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Deliberate Practice

When It’s Not Enough to Just Learn

The moonscape slid under them like a ghost, only 3,000 feet away. All systems, in NASA’s language, looked A-OK. Then the alarm sounded. Red lights glowed danger.
“Can you give us a reading on the program alarm?” came a voice from the cockpit. “Can you give us a reading on the program alarm?”
Then, in a tone more urgent, “Neil! Abort! Hit abort!”
It was too late. Vehicle lost. Cause? Crew failure.
So goes a scene in the 2009 TV movie Moonshot. It depicts a practice session three weeks before the launch of Apollo 11.
Later, in their quarters, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin talk it over. Aldrin is seething, and demands to know why Armstrong ignored his plea to abort.
Armstrong, matter-of-fact, explains, “I know what we would have done in that situation. I wanted to see what they (ground control) were gonna do.”
Now Aldrin is all ears. “So,” he asks, “what exactly did we learn from all that?”
“That we are on our own up there.”
Using what he learned in that practice session and countless others, Armstrong brought the real spacecraft safely to the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.
Even allowing for dramatic license — and who knows how much there is — those scenes contain the soul of how NASA did its work.
It wasn’t enough to learn. Everyone had to “overlearn.” They had to plan for all the things they could conceive, and all the things that they couldn’t. They had to thread a thin line between succeeding and not failing. Practice could never become routine or stale.
And NASA made sure it never did. Computer programs created crisis after crisis. The astronauts did not know when the problems would come up, or what they would be.
So when the alarm sounded in the simulator with the moonscape only 3,000 feet away, Armstrong tested himself and all those around him. It’s a staple of deep, effective practice — to practice slightly out of the bounds of your competence. As in “I know what we would have done in that situation. I wanted to see what they were gonna do.”
If you’re going to improve in your line of work, your question can’t be, “How long is practice?” Your question must be “How deep is practice?”
From the upcoming book “How to Improve at Anything.”


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