Tacit knowledge, abundant examples, and deliberate practice

Last week some friends at a local marketing firm invited me to join them in Boston at a conference called Inbound. I’m glad I went. Not because I learned much about inbound marketing, whatever that is. (Is there a parallel conference called Outbound? How would it differ?) But mainly because I got to hear Kathy Sierra give a really useful talk on optimizing human performance.

The overt purpose of the talk was to invite “content marketers” to create (here I search in vain for another word) “content” that aims not to only engage and inform, but also to help its “users” improve their performance in some domain. That’s a stretch goal for marketing. And I was delighted to see Kathy put it in front of an audience mainly focused on social media best practices, list segmentation, and landing page strategy.

Those aren’t my top concerns. But lately I’ve been working hard at learning to play music. And from that perspective three of Kathy’s themes resonated powerfully with me:

1. Tacit knowledge

2. Abundant examples

3. Deliberate practice

Kathy doesn’t use the phrase tacit knowledge but it’s a touchstone for me so that’s what I’ll call it. She gives the example of chick sexing, a famously hard task. Not many people are able to differentiate male from female chicks. Those who can don’t know, and can’t say, how they do it. Kathy talks about a study showing that novice chick sexers who hung around with experts picked up the skill rapidly by osmosis.

Key to the transmission of this tacit knowledge is an abundance of examples. Brains can use pattern matching to learn directly from other brains. It can happen under the radar, without conscious articulation of technique, but it requires a lot of data. You need to expose your brain to hundreds or thousands of examples of things other people do without knowing quite how they do them.

I think this helps explain why YouTube is so extraordinarily valuable to aspiring musicians. Pick a tune you want to learn. It’s wonderful to find a performance for your instrument that you can see and hear. But typically you won’t find just one, There will often be dozens. I’ve been aware for quite some time that my ability to see and hear many performances of the same tune, by many performers, whose skills and styles vary, accelerates my learning to play the tune. Until now, though, I haven’t been clear about the reason why. Pattern matching requires a lot of data. For a range of skills that can be demonstrated in the medium of online video, YouTube is becoming a robust source of that data.

Of course we can’t learn everything by osmosis. We often need to drag tacit knowledge to the surface, study it, practice it, and then submerge it. As Herbert Simon and William Chase pointed out decades ago, and as Malcolm Gladwell more recently popularized, it can take a long time to acquire expertise this way. Ten thousand hours is the now-famous rule of thumb.

I’ve gotten a late start with music so I’m not sure I’ll be able to clock my ten thousand hours. But in any case the interesting question to me is how best to spend the time I’ve got. I know that I don’t practice as efficiently as I should, and that I’m prone to burning in bad habits. Kathy suggests the following strategy. Pick a tune, or section of a tune, and aim to be able to play it with 95% reliability after practicing for at most 3 sessions of at most 45 minutes each. If you don’t get there, stop. Move the goalpost. Pick a different tune, or a smaller section of the tune, or a slower tempo, and nail that.

It’s hard to be that disciplined. Especially when your head is full of so many examples of the tunes you want to play. Seeing and hearing whole tunes, at tempo, and trying to play along with them, is one crucial mode of learning. Analyzing passages note by note, and trying to perfect them (maybe with the help of a tool like Soundslice), is another. They’re complementary, and I need them both. So thanks, Kathy, for helping me think about how to combine them. And … welcome back!


  1. What instrument?

    I’m playing violin (after a long hiatus), and my duet partner plays viola da gamba, which he started learning 10 years ago. We recently had fun practicing intervals by watching an interactive aural training video on YouTube. In addition to practicing the fundamentals (how to keep the bow straight on the string), I’ll be using YouTube to explore different ways of playing the same piece of music with a new teacher.

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