How to excel as a developer, designer, marketer (or anything else)

Little actions, repeated in time, transform us.

I have always been very curious and since I can remember I was interested to know how to learn better.

Why should we improve ourselves

Obviously, the first question that we have to ask ourselves when we begin a new path should be “Why should I do it?”.

We have already so little time that it would be stupid to waste it with tasks that are not worth to do (and Netflix is coming out with a lot of interesting new series!).

Why should we improve ourselves, then?

It could seem trivial, but when things will get tough, it will be of the utmost importance to give a strong motivation to keep you going.

This motivation should be implied because every human being should try to improve themselves.

But the reality is different, and in the 90% of the situations, this is forced from external causes, like eating, for example.

Jokes aside, the first motivation is to be competitive in a market that is getting tougher and tougher.

The market rewards more skills that it’s difficult to get easily. If you worked just a few months to get the skills that you use for your job, the first and obvious consequence is that you’ll have a lot of competition. So improving your skills could be a way to emerge and make more money, or to get more challenging jobs.

Another motivation is passion: you have something that you like to do like photographing, running, drawing, and you want to get better at it. Simple.

Speaking about motivations, it’s important to understand another thing. Is the act of improving your craft work?

Many people, especially among employees, brag something like “My working hours are 9 to 5. I don’t do anything outside of these hours”. Or they complain “My company doesn’t help me grow at all”, as if the competitive advantage of improving would be just for the company.

Freelancers on the other side understand easily that training is a long term investment since they are the only asset in their individual company.

Practice and experiment deliberately

OK, so whatever your motivation is, you want to improve in your field: what do you do? Where to start?

If I had to summarize in a few words what is the difference between the top performers and the rest of us, it would be “a different approach to practice”.

As knowledge workers, we don’t do a lot of practice. We don’t have the culture for it. And the vast majority of our practice happens at work and as a consequence also a lot of our errors happen there.

All the other professionals practice: artists have a notebook where they sketch things, writers experiments with short stories, cooks test a combination of ingredients over and over. In martial arts, most of the time spent in training is dedicated to the improvement of core movements, also knows as Kata.

Obviously, it can’t be only practice. I drive every day to work, but this doesn’t mean that I am a professional driver. Also, most of us walk every day, but the walking practice doesn’t help us to become a parkour expert. So, it’s not practice alone that makes us improve.

The key concept is deliberate practice.

This concept has been presented in several studies and it expects us to practice at the edge of our skills.

This is the kind of practice that we all do when we learn something new. We are clumsy, slow, we try to remember all the various steps. If you drive, try to remember how was it like when you started. I was repeating all the things I needed to do “Push the clutch, turn the key, press the accelerator, avoid pedestrians” and so on.

The problem is that when I got to a certain level of independence, it was enough for me. So when our performance is acceptable for us, we insert the autopilot, we relax and we stop learning.

On the contrary, those who care and dedicate themselves to their art, study with criteria maintaining an open mind. They can examine, criticize and increase their skills.

So more than innate capacities is the motivation to play a fundamental role in the development of their skills. Over time I did a lot of experiments to improve, and often the biggest obstacle was the lack of grit and perseverance.

We are used to thinking of practice as the antithesis of entertainment: a series of stupid repetitions that separate us from the moment of performance. If you have done any kind of sport during your life, you know what I’m talking about.

On the contrary, the deliberate practice requires close attention and is performed with the specific objective of improving performance.

The biggest challenge to deliberate practice is to stay focused. In the beginning, it may be enough to just sit there and do the exercises, but after a while, the efforts must be targeted, otherwise one begins to ignore mistakes and neglect opportunities to improve.

What should I do? A practical plan to improve

If you are with me up to this point:

  • you have a strong motivation that drives you to take the path of improvement;
  • believe that talent is something that must be cultivated and not an innate capacity
  • you know that deliberate practice is what separates you from excellence in your field.

So you’ll be wondering: “Up to this point I could even get there by myself: what should I do?”

Study what you want to do and create a plan


Photo by Chelsea London Phillips

This is a fundamental part. When we are at school, our teachers provide us with a syllabus for the course. Now’s the time to create your own syllabus.

Online there are already several resources ready, but I advise you to read them and customize them to match your skills.

Obviously, this can be difficult because you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s difficult to avoid wasting time at this stage. So the best thing would be to share this learning process with someone more experienced, to be sure that the resource you’re using is a valid one.

Capture all the ideas

Every smartphone gives you the possibility to record audio, video, text, drawings, so take advantage of it.

If you’re not into technology so much, you can also buy a small notebook along with a pencil, and always take them with you.

There was a period when I kept a notebook and a pen on the bedside table so I could write down the ideas that came to me if I ever woke up during the night.

Split each move into small parts, called chunks

Whatever skills you want to learn, look at it in its entirety. Divide it into the simplest elements possible. Put them back together. Repeat.

Deliberate practice always follows the same model:

  1. breaking a process in its minimal parts,
  2. identifying weaknesses in relation to these parts,
  3. testing and experimenting with new strategies for each section and then integrating learning into the global process.

Make mistakes voluntarily

Learning always takes place at the limit of our capacities. This means that if we never make mistakes, we are playing too much on the safe side. Be willing to be goofy.

Teach (also to yourself)

Teaching is one of the best ways to learn because it forces you to reorganize all the notions in a flow and eliminate all the frills, without using specific jargon.

There is a learning technique called Feynman technique which involves 4 steps:

  1. Write the name of the concept on a piece of paper
  2. Write an explanation, using simple words. Pretend to be teaching someone who knows nothing about it. Use many examples. If you get stuck on a passage, write it down.
  3. Reread and study all the steps you have noted, improving the explanation
  4. Re-read again, removing any technical terminology from the explanation, simplifying as much as possible.

Steal

History can teach you what to do: go and see what the great ones who preceded you did, and copy them.

Designers, go to Behance or Dribbble and study portfolios-

Developers, go to GitHub and read other people’s code for 20 minutes every day. Read both well-written code and badly written code (if you’re not sure of the difference, ask someone more experienced than you).

Make a list of people you admire in your field and write two or three lines about why you believe they are experts:

Practice: quality, not time

Some years ago I started studying piano alone. I had given myself 20 minutes a day when I would have to play. At the end of the 20 minutes, I stopped, even though I was in the middle of an exercise. Here it is. This is the wrong way to practice.

It is better to identify what makes a correctly performed exercise and try to make 5 perfect repetitions.

Practice little and often

Better 10 minutes a day, rather than an hour a week. This is because (sorry for this simplification, neuroscientists :D) the connections of our brain “feed” on all stimuli and change even while we sleep.

By practicing more often we support and improve this process.

Look for immediate feedback

Immediate feedback is one of the fundamental parts when it comes to practice. At school, we are used to waiting even weeks for the results of an exam/task. Now we’re lucky enough to have direct access to tools that can provide immediate feedback.

Is Practice enough?

The question that arises at the end of this path is: is Deliberate Practice enough to improve in our craft?

Unfortunately, nobody can give you a recipe to achieve excellence. The only constant in this world is that everyone has to put his own effort to achieve what means to be excellent for themselves.

What you have to consider is obviously the context in which you operate: in a highly competitive field such as sport or music, all the biggest ones practice more or less deliberately, thus also the smallest genetic advantages and can not do the difference.

Although genetics influence performance, it does not determine performance. Do not confuse fate with opportunity.

Genes only provide an opportunity, but they do not determine destiny. It’s like having a good hand in any game: if you can not handle it, it’s not said that you win.

In other fields, like ours, the likelihood of your peers investing time in deliberate practice is very much less, and this leads to the fact that if you invest a little of your time too, you can really make a difference.

Additional resources

These are a few resources that have helped me writing this post. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, don’t miss them!

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2 thoughts on “How to excel as a developer, designer, marketer (or anything else)

  1. Ciao Giustino,
    leggo sempre volentieri i tuoi post perché sono spesso fonte di ispirazione.

    Grazie e complimenti!

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