Getting Good

Samuel writes in:

Much like you with your piano resolution, I decided to finally bite the bullet and begin a career path towards becoming a professional chef this year. I have a substantial amount of money saved up, so the costs of this choice aren’t a problem.

My problem is this: it’s a lot more of a slog than I ever dreamed it would be. I am attending culinary school in the fall, but for now I went to a few of the best restaurants in my city and asked if I could apprentice for free in their kitchen. I found a position that blew my mind at first, but for the last three weeks all I have done is chop vegetables. It’s incredibly boring and it’s actually making me enjoy this less and less. I’m afraid that by the time I actually get to culinary school, I’m going to hate this entire idea.

Do you have any advice or thoughts?

Two words: deliberate practice.

The advantage of spending hours and hours chopping vegetables now is that later on, when you’re preparing complex dishes, the act of chopping the vegetables is so efficient and effortless for you that you can chop the vegetables perfectly while focusing mentally on other tasks that need to be done.

I actually think this is a brilliant way to train for an aspiring chef. This training is grinding a particular skill into you to the point that it becomes truly second nature. That particular skill is one that you will use virtually every day as a chef, either in the home or in a restaurant.

It’s the concept of deliberate practice at work. Deliberate practice is practice that is specific and technique-oriented, is highly repetitive, and is paired with immediate feeback – in other words, the exact kind of practice you’re getting in that kitchen right now.

Why is deliberate practice so good? For one, it forces you to master a very specific skill in an intimate way. Often, that specific skill is an element of the larger skill you want to learn. For two, the mastery of that very specific skill often prepares you well to learn other specific skills – slicing meat, for instance. For three, that highly trained skill will make the broader tasks that much easier, meaning that excelling at one narrow thing can often improve your overall skill level, much like a tent pole with a tent.

Think of The Karate Kid, where Daniel is washing and waxing cars and painting walls. It was boring and it seemed completely un-fun to Daniel, but when he actually attempted basic karate, those skills he had deliberately practiced came to the surface, making him much, much better than he would have ever been without them.

I’m actually using deliberate practice in my own piano learning. Rather than continually pushing myself to play harder and harder material, I’m instead playing some simple songs with a few key techniques over and over and over again. I’ll play the same line in repetition for an hour. Yes, at times it can be boring, but when I do try something more complex, I see that specific learned skill shining through when I do things like switch chords or jump an octave.

If you want to learn to do something well, deliberate practice should absolutely be a part of your practicing repertoire. Sure, it might be really boring at times, but when you attempt the broader task and feel the training of deliberate practice come through for you, it’s an exciting and empowering thing.

Samuel, go home tonight and throw yourself together a vegetable stir fry, just like you might have done before the start of the year. Notice how it just all comes together that much easier than before. That’s what you’re learning – instead of focusing on the mechanics of vegetable chopping, instead you’re focusing on the meal itself. That focus is at a higher level because you have a lot of practice at the lower level skill – and the end result is a much better meal that seems to come together easier.

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