Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The perils of automacity

Just as Alfie Kohn challenges us to rethink our use of the word reinforce, Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent is Overrated, challenges us to rethink automacity. Colvin explains that to attain real improvement what we want is mindful deliberate practice but these are rarely ever found in automacity:

When we learn to do anything new - how to drive, for example - we go through three stages. The first stage demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, learn the rules of driving, and so on. In the second stage we beign to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and more fluidly combining our actions with our knowledge for the car, the situation, and the rules. In the third stage we drive the car with barely a thought. It's automatic. And with that our improvment at driving slows dramatically, eventually stopping completely.

By contrast, great performers never allow thmeselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice - avoiding automacity. The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible. It's certainly true that a great performer is able to do many things in his or her field with far fewer mental demands than a novice performer; an excellent pilot lands a 747 without breaking a sweat. But ultimately the performance is always conscious and controlled, not automatic.

Colvin's point is duly noted - life rarely remains stagnant - the environments we perform in rarely afford us the same situation over and over again. So we must remain adaptable, and to do that we must be very mindful and deliberately focused.

Think about your own driving skills. Unless you're Danica Patrick, you've probably entered a kind of automaticity stage with your driving. How much does your driving continue to improve while remaining in this automatic stage?

When we are no longer mindful and we do things with barely a thought, we sever ourselves from further gains and sabotage our potential in favor of a comfortable plateau.


  1. Morning Joe,
    Just a way far out incident. I had a small stroke in 2008. I did not make any new memories for about 2 hours. My wife doesn't drive. Guess who drove to emergency? Ya me. I don't remember the drive. My wife said I drove like I always drove.
    So somehow skills are saved in the back of the brain and if we loose our present memory those things stay with us. I thought this was cool since it hppened to me.

  2. Joe,

    What you are getting at is 'mindfulness', whether racing around a track at 180 MPH, improvising jazz, or sitting in meditation.

    And we sure need more of it in schools.

    Especially an 'engaged mindfulness' where we aren't just 'aware', but are 'active' through thought. That's tricky.


  3. This illuminates what your concern with automatic behaviour. If by 'mastering' something we mean ending reflection and improvement then I agree we need to avoid closure on learning. Elementary things can be mastered. My children mastered potty training and frequent review has retained that skill. I remarked earlier that knowing the multiplication tables automatically was a goal. They might be internalized in such a way that one might be hard pressed to imagine how it might be improved. But we know this can be lost over time as well if the knowledge is not used. That is equally true of more complex learning. I like the phrase 'engaged mindfulness'.


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