Getting Better on Purpose

The Batting Cage

Some years ago, I stepped into a batting cage that was hurling baseballs at 80 miles-per-hour and attempted to hit one. For the entire first set of pitches I failed miserably. I never even made contact. I didn’t understand it. After a couple of pitches, I was able to get my timing right. I kept my eye on the ball. I swung level. I kept my right foot planted. Whiffff!

I angrily slammed another token in the machine. I was not going to give up, especially when at one time I was a pretty decent hitter. Oddly enough, I started hitting the ball. Nothing spectacular, but I made contact on most of the pitches and drove a couple of them right back at the cursed machine.

Afterwards I reflected on what had just happened. Why was I able to hit the ball on the second go when I had so soundly humiliated myself on the first? It occurred to me that the first time I was focused on technique.I assumed if I just followed the rules for a good baseball swing, then success would follow. The second time through I actually wanted to hit the ball. In fact, I refused to not hit the ball. It was a complete mind shift that was almost palpable.

At the time I thought I was nuts. I had read about people doing that sort of thing, but I always thought it was just more self-help mumbo-jumbo. I had certainly never experienced it before, but now that I had it was exhilarating and weird at the same time.

Getting Better

It turns out that what I experienced is not weird at all.It’s actually how we improve. We get better on purpose.

Many people are familiar with the “10,000-hour” rule. K.Anders Ericsson, a psychologist whose research interest is expert performance, formulated the rule based on his research into how the highest performing athletes and professionals achieve their other-worldly levels of competence.According to Ericsson, it takes 10,000 hours of focused, deliberate practice to achieve the highest levels of performance.

Popularized by Malcom Gladwell in books like Blink andOutliers, the 10,000-hour rule has become a hard limit, which is unfortunate because Ericsson himself cautions that the number of hours is an estimate, a swag of the grossest kind, and may vary wildly from person to person.

What doesn’t vary among all the experts is the question of intent. Without exception, the person who achieves the highest levels of performance in any field is the person whose intent is to become the best.Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and Wayne Gretzky did not spend thousands of hours practicing with the intention of “making a good living,” or “living well,” or even “providing for my family.” They had one goal: to be the best. And all of their practice was focused on that one, overriding goal. Of course, along the way, they made a good living and provided for their families, and maybe that provided the impetus to become the best. But at some point the drive required to perform at the levels at which they performed are inexplicable except to say they wanted it. They wanted it badly.

The Deliberate Coder

What does this mean for us as software developers? I don’t know where you’re at in your journey, whether you’re a senior programmer attempting to go from good to great, or one with less experience trying to up your game. Maybe you’re a career-changer and just sticking your toe in the water to see if this is a swimming pool that you want to dive into.

Regardless of where you are in your career, your true journey begins with the answer to this question: Do you really want to get better? Are you willing to do what it takes to become the best developer you can possibly be?

If the answer is yes, then there are literally millions of resources available online and offline for you to use to learn and improve coding skills. Whether it’s books, blogs, online courses, conferences, podcasts, or meetups, do something!

And on top of everything else, find a mentor, someone that has the skills or knowledge you want. Learn from them. There really is no substitute for the voice of experience.

The journey never ends. I still miss the ball more timesthan I am willing to share, but when I got serious about deliberate improvement, my skill, knowledge, and career took off.

Yours can too!