how to be good at what you do: mental habits

18 July, 2010

More lessons from a quantum physicist.

Being good at what you do isn’t just a question of being unusually talented or smart, it’s about developing good mental habits.

  • Do it yourself/be a punk. Don’t ask an expert to do something for you. Why? Because you learn how to do things by doing them; it’s easier to do interesting things when you don’t actually know how to do them; you discover all sorts of new things along the way; and it increases the chance of serendipity.
  • Say no to the unimportant things so you can say yes to the important things. (I suppose this is related to the previous post, about trying to do interesting/special things at all.)
  • Always be trying to do things that are too hard for you, that are just beyond your reach. There are limits to what you can do, obviously, but you should always be pushing yourself. I have to say I always start off thinking that writing anything is beyond my reach.
  • Make your head your office. You should always have a few problems/ideas that you can pick up and work on wherever you are, consciously or otherwise. I like this mental habit in particular, though I haven’t yet managed to cultivate it with any kind of success. Too much of the time I equate writing with sitting silently at my desk, but I know I need to learn to be puzzling things over more of the time, and I’ve definitely solved things or had good ideas while doing the washing up or whatever. I think those are the two key points of this habit: it assuages work guilt (you don’t have to be at your desk to be at work), and it allows you to mull things over more easily both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Be strict about doing a little of whatever it is you’re doing every day – even if just for fifteen minutes. Which is the same advice as not breaking the chain.
  • Have strategies in place for dealing with failure. If you’re going to be trying to do something special, as per the previous post, and if you’re continually pushing at the limits of what you can do, you’re going to fail a lot. So you need to learn to see that 95% of what’s wrong with getting something wrong is actually your own response to it.
  • Remember that what you’re working at is an act of discovery as well as an act of creation. Knowing that it’s not all internally created takes a lot of the pressure off: the difference between quarrying a piece of rock out, and thinking that with a bit of dust you have to actually make the rock yourself.

This post brought to you by butterflies in the tummy and much-missed sisters. Welcome home Rosie!

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One Response to “how to be good at what you do: mental habits”

  1. […] and consequently there’s not much coming my way to write about (my own reading and gems from physicists aside). Time’s running through my fingers and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. That […]

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