creative gears turn restlessly, and insights produced in the shower or on walking conversations are no less valuable than those produced at the office. Yet I’ve noticed that top knowledge workers relate to their skills quite differently than top athletes and performing artists do.

Competitive athletes, musicians, and dancers work tirelessly—often with a stable of coaches—to assess, develop, and maintain the core skills of their disciplines. They watch tape of themselves. They measure their performance at microtasks intended to isolate specific core skills. Decades into their career, they still practice scales, or perform plyometric exercises, or whatever else they need to do to maintain top performance.

By contrast, knowledge worker friends will sometimes tell me about studying a new programming language, or brushing up on their statistics with a tutor. But I notice that these “training” efforts are usually temporary and focused on subject matter, rather than on “core skills” analogous to those an athlete or performing artist might refine daily. It’s rare that a knowledge worker tells me about a diligent ongoing training program to improve their skills at reading difficult texts, or synthesizing insights, or sharpening their research questions.

In his book summarizing a career spent studying deliberate practice and elite performance, K. Anders Ericsson suggestsSee his book Peak (2016) with Robert Pool, p. 98. that we shouldn’t be surprised by the omission. The core skills of tennis and ballet have been systematically characterized; they can be easily and objectively assessed; for each skill, we know practice activities which can can improve performance. The same can’t be said (yet) for the skills of a scientist, or a startup founder.

But I don’t think this is the whole story. When I talk to serious knowledge workers about this disparity between themselves and athletes, I’ll often hear a response which sounds like: “I do practice the skills you’re talking about, every day, as part of my work. I’m reading memos and synthesizing insights and formulating questions all the time.” The implied belief is that they practice these skills implicitly, as part of their routine work—so they don’t need the dedicated assessment and development used in these other fields.

Ericsson and co-authors tackle this objection in another paperEricsson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. See page 368.:

Although work activities offer some opportunities for learning, they are far from optimal. In contrast, deliberate practice would allow for repeated experiences in which the individual can attend to the critical aspects of the situation and incrementally improve her or his performance in response to knowledge of results, feedback, or both from a teacher. … During a 3-hr baseball game, a batter may get only 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically explored … In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.

I’ve learned (the hard way) this past year that there’s a type of situation in which implicit practice will often fail—and fail invisibly. I hope this story might help you spot places where a similar pattern occurs in your life.

A sight reading parable

I’ve been playing piano since I was eight years old. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the instrument seriously until I was a teenager, and a vocal music obsession diverted my musical attention for much of my adult life. So I don’t have the fluency one might hope for after a couple decades. Still, I can learn and perform “early advanced” classical repertoire, and I take great joy in my time at the piano.

Last year, I discovered that despite the efforts of multiple teachers and thousands of hours at the piano, a gaping—yet invisible—hole in my skills has been seriously handicapping my progress, and my enjoyment. My repertoire and technical skills may have been those of a modestly experienced amateur, but until I discovered this problem and started working on it deliberately, my sight reading skills were those of a beginner perhaps three years into playing.

Sight reading is the skill of picking up and performing a piece of music you’ve never seen before, with little preparation or practice. By contrast, “studying” a piece is like reading by slowly sounding out a piece of literature written in a foreign language, in a foreign alphabet. I’d had that experience in high school, translating Homer’s epics from ancient Greek. For two years, I’d only ever experienced Greek at the pace of two lines of verse per hour of study. Then we picked up the New Testament, and for the first time I had the experience of “sight reading” Greek: the language was simple enough that I could translate it on the fly. (It is to the advantage of a proselytory text to use inclusive language!) What a joyful, freeing feeling that was! So utterly different from the plodding experience of cross-indexing multiple scholarly references to understand each phrase.

I didn’t notice that I was always “studying” but never “reading” as a pianist, because no student expects to be able to sight read challenging piano music. Such pieces require weeks or months of study—not to read the notes off the page, but to practice difficult physical motions, to interpret the movement of many voices, and so on.

With piano, my teachers and I focused on studying repertoire “at my learning edge.” Each of these pieces would take months to learn. Almost all the time with those pieces was spent on interpretation and technique. After the first few sessions, I had the score memorized, so I didn’t need to read it anymore. But that meant that in a whole year, I’d only read a few pages of new music! Imagine learning to read with only a few pages of prose per year. No wonder I read music so slowly.

Unfortunately, this situation only made itself worse. As the pieces I learned became more musically challenging, each piece took longer to learn, which further reduced the amount of new music I would read each year. My poor sight reading skills made new pieces take even longer to learn: because I couldn’t read most of that music in real-time, I’d need to memorize passages before I could practice them. So each year, I’d read fewer bars of more difficult music, and atrophy still further in sight reading, and so on, in a downward spiral. Thus poor sight reading skills resulted in fewer implicit opportunities to develop sight reading skills. An awful feedback loop!

Emotionally, my poor sight reading skills gave rise to a powerful feeling of scarcity in my piano experience. Whenever I’d start a new piece, I knew that I’d have to study for months before I could play it. And I knew that I could only study a few new pieces per year. So choosing a piece to study felt like a high-stakes decision. I couldn’t respond to impulses I felt each time I sat down to the piano: I’d have to stick with one piece for a long time. That weightiness made piano less joyful.

I couldn’t quite articulate this, but I really wanted to be able to sit down and just play new music on a whim. Of course, I understood that the “at-level” pieces I was studying were quite difficult, so I couldn’t play those spontaneously. But even when I chose pieces which seemed much easier, I still couldn’t play them on the spot. These simpler pieces might take five sessions of practice instead of fifty, but they still felt like “sounding out the words” rather than “reading”. And I felt that if I couldn’t play even these easier pieces spontaneously, there was no point: I’d just be taking time away from the “at-level” pieces which would develop me as a pianist.

The moral here is that implicit practice wasn’t enough to improve my poor sight reading skills. New pieces took months to learn, but my teachers didn’t notice a problem because such pieces should be hard, should take a long time… though in hindsight perhaps not that long. The real problem was that all music took me quite a long time to learn, even music at a level I might have studied years earlier. But I never worked on “easier” music like that with a teacher, so no expert ever had the opportunity to notice the problem.

The irony in this situation is that piano is one of the classic domains which expertise researchers reference when discussing deliberate practice. The skills are well characterized and readily assessed; we have practice methods for improving performance at each skill at all levels; we have well-known teaching practices; etc. In fact, it was this kind of formal structure which finally identified my sight reading as a problem. A potential new piano teacher wanted me to sketch my abilities using the rubric of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s syllabus, which helpfully delimits “levels” for various skills, and provides learning resources for each. I measured myself at level 8 or 9 along each axis—except for sight reading, which was around level 3. Oops.

I didn’t grasp right away how important that gap was. I thought, almost as a matter of hygiene: well, maybe I should bring that straggling skill up to the level of the others. So I bought some sight reading workbooks. These books provide snippets of pieces organized by difficulty. The idea is that you find an appropriate “starting place”, simple enough to sight read, then you read a page or two of new music each day. The music slowly becomes more complex over time, much like graded reading books for children. I made progress rapidly, but that meant playing little eight-bar snippets of simple folk songs—so the growth didn’t feel terribly profound.

A few months into this process, I saw a YouTube video suggesting that pianists practice sight reading by using books which compile “easy” arrangements of music they enjoy. I purchased a book of Disney music intended for beginners, and—embarrassing as it sounds—that book gave me one of the most profound musical experiences of my life. The night it arrived, I sat down to the piano and opened to the first page. I played the first piece, then the next, then the next, straight through, until I reached the end of the book, over 200 pages in a single night. I read more music in that one night than I’d played in the prior decade of cumulative practice. After years of pieces which required weeks of study before they could really be played, it was absolutely exhilarating to play dozens of beloved songs on the spot. The arrangements were simple, but that didn’t matter. In some strange way, these arrangements made me feel more like a pianist than the difficult Chopin pieces I’d been studying. They ended the feeling of scarcity I hadn’t recognized; they gave me a feeling of agency I didn’t know I’d been missing. I’ve practiced sight reading daily for much of the past year, and the progress continues to feel deeply rewarding.

Many musicians reading this will suggest that my experience was quite unlucky. I could have avoided this problem if I’d had teachers with a broader focus, or if I’d studied traditions like jazz which rely on improvisation and session play. But I feel I got lucky in this situation. My weak skill happened to be in a domain amenable to deliberate practice. It was easy to accidentally stumble into an assessment which revealed the problem. And once the problem was identified, it was easy to make rapid progress. But my weakness could have been hiding instead in a much less well-defined domain, one without properties so friendly to deliberate practice.

When I told this story to Rob Ochshorn, he asked: are there other situations like this lurking in my life? Are there other weak skills, like sight reading, which have caused similarly harmful feedback loops? Skills which might feel rewarding in the same way to practice at an embarrassingly simplified level?

A design parable

I realized in that conversation that another much more important skill has fallen into the same spiral for me: the visual practices of user interface design. Just as my sight reading fell behind because I focused on learning pieces “at my learning edge”, this design skill never got a chance to grow because my design projects have always focused on conceptually difficult, and often novel, interaction designs.

Many young designers hone their skills by composing iteration after iteration of layouts in conceptually “simple” UIs—a sign-up screen, a list of search results, a news feed. With ample (if perhaps mundane) experience, they gain a deep intimacy with common patterns which allows them to do something like “sight reading” with a new interface: to converge spontaneously and in near-real-time to high-quality layouts.

But I came to design sideways, as an engineer, so my Apple projects were unusual concepts: iOS’s 3D page curl, novel multi-touch gesture interactions, physics-based UI animations, the gyroscope-driven 3D parallax effects, etc. At Khan Academy, I worked on designs like interactive number block manipulatives, an illustrated math “platformer” game, and a semi-synchronous peer learning environment. These projects were all quite difficult conceptually, so each one took many months. My collaborators and I would spend some of that time on the visual elements of the interface designs, sure, but each required us to focus mostly on challenging conceptual issues. This situation parallels “at-level” piano pieces, which took months of focus on technique and interpretation, but whose scores I’d no longer need to read after a few sessions. I’ve spent many years working as a designer, but I’ve laid out only a handful of interfaces—just as I’d spent many years learning advanced piano repertoire, only reading a handful of pages each year.

I can see now that my weak visual skills for interface design have created a feeling of scarcity similar to the one I felt at the piano. Interface ideas take me a long time to refine, so I feel like I need to choose projects carefully—I’ll only get to flesh out a handful each year, just as I’d only get to choose a few piano pieces to play each year. As my career has progressed, I’ve taken on more and more challenging design projects, which has generally meant that I design fewer and fewer new interfaces in a given year. But I’ve been (unintentionally) relying on implicit practice to develop my visual skills for interface design, and so I’ve been caught in a cycle: my slow visual design skills lead to fewer opportunities for implicit practice, which in turn leaves those skills further and further behind my “learning edge.”

I escaped this cycle in piano with deliberate practice. That’s trickier to arrange in design: the skills aren’t as well characterized; assessment is much more challenging; we don’t have strong practice methods. But I’ve had some promising experiences by constructing explicit practice routines for myself. I brainstormed a big list of software which I wish existed. Then I chose a few examples which I felt required no unusual representations, no unusual conceptual or interaction models. These examples could just use the standard platform controls, in standard layouts. Then I designed visual layouts mocking up these apps.

The experience felt much like playing “beginner” arrangements of Disney music. On the one hand, the exercise felt sort of “beneath me”: shallow, hyper-simplified. Not something I’d want to share with others. But on the other hand, I felt the same exhilarating taste of fluency and spontaneity. Not all interfaces must take months to design—look, I can come up with a software idea and design an interface for it on the spot! What freedom.

I can feel clearly that this skill is much more difficult to develop than sight reading. It’s harder to assess my own work; it’s less clear what I should work on next, or how to fix problems. But I’m excited at the progress, and excited to continue explicit practice in this vein.

With these two stories under my belt, I’ve experienced the limitations of implicit practice quite viscerally. The most important lesson for me has been that what’s hard about developing these skills is not figuring out how to practice or generating the right kind of feedback, but rather identifying the skills which must be improved in the first place. I’m now on the lookout for other skills I’ve neglected which have followed a similar pattern. I imagine there are other important patterns of atrophied skills which I’ve not yet identified—I’ll be searching for those, too.

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