Grit by Angela Duckworth

Originally posted,

There is a lot in this book that resonated with me. I got my first IBM PC when in 1982 when I was 8-9 years old. I learned to do some basic (literally BASIC) programming. I would use a hex editor to modify savegame files. Then I grew bored. A few years later, I picked up C and enjoyed getting into programming. I spent time programming for hours every week for years. I did the same, having a pet programming project, entering the gaming industry as a software engineer. When I came to do something at work, I would have often tried to do something similar at home. The advice that I have given to people regarding my success is that it is built on years of effort and they should be prepared to do the same thing.

However, there is one area in the book where particular learning can be inferred but was not discussed directly. First, let me add my context when reading this book. Growing up, I had a minor speech impediment and had to be tutored. It took time, but I was able to overcome the issue. When I was in grade 4, my parents were advised that I should be placed in a school for people with learning disabilities. I was lucky that my parents could afford, instead, to send me to a private school. During my first year there, I had detention almost daily. I ended the year with an above 80% average. So I did experience some early life lessons where effort yielded results. As I grew into high school, the work was not challenging. I would do my homework during school breaks. Then when I went to University, I had not learned the skills (as expressed through deliberate practice) when learning once again grew harder. Nor does University do a good job of teaching people how to learn; instead, it depends on the principle that you must have learned how to do it if you make it through. Thus, my argument would be this: it is far too easy in our current education system for people to rely on talent to produce results and thus be unprepared to apply effort to their talent when it later becomes necessary. Thus, due to the environment, there is a U curve to the value of talent.

I did not learn how to learn until I was in the workforce. A few years into working, I started thinking about what skills I wanted to improve, most likely due to a conversation with a manager. As I thought about it, it seemed self-evident that the best place to focus would be on my worst areas. They would allow me to see the most significant improvement. Thus, I focused on my interpersonal skills, influencing and leadership. I continue to spend time coding at home, but I also included reading through books on communication and soft skill development (emotional intelligence). This resulted in a natural transition into coaching, mentoring and finally, managing small and then larger teams. Getting there was no easy task. For over a decade, a daily ritual of self-analysis of each day’s engagements and conversations was customary for me. I would seek 360 feedback as often as possible and discuss ways to improve with peers (even more so if they were in a different discipline). I never doubted that I could get better and knew that it would take a constant effort with small incremental gains over time. Somehow, I had the faith that it would work.

I love the part where the author describes talent x effort leads to skill and skill x effort leads to achievement. The effort for skill should cover the entire domain of the skill to be developed. The example in the book was about a potter where each piece would provide an incremental increase in their appreciation and capability in the craft. In my own discipline, that same repetition can be restricting. For example, someone who spends years working in network optimization will become an expert in that area. However, that does not guarantee an ability to transition that skill across the broader software engineering space. This is generally referred to as depth vs breadth. As a manager, this is a topic that I explicitly bring up when working with an employee on their career path. It is easier to let an employee continue to refine their skill in the space that you have them currently engaged, but that is likely to do them a disservice. I have seen too many managers let people dig themselves into a rut (or a corner) in terms of their personal development. Thus, we must think carefully about the “effort” in this equation. Specifically, the effort must reflect the entire domain (area, space) of the skill that the individual wants to improve and not just a part of it.