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The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right

If you expect a dazzling feat, you might just get one.

Many people believe that their pets are of unusual intelligence and can understand everything they say, often with stories of abnormal behavior to back it up. In the late 19th century, one man made such a claim about his horse—and appeared to have evidence to prove it to anyone.

Wilhelm Von Osten was a teacher and horse trainer who believed animals could learn to read or count. Von Osten’s initial attempts with dogs and a bear were unsuccessful, but when he began working with an unusual horse, he ended up changing our understanding of psychology. Known as Clever Hans, the horse in question could answer questions with 90 percent accuracy by tapping his hoof. He could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and tell the time and the date.

Clever Hans could also read and understand questions written or asked in German. Crowds flocked to see the horse, and the scientific community soon grew interested. Researchers studied the horse, looking for signs of trickery. Yet they found none. The horse could answer questions asked by anyone, even if Von Osten was absent. This indicated that no signaling was at play. For a while, the world believed the horse was truly clever.

Then psychologist Oskar Pfungst turned his attention to Clever Hans. Assisted by a team of researchers, he uncovered two anomalies. When blinkered or behind a screen, the horse could not answer questions. Likewise, he could respond only if the questioner knew the answer. From these observations, Pfungst deduced that Clever Hans was not making any mental calculations. Nor did he understand numbers or language in the human sense. Although Von Osten had intended no trickery, the act was false.

Instead, Clever Hans had learned to detect subtle yet consistent nonverbal cues. When someone asked a question, Clever Hans responded to their body language with a degree of accuracy many poker players would envy. For example, when someone asked Clever Hans to make a calculation, he would begin tapping his hoof. Once he reached the correct answer, the questioner would show involuntary signs. Pfungst found that many people tilted their head at this point. Clever Hans would recognize this behavior and stop.

When blinkered or when the questioner did not know the answer, the horse didn’t have a clue. When he couldn’t see the cues, he had no answer. People believed the horse understood them, so they effectively made it possible. Subtle cues in our behavior influence what other people are capable of. The horse was obviously unusually smart, but no one would have known if he hadn’t been given the opportunity to display it. Which raises the question: what unimagined things could we all be capable of if someone simply expected them?

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How expectations influence performance

The term “Pygmalion effect” was coined in reference to studies done in the 1960s on the influence of teacher expectations on students’ IQs. The studies asked if teachers had high expectations, would those expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies regardless of initial IQ? In that particular case, years of debate and analysis have resulted in the conclusion that the effects were negligible.

Nonetheless, the concept of the Pygmalion effect—expectations influencing performance and becoming self-fulfilling prophecies—is widespread. Many people have stories of achieving something just because someone had especially high expectations of them.

In Pygmalion in Management, J. Sterling Livingston writes:

“Some managers always treat their subordinates in a way that leads to superior performance. But most…unintentionally treat their subordinates in a way that leads to lower performance than they are capable of achieving. The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If manager’s expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there were a law that caused subordinates’ performance to rise or fall to meet managers’ expectations.”

The Pygmalion effect suggests our reality is negotiable and can be manipulated by others—on purpose or by accident. What we achieve, how we think, how we act, and how we perceive our capabilities can be influenced by the expectations of those around us.

Clever Hans was an intelligent horse, but he was smart because he could read almost imperceptible nonverbal cues, not because he could do math. So he did have unusual capabilities, as shown by the fact that few other animals have proved capable of the same.

An interesting use of the Pygmalion effect might be that suggested by George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. In it, Professor Henry Higgins takes a poor flower seller from the streets, Eliza Doolittle, and by giving her elocution lessons helps her sound like a duchess. Being able to speak like a member of the upper classes is meant to open doors and give her opportunities that she would otherwise never have.

The play is, among other things, an exploration of how others’ expectations limit us. Eliza has far more potential than can be realized solely because of her accent. A critical part of the plot is that Eliza herself is all too aware of how her speech holds her back and diminishes her value in the eyes of others. She is the one who follows Higgins and cajoles him into taking her on as a student. She sees the opportunities that will follow from changing her accent.

The improvements in Eliza’s speech alone do not confer the opportunities. But being able to speak like a duchess puts her in the company of people from whom she can learn the sentiments and sensibilities of the upper class. When she begins to speak like them, they treat her differently, giving her an opening to expand her capabilities.

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Check your assumptions

The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” —Carl Sagan

In Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: A Practical Guide to Its Use in Education, Robert T. Tauber describes an exercise in which people are asked to list their assumptions about people with certain descriptions. These included a cheerleader, “a minority woman with four kids at the market using food stamps,” and a “person standing outside smoking on a cold February day.” An anonymous survey of undergraduate students revealed mostly negative assumptions. Tauber asks the reader to consider how being exposed to these types of assumptions might affect someone’s day-to-day life.

The expectations people have of us affect us in countless subtle ways each day. Like Eliza Doolittle, those expectations dictate the opportunities we are offered, how we are spoken to, and the praise and criticism we receive. Individually, these knocks and nudges may have minimal impact. In the long run, however, they might dictate whether we succeed or fail or fall somewhere on the spectrum in between.

A perfect illustration of this is the case of James Sweeney and George Johnson, as described in Pygmalion in Management. Sweeney was a teacher at Tulane University, where Johnson worked as a porter. Aware of the Pygmalion effect, or perhaps just familiar with the play, Sweeney had a hunch that he could teach anyone to be a competent computer operator. He began his experiment, offering Johnson lessons each afternoon. Other university staff were dubious, especially as Johnson appeared to have a low IQ. But the effort was successful, and the former janitor eventually became responsible for training new computer operators.

The Pygmalion effect is best understood as a reminder to be mindful of the potential influence of our expectations. Even if the effect is small, having high expectations in many situations can only inspire others regarding their own capabilities. People’s limitations can be stretched if you change your perception of their limitations.

A lot of what we accomplish in life is done in groups. Individual success is often dependent on some degree of team success. Thus, we have a better chance of succeeding when we are around others who succeed. If you want the people around you to have success, you can try raising your expectations.

If you expect the worst, you’ll probably get it.

Efficiency is the Enemy

There’s a good chance most of the problems in your life and work come down to insufficient slack. Here’s how slack works and why you need more of it.

Imagine if you, as a budding productivity enthusiast, one day gained access to a time machine and decided to take a trip back several decades to the office of one of your old-timey business heroes. Let’s call him Tony.

You disguise yourself as a janitor and figure a few days of observation should be enough to reveal the secret of that CEO’s incredible productivity and shrewd decision-making. You want to learn the habits and methods that enabled him to transform an entire industry for good.

Arriving at the (no doubt smoke-filled) office, you’re a little surprised to find it’s far from a hive of activity. In fact, the people you can see around seem to be doing next to nothing. Outside your hero’s office, his secretary lounges at her desk (and let’s face it, the genders wouldn’t have been the other way around.) Let’s call her Gloria. She doesn’t appear busy at all. You observe for half an hour as she reads, tidies her desk, and chats with other secretaries who pass by. They don’t seem busy either. Confused as to why Tony would squander money on idle staff, you stick around for a few more hours.

With a bit more observation, you realize your initial impression was entirely wrong. Gloria does indeed do nothing much of the time. But every so often, a request, instruction, or alert comes from Tony and she leaps into action. Within minutes, she answers the call, sends the letter, reschedules the appointment, or finds the right document. Any time he has a problem, she solves it right away. There’s no to-do list, no submitting a ticket, no waiting for a reply to an email for either Tony or Gloria.

As a result, Tony’s day goes smoothly and efficiently. Every minute of his time goes on the most important part of his work—making decisions—and not on dealing with trivial inconveniences like waiting in line at the post office.

All that time Gloria spends doing nothing isn’t wasted time. It’s slack: excess capacity allowing for responsiveness and flexibility. The slack time is important because it means she never has a backlog of tasks to complete. She can always deal with anything new straight away. Gloria’s job is to ensure Tony is as busy as he needs to be. It’s not to be as busy as possible.

If you ever find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, sinking into stasis despite wanting to change, or frustrated when you can’t respond to new opportunities, you need more slack in your life.

In Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Tom DeMarco explains that most people and organizations fail to recognize the value of slack. Although the book is now around twenty years old, its primary message is timeless and worth revisiting.

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The enemy of efficiency

“You’re efficient when you do something with minimum waste. And you’re effective when you’re doing the right something.”

Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency. They want to be sure every resource is utilized to its fullest capacity and everyone is sprinting around every minute of the day doing something. They hire expert consultants to sniff out the faintest whiff of waste.

As individuals, many of us are also obsessed with the mirage of total efficiency. We schedule every minute of our day, pride ourselves on forgoing breaks, and berate ourselves for the slightest moment of distraction. We view sleep, sickness, and burnout as unwelcome weaknesses and idolize those who never seem to succumb to them. This view, however, fails to recognize that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

Total efficiency is a myth. Let’s return to Gloria and Tony. Imagine if Tony decided to assign her more work to ensure she spends a full eight hours a day busy. Would that be more efficient? Not really. Slack time enables her to respond to his requests right away, thus being effective at her job. If Gloria is already occupied, Tony will have to wait and whatever he’s doing will get held up. Both of them would be less effective as a result.

Any time we eliminate slack, we create a build-up of work. DeMarco writes, “As a practical matter, it is impossible to keep everyone in the organization 100 percent busy unless we allow for some buffering at each employee’s desk. That means there is an inbox where work stacks up.

Many of us have come to expect work to involve no slack time because of the negative way we perceive it. In a world of manic efficiency, slack often comes across as laziness or a lack of initiative. Without slack time, however, we know we won’t be able to get through new tasks straight away, and if someone insists we should, we have to drop whatever we were previously doing. One way or another, something gets delayed. The increase in busyness may well be futile:

“It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.”

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Defining slack

DeMarco defines slack as “the degree of freedom required to effect change. Slack is the natural enemy of efficiency and efficiency is the natural enemy of slack.” Elsewhere, he writes: “Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health.”

To illustrate the concept, DeMarco asks the reader to imagine one of those puzzle games consisting of eight numbered tiles in a box, with one empty space so you can slide them around one at a time. The objective is to shuffle the tiles into numerical order. That empty space is the equivalent of slack. If you remove it, the game is technically more efficient, but “something else is lost. Without the open space, there is no further possibility of moving tiles at all. The layout is optimal as it is, but if time proves otherwise, there is no way to change it.

Having a little bit of wiggle room allows us to respond to changing circumstances, to experiment, and to do things that might not work.

Slack consists of excess resources. It might be time, money, people on a job, or even expectations. Slack is vital because it prevents us from getting locked into our current state, unable to respond or adapt because we just don’t have the capacity.

Not having slack is taxing. Scarcity weighs on our minds and uses up energy that could go toward doing the task at hand better. It amplifies the impact of failures and unintended consequences.

Too much slack is bad because resources get wasted and people get bored. But, on the whole, an absence of slack is a problem far more often than an excess of it. If you give yourself too much slack time when scheduling a project that goes smoother than expected, you probably won’t spend the spare time sitting like a lemon. Maybe you’ll recuperate from an earlier project that took more effort than anticipated. Maybe you’ll tinker with some on-hold projects. Maybe you’ll be able to review why this one went well and derive lessons for the future. And maybe slack time is just your reward for doing a good job already! You deserve breathing room.

Slack also allows us to handle the inevitable shocks and surprises of life. If every hour in our schedules is accounted for, we can’t slow down to recover from a minor cold, shift a bit of focus to learning a new skill for a while, or absorb a couple of hours of technical difficulties.

In general, you need more slack than you expect. Unless you have a lot of practice, your estimations of how long things will take or how difficult they are will almost always be on the low end. Most of us treat best-case scenarios as if they are the most likely scenarios and will inevitably come to pass, but they rarely do.

You also need to keep a vigilant eye on how fast you use up your slack so you can replenish it in time. For example, you might want to review your calendar once per week to check it still has white space each day and you haven’t allowed meetings to fill up your slack time. Think of the forms of slack that are more important to you, then check up on them regularly. If you find you’re running out of slack, take action.

Once in a while, you might need to forgo slack to reap the benefits of constraints. Lacking slack in the short term or in a particular area can force you to be more inventive. If you find yourself struggling to come up with a creative solution, try consciously reducing your slack. For example, give yourself five-minutes to brainstorm ideas or ask yourself what you might do if your budget were slashed by 90%.

Most of the time, though, it’s critical to guard your slack with care. It’s best to assume you’ll always tend toward using it up—or other people will try to steal it from you. Set clear boundaries in your work and keep an eye on tasks that might inflate.

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Slack and change

In the past, people and organizations could sometimes get by without much slack—at least for a while. Now, even as slack keeps becoming more and more vital for survival, we’re keener than ever to eliminate it in the name of efficiency. Survival requires constant change and reinvention, which “require a commodity that is absent in our time as it has never been before. That commodity—the catalytic ingredient of change—is slack.” DeMarco goes on to write:

“Slack is the time when reinvention happens. It is time when you are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack is the time when you are 0 percent busy. Slack at all levels is necessary to make the organization work effectively and to grow. It is the lubricant of change. Good companies excel in creative use of slack. And bad ones only obsess about removing it.”

Only when we are 0 percent busy can we step back and look at the bigger picture of what we’re doing. Slack allows us to think ahead. To consider whether we’re on the right trajectory. To contemplate unseen problems. To mull over information. To decide if we’re making the right trade-offs. To do things that aren’t scalable or that might not have a chance to prove profitable for a while. To walk away from bad deals.

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Slack and productivity

The irony is that we achieve far more in the long run when we have slack. We are more productive when we don’t try to be productive all the time.

DeMarco explains that the amount of work each person in an organization has is never static: “Things change on a day-to-day basis. This results in new unevenness of the tasks, with some people incurring additional work (their buffers build up), while others become less loaded, since someone ahead of them in the work chain is slower to generate their particular kind of work to pass along.” An absence of slack is unsustainable. Inevitably, we end up needing additional resources, which have to come from somewhere.

Being comfortable with sometimes being 0 percent busy means we think about whether we’re doing the right thing. This is in contrast to grabbing the first task we see so no one thinks we’re lazy. The expectation of “constant busyness means efficiency” creates pressure to always look occupied and keep a buffer of work on hand. If we see our buffer shrinking and we want to keep busy, the only possible solution is to work slower.

Trying to eliminate slack causes work to expand. There’s never any free time because we always fill it.

Amos Tversky said the secret to doing good research is to always be a little underemployed; you waste years by not being able to waste hours. Those wasted hours are necessary to figure out if you’re headed in the right direction.

The Ultimate Deliberate Practice Guide: How to Be the Best

Everything You Need to Know to Improve Your Performance at Anything—For Beginners and Experts

Deliberate practice is the best technique for achieving expert performance in every field—including writing, teaching, sports, programming, music, medicine, therapy, chess, and business. But there’s much more to deliberate practice than 10,000 hours. Read this to learn how to accelerate your learning, overcome the “OK” plateau, turn experience into expertise, and enhance your focus.

What is deliberate practice?

Engaged in the creative process we feel more alive than ever, because we are making something and not merely consuming, masters of the small reality we create. In doing this work, we are in fact creating ourselves.” —Robert Greene, Mastery

Deliberate practice is what turns amateurs into professionals. Across every field, deliberate practice is what creates top performers and what they use to stay at the top of their game. It’s absolutely essential for expert performance.

As a general concept, “practice” means preparing. It’s the act of repeatedly performing certain activities with the intention of improving a specific associated skill. We rehearse what to do in low-pressure situations so we’ll be better when we use a skill in situations where something is actually at stake, such as in a competition or in the workplace. Although this definition may seem obvious, it’s crucial to distinguish between doing something and practicing it, because they’re not always synonymous.

The key distinction between doing and practicing is that we’re only practicing something when we do it in a way that makes us better at it—or at least with that intention.

Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them. Unlike regular practice, in which we work on a skill by repeating it again and again until it becomes almost mindless, deliberate practice is a laser-focused activity. It requires us to pay unwavering attention to what we’re doing at any given moment and whether it’s an improvement or not.

Geoff Colvin summarizes deliberate practice as such in Talent Is Overrated:

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

The extraordinary power of deliberate practice is that it aims at constant progress. Practitioners are not content with repeating a skill at the same level. They have metrics for measuring their performance. And they aspire to see those metrics get continuously better.

While engaging in deliberate practice, we are always looking for errors or areas of weakness. Once we identify one, we establish a plan for improving it. If one approach doesn’t work, we keep trying new ones until something does.

Using deliberate practice, we can overcome many limitations that we might view as fixed. We can go further than we might even think possible when we begin. Deliberate practice creates new physical and mental capabilities—it doesn’t just leverage existing ones.

The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become. Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.

Deliberate practice is a universal technique, and you can employ it for whatever you’re trying to be the best (or just get a little bit better) at. It’s easiest to apply to competitive fields with clear measurements and standards, including music, dance, football/soccer, cricket, hockey, basketball, golf, horse riding, swimming, and chess.

But deliberate practice is also invaluable for improving performance in fields such as teaching, nursing, surgery, therapy, programming, trading, and investing. It can even accelerate your progress in widely applicable skills such as writing, decision-making, leadership, studying, and spoken communication.

The key in any area is to identify objective standards for performance, study top performers, and then design practice activities reflecting what they do. Recent decades have seen dramatic leaps in what people are capable of doing in many fields. The explanation for this is that we’re getting better at understanding and applying the principles of deliberate practice. As a field advances, people can learn from the best of what those who came before them figured out. The result is that now average high-schoolers achieve athletic feats and children advance to levels of musical prowess that would have seemed unthinkable a century earlier. And there’s little evidence to suggest we’ve reached the limits of our physical or mental abilities in any area whatsoever.

Many of us spend a lot of time each week practicing different skills in our lives and work. But we don’t automatically get better just because we repeat the same actions and behaviors, even if we spend hours per day doing it. Research suggests that in areas such as medicine, people with many years of experience are often no better than novices—and may even be worse.

If we want to improve a skill, we need to know what exactly has to change and what might get us there. Otherwise, we plateau.

Some people will tell you it’s only possible for anyone to improve at anything through deliberate practice, and any other sort of practice is a waste of time. This is an exaggeration. In reality, regular practice works for reinforcing and maintaining skills. It can also help us improve skills, particularly in the early stages of learning something. However, deliberate practice is the only way to:

  1. Reach expert-level performance and enjoy competitive success
  2. Overcome plateaus in our skill level
  3. Improve at a skill much faster than through regular practice

If you’re just doing something for fun and don’t care about constantly improving at it, you don’t need deliberate practice. For example, maybe you like to go for a walk around a local park in the afternoons to clear your head. Although you’re practicing that walk each time you go, you probably don’t care about increasing your walking speed day by day. It’s enough that the repetitions further ingrain the habit and help maintain a certain level of physical fitness. Not everything in life is a competition! But if you want to keep getting better at something as fast as possible or reach an expert level, deliberate practice is vital.

Another important point to note is that deliberate practice isn’t just a catchy name we came up with out of thin air. The term is largely attributed to Karl Anders Ericsson, one of the most influential figures of all time in the field of performance psychology. It’s something many scientists have studied for decades. Everything we say here is supported by substantial academic research, particularly Ericsson’s work.

We’ll also debunk the numerous myths swirling around deliberate practice as a concept and reveal some of its significant limitations. So if you’re looking for quick hacks for overnight success, you might want to look elsewhere. If you want a realistic roadmap for improving your performance, read on.

The elements of deliberate practice

Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” —Jack London

In this section, we’ll break down the fundamental elements of deliberate practice and exactly how to incorporate them into your practice sessions. As Ericsson wrote in Peak, “No matter what the field, the most effective approach to improving performance is to follow a single set of principles.” We’ll explain why each component is crucial and how they apply to different fields, and we’ll cover multiple ways to implement them depending on your goals.

Deliberate practice is structured and methodical

Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong

As humans, we’re wired to want to do the easiest thing at all times in order to conserve energy. Put more simply, it’s in our nature to be lazy. When we practice something a lot, we develop habits that become almost effortless to enact. While that’s beneficial in many areas of our lives (and helps us survive), it’s something we have to overcome in order to engage in deliberate practice. We can’t expect constant improvement if we keep repeating the elements of a skill we already know how to do with ease. That’s only enough if we’re just having fun or want to reinforce our habits.

Deliberate practice is structured to improve specific elements of a skill through defined techniques. Practitioners focus above all on what they can’t do. They seek out areas of weaknesses impacting their overall performance, then target those. At every stage, they set tailored, measurable goals in order to gauge whether their practice is effective at moving them forwards. Numbers are a deliberate practitioner’s best friend.

If you want to reach an expert level of performance, you need to begin practice sessions with a plan in mind. You need to know what you’re working on, why, and how you intend to improve it. You also need a way to tell if your improvement efforts aren’t working and if you need to try a new tactic. Once you reach your goal for that particular component of the skill, it’s time to identify a new area of weakness to work on next.

Having lots of little, realistic goals with a game plan for achieving them makes deliberate practice motivating. There’s a sense of ongoing movement, yet the next step is always a realistic stretch. Day by day, the gains from deliberate practice may feel modest. But when we look back over a longer period of time, small bits of progress compound into gigantic leaps.

How to implement this: Take the skill you’re aiming to improve and break it down into the smallest possible component parts. Make a plan for working through them in a logical order, beginning with the fundamentals, then building upon them. Decide which parts you’d like to master over the next month. Put your practice sessions in your calendar, then plan precisely which parts of the skill you’re going to work on during each session.

Don’t expect your plan to be perfect. You’ll likely need to keep modifying it as you discover new elements or unexpected weaknesses. The most important thing is to always go into practice with a plan for what you’re working on and how. Knowing what you’re doing next is the best way to stay on track and avoid aimless time-wasting. That means seeking to keep figuring out what separates you from the next level of performance so you can concentrate on that.

Deliberate practice is challenging and uncomfortable

One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.” —Albert Einstein (attributed)

Imagine the world from the perspective of a baby learning to walk for the first time. It’s not usually an easy process. They need to develop a lot of new skills and capabilities. They need to build enough muscular strength to stand upright without support. And they need to learn how to coordinate their limbs well enough to move around. Along the way, a baby needs to develop numerous sub-skills, such as how to grip supports to pull themselves up. It likely takes thousands of attempts to master walking—as well as numerous, falls, collisions, and other mishaps. We might not remember the process as adults, but a baby learning to walk needs to spend many hours challenging themselves and moving incrementally out of their comfort zone.

If we want to use deliberate practice, we could do with learning a thing or two from babies. Deliberate practice isn’t necessarily fun while we’re doing it. In fact, most of the time it’s a process of repeated frustration and failure. We have to fall down a dozen times for every step we take. That’s the whole point.

Seeing as deliberate practice requires us to keep targeting our weakest areas, it means spending time doing stuff we’re not good at. In the moment, that can feel pretty miserable. But the quickest route to improvement involves stepping outside of our comfort zones.

The reason why people who have spent decades doing something are not necessarily better than newbies is that they’re liable to get complacent and stop pushing themselves. We need to keep attempting to do things that feel out of reach at the moment.

In his studies of elite violinists, Ericsson asked them to rate different practice activities by how enjoyable they were and how much they contributed to improving performance. Invariably, there was an inverse correlation between the usefulness of an activity and its enjoyability. As Ericsson puts it in Peak:

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.” The same thing is true for all the mental activities we engage in.

Elsewhere in the book, he writes “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” The interesting part is the more time you spend deliberately practicing, the more comfortable you’ll become with being uncomfortable.

Daniel Coyle writes in The Little Book of Talent:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot.…The underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is ‘barely.’

A quick way to assess if you’re doing deliberate practice or just regular rote practice is to ask yourself if you ever feel bored or zone out during practice sessions. If the answer is yes, you’re probably not practicing deliberately.

Deliberate practice isn’t boring. Frustrating, yes. Maddening, yes. Annoying, even. But never boring. As soon as practicing a skill gets comfortable, it’s time to up the stakes. Challenging yourself is about more than trying to work harder—it means doing new things.

Pushing ourselves just beyond the limits of our abilities is uncomfortable, yet it’s how we do our best—and indeed, it can be the source of some of our greatest moments of satisfaction. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we often experience happiness as a result of entering a “flow” state, which occurs when we intensely focus on an activity that is challenging yet achievable. During moments of flow, we become so immersed in the activity that we lose any sense of time or of ourselves.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time when we’re practicing, we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed, as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of our reach.

Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal deliberate practice. Deliberate practice requires that you operate in the learning zone and you repeat the activity a lot with feedback.

How to implement this: Each time you practice a component of a skill, aim to make it 10% harder than the level you find comfortable.

Once per month, have a practice session where you set yourself an incredibly ambitious stretch goal—not impossible, just well above your current level. Challenge yourself to see how close you can get to it. You might surprise yourself and find you perform far better than expected.

A common deliberate practice mistake is to plan a long practice session, then adjust the intensity of your practice to allow you to engage in a skill for the whole time. It’s far more effective to engage in “sprints.” Practice with the most intense focus you can manage for short periods of time, then take breaks. Seeing as you learn most when you stretch yourself beyond your current capabilities, shorter, more challenging practice periods are the way to go.

Deliberate practice requires rest and recovery time

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.” —Homer, The Odyssey

Seeing as deliberate practice is so challenging, it’s impossible to do it all day long. Across fields, top practitioners rarely spend more than around three to five hours per day on deliberate practice, at the high end. They may work for more hours than that per day, but few can sustain the mental energy to engage in deliberate practice for eight hours a day. Additional hours often result in diminishing negative returns, meaning more practice makes performance worse because it results in burnout. Geoff Colvin writes:

The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours a day seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.

Ericsson’s studies of elite violinists found they often took afternoon naps and slept an average of eight hours per night, considerably more than the average person. They were highly aware of the importance of sleep.

Even fitting in a single hour per day of deliberate practice is ample time to make substantial improvements, especially when we’re consistent with committing to it over the long haul. Continuous investments in success compound. In the long run, commitment pays off.

Not only do most deliberate practitioners not spend all day at it, they also devote a lot of time to recuperation and recovery. They sleep as much as their bodies need. They nap if necessary. They take frequent, refreshing breaks. Most of us understand that rest is necessary after physical activity. But we can underestimate its importance after mental activity, too. Deliberate practice needs to be sustainable for the long term. How long a person keeps at a skill is often far more important than how many hours a day they spend on it.

When you’re practicing deliberately, truly practice. When you’re recuperating, truly relax. No one can spend every waking hour on deliberate practice.

Sleep is a vital part of deliberate practice. Being asleep doesn’t mean you’re not still improving your skill. We consolidate memories at night, moving them from short-term to long-term memory. And we can’t exactly benefit from deliberate practice sessions if we don’t remember what we learn each time. Not only that, but sleep deprivation also results in a plethora of negative cognitive effects that impact performance. If we skimp on sleep, we’re likely to forget far more of what we learn during deliberate practice sessions, rendering them less useful.

When you’re not engaging in deliberate practice, your brain is still at work. During deliberate practice, we’re in focused mode. When we let our minds wander freely while at rest, we’re in diffuse mode. Although that time feels less productive, it’s when we form connections and mull over problems. Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them that matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill—a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

How to implement this: Make a list of activities you can engage in without too much conscious thought, letting yourself daydream while you do them. Common examples include going for a walk, washing the dishes, taking a shower, free-writing in a journal, playing with a toy like Lego, driving a familiar route, gardening, cooking, listening to music, or just gazing out the window. When you feel yourself getting tired or hitting a roadblock during deliberate practice, don’t keep pushing for too long. You want to be stretching yourself, not exhausting yourself. Instead, switch to one of those more relaxing activities for at least five minutes. You’ll likely come back to practice with new connections or at last feeling refreshed.

Deliberate practice involves constant feedback and measurement

Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.” —Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated

Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do every day without thinking.

As we saw before, deliberate practice involves continuously stretching yourself to improve on weak areas of a skill. For that to work, practitioners require constant feedback about their current level of performance so they can identify what works for making it better.

What gets measured gets managed. To engage in deliberate practice, you need a way of measuring the most instructive metrics related to your performance. Seeing how those metrics change is the sole way to know if practice is working or not. Top performers across fields tend to spend time examining their past performance with care to identify areas for improvement. For example, a tennis player might film themselves playing a match so they can go through the footage frame by frame afterward. This provides valuable feedback, because they can figure out what might have held them back during weaker moments.

In fields such as sports and chess, measuring performance tends to be straightforward. In other areas such as business, measurements are harder to take, and there may be no established markers of success. The influence of random factors may also be stronger, making it less clear whether technique changes are actually having an influence or not. When you engage in deliberate practice, it’s always important to be aware of how strongly correlated your practice and your performance are likely to be.

When measuring your performance, beware of vanity metrics. These are numbers that are easy to calculate and feel good to boost. But they don’t actually move the needle towards the real improvements in performance that help you reach your goals. For example, let’s say you’re using deliberate practice to improve the skill of email marketing, as part of the wider goal of getting more customers for your business. The number of email subscribers is a vanity metric; the number of paying customers is a useful metric. It’s completely possible to increase the former without a corresponding increase in the latter.

How to implement this: Identify the most significant metrics related to performance in your chosen skill and keep a record of them each time you practice. It’s easy to fool yourself without a clear record of how you’re doing. You might want to break the skill down into a few different parts to measure it, but make sure you’re not fixating on vanity metrics.

Deliberate practice is most effective with the help of a coach or some kind of teacher

The best teacher is not the one who knows most but the one who is most capable of reducing knowledge to that simple compound of the obvious and wonderful.” —H.L. Mencken (attributed)

Deliberate practice is most effective when conducted with some kind of coach who can give feedback, point out errors, suggest techniques for improvement, and provide vital motivation. Although mastering any skill requires a lot of time engaging in solitary practice, working with a coach at least some of the time is incredibly valuable. In some fields such as sports and music, it’s common for a coach to be present all of the time. But most top performers benefit from a combination of coaching and solitary practice.

When we look at the lives of people who achieved great things, we often find that those who did so at a young age or in a shorter time than expected benefited from having fantastic teachers. For example, physicist Werner Heisenberg had the epiphany that led to the formulation of matrix mechanics a mere five years after commencing serious study of physics. But he no doubt benefited from the mentorship of Niels Bohr and Max Born, two of the foremost physicists at the time.

Even people at the most elite levels of performance across fields can benefit from specialist coaching. Engaging in something and teaching that thing are separate skills in themselves. The best practitioners are not always the best teachers because teaching is a skill in itself.

Ericsson explained that “the best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach.” We often make the same mistakes again and again because we simply don’t realize what we’re doing. Our performance falls into ruts and we can’t figure out why we’re running into the same problem yet again.

A coach can see your performance from the outside, without the influence of overconfidence and other biases. They can identify your blind spots. They can help you interpret key metrics and feedback.

Ericsson went on to say that “even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who can provide useful feedback, and who can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses.” An experienced coach will have worked with many people on the same skill so they’ll be able to advise on the best ways to structure practice. They’ll know when you’re just repeating what you find easy, and they’ll be able to push you to the next level.

Teachers or coaches see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short. Geoff Colvin writes:

In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.

But what if you don’t have access to a coach? What if you don’t have the means to hire one or one isn’t available for your particular skill? In that case, it’s still possible to apply the same principles that make a coach useful by yourself. Top performers across fields build the skill of metacognition, essentially making it possible for them to coach themselves. Colvin explains:

The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition—knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.

…A critical part of self-evaluation is deciding what caused those errors. Average performers believe their errors were caused by factors outside their control: my opponent got lucky; the task was too hard; I just don’t have the natural ability for this. Top performers, by contrast, believe they are responsible for their errors. Note that this is not just a difference of personality or attitude. Recall that the best performers have set highly specific, technique-based goals and strategies for themselves; they have thought through exactly how they intend to achieve what they want. So when something doesn’t work, they can relate the failure to specific elements of their performance that may have misfired.

How to implement this: Don’t expect the same teacher to suit you forever. We usually need different teachers as our skill level progresses because we outgrow them. One attribute of a good teacher is that they know when to tell a student to move on. As we reach expert levels of performance, we need teachers who are themselves experts. If they’re always a step ahead, we can learn from their mistakes instead of making our own.

You get the best results from working with a coach if you show yourself to be receptive to constructive criticism, even if it’s uncomfortable to hear. If you respond badly, you disincentivize them from telling you what’s most useful to know. Top performers know the goal is to get better, not just to hear you’re already great.

Deliberate practice requires intrinsic motivation

Persisting with deliberate practice despite its innate difficulty and discomfort requires a lot of motivation. But that motivation needs to be intrinsic, meaning that it comes from inside us because we find an activity enjoyable for its own sake. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation, where we participate in an activity to gain an external reward or avoid a negative consequence. Yet another reason why rest is important for deliberate practice is because it helps sustain motivation.

Although deliberate practice can lead to external rewards for using a skill (such as winning a competition or getting a promotion), this should not be the sole reason for practicing it. Extrinsic motivation is unlikely to be enough to get us through the long period of struggle necessary to master a skill. Becoming proficient at anything means spending time failing repeatedly at it, during which there are few external rewards. But if we enjoy getting better for its own sake, we have more of a chance of persevering until our practice starts paying off. We can navigate obstacles because we want to see where the road might take us—the obstacles aren’t roadblocks.

If you want to use deliberate practice to master a skill, you need to be willing to keep practicing it no matter what. Although brute force and rewarding yourself can be effective in the short run, it won’t work forever. If you’re planning to engage in deliberate practice to reach expert-level performance, make sure it’s a prospect you feel excited about even if it won’t always be fun.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t always ineffective, however. People who engage in consistent, sustainable deliberate practice tend to be adept at knowing when and how they need to employ external incentives. It’s important to reward yourself when you make progress in your practice and reflect on how far you’ve come, not just how far is left to go.

The need for intrinsic motivation is one reason why children who are pushed to develop a skill from a young age by their parents don’t always end up reaching a high level of performance and often quit as soon as they can.

How to implement this: Make a list of the reasons you want to work on a skill and the benefits getting better at it might bring. Before you begin a deep practice session, reread the list to remind you of why you’re bringing your full focus to something difficult. You could also list some of the benefits you’ve experienced from it in the past or include quotes from top performers in your field you find inspiring. It might feel cheesy, but it can provide a powerful boost during particularly difficult practice moments. Try to focus on intrinsic reasons and benefits, such as feeling fulfilled.

Keep a “motivation diary” for one week (or longer if possible.) Try setting an alarm to go off every fifteen minutes during each practice session. When the alarm sounds, score your motivation level out of ten (or whichever scale you prefer.) At the end of the week, review your notes to look for any patterns. For example, you might find that you begin to feel demotivated once you’ve been practicing for more than an hour, or that you feel more motivated in the morning, or some other pattern. This information could be enlightening for planning future deliberate practice sessions, even if it may disrupt your focus at the time. Another method is to simply take notes each day, documenting your current level of motivation to work on your chosen skill. Pay attention to any recurring influences. For example, you might feel more motivated to improve your skill after speaking with a more proficient friend, but less motivated after a bad night’s sleep.

One potent option for sustaining motivation is to find someone who can be a reliable cheerleader for you. In an Ask Me Anything session for Farnam Street members, Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning explained that having a cofounder is vital for entrepreneurs because partnering with someone else helps sustain motivation. It’s rare that both founders feel demotivated on the same day. So if one is struggling, the other can provide the encouragement needed to stay resilient. Having someone to provide extrinsic motivation when you need it can help you persevere at deliberate practice. Your cheerleader doesn’t necessarily need to be working on the same skill themselves. They just need to understand your reasons and be willing to remind you of them when you start to doubt whether the hard work is worthwhile.

Deliberate practice takes time and can be a lifelong process

Although deliberate practice tends to result in much faster progress than normal practice, truly mastering a skill is a lifelong process. Reaching the top of a field can take years or even decades, depending on its competitiveness. As the bar for success in many areas keeps rising, more deliberate practice is required to stand out.

When we applaud the top people in any field, we often fail to appreciate that their success almost always came after many years of deliberate practice, which Robert Greene refers to in Mastery as “a largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.” They may have ultimately benefited from a lucky break, but their extensive preparation meant they were ready for it. Great achievements tend to come later in life or even near the ends of careers. Those who succeeded young started very young.

Throughout Ericsson’s decades of research, he searched high and low for an example of a true prodigy: someone born with an innate, remarkable talent. He never found a single proven example. Instead, he discovered that people labeled as prodigies invariably put in enormous amounts of deliberate practice—they just often obscured it on purpose or started at a young age.

Although innate differences count when beginning to learn something (and people who begin with advantages may be more likely to persist), in the long run, deliberate practice always wins out.

David Shenk writes in The Genius in All of Us: “Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

According to psychologist John Hayes, creative genius tends to come after ten years of studying relevant knowledge and developing skills. Hayes referred to this as the “ten years of silence.” In a study of seventy-six composers with sufficient biographical data available listed in The Lives of the Great Composers, Hayes found they almost always created their first notable works (defined as being those for which at least five different recordings were available at the time) at least ten years after commencing a serious study of music. Just three of the five hundred works Hayes included in his sample were composed after less than a decade of preparation—and those were produced in years eight or nine. In additional studies, Hayes found similar patterns for painters and poets.

Later research reinforces Hayes’ findings, and any casual survey of the lives of people widely considered to be geniuses tends to show a similar pattern. Making a breakthrough takes time. When it seems like someone was an overnight success, there’s almost always a long period of silent deliberate practice preceding it. Innate talents are just a starting point. If we want to master a skill, we need to commit to working on it for a lengthy period of time, likely with few rewards. While there are no assurances that with struggle comes reward, without it the odds are lower.

Not only do world-class performers spend a long time getting good at their core skill, those in creative fields tend to produce an enormous quantity of work before gaining recognition. For every piece of work we’re familiar with, there are likely dozens or even hundreds of others few people remember or ever saw.

For example, British prime minister Winston Churchill was known for his masterful public speaking. One of his best-known speeches “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” given in June 1940, displayed the extent of his command of oration and helped build morale at the time. But it’s hard to overstate how prolific Churchill was as a speaker, giving an estimated 3,000 speeches during his political career. For every speech—an average of one per week between 1900 and 1955—he used deliberate practice to prepare. He engaged in focused rehearsals in front of a mirror, taking notes as he went to inform modifications. Churchill also left nothing to chance, planning his pauses and movements in advance. As well as devising his own techniques for added impact, he memorized the works of some of history’s most inspiring orators.

Although he doubtless began with a degree of innate talent (his father, Randolph Churchill, was also an admired orator), Churchill clearly used extensive deliberate practice to build upon it. While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratorical excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker”—in fact, he made many mistakes. And he learned from them. If you want to produce a masterpiece, you need to accept that you’ll make a lot of less remarkable work first.

Deliberate practice requires intense focus

You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.” —Karl Anders Ericsson

The deeper we focus during deliberate practice sessions, the more we get out of them. Intense focus allows us to increase skills and break through plateaus. Developing your attention span can have a huge impact on your life. When asked about his success, Charlie Munger once said, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

The authors of The Game Before the Game write, “If you can pay attention for only five minutes in practice, then take a break every five minutes. If you can pay attention for only twenty balls, don’t hit fifty. To be able to practice longer and maintain the quality of the practice, train yourself to pay attention for longer periods of time….Productive practice is about how present you can stay with your intention and is measured in the quality of the experience as opposed to the quantity of time used.

A benefit of getting constant feedback is that it shows you what moves the needle towards improved performance and what is just running in place. Certain practice activities can feel good without having any impact. Top performers prioritize knowing what to prioritize. They always start with the most important thing because anything else is a distraction.

Intense focus is a multiplier of everything else. Keeping an eye on key metrics enables top performers to identify and systematically remove distractions from their lives. To be the best, you need to focus on both the micro and macro level. You need to pay full attention to what you’re doing in the current practice sessions, and you need to know how it fits into the bigger picture of your desired trajectory. Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of selecting opportunities.

As the authors of the International Handbook of Research in Professional and Practice-Based Learning write, “Practicing the right things is at the core of the theory of deliberate practice.”

How to implement this: Put the big rocks in first. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Figure out which practice activities have the biggest influence on your performance and plan to engage in those first before you even consider activities that offer marginal gains.

Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect

One reason why consistent deliberate practice sessions over the course of years are more effective than longer sessions for a shorter period of time relates to the spacing effect. We can’t approach learning a skill through deliberate practice in the same way we quite likely approached studying for tests in school. If we better understand how our minds work, we can use them in the optimal way for learning. By leveraging the spacing effect, we can encode valuable knowledge related to our particular skill for life during practice sessions.

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the same material. The spacing effect refers to how we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple sessions with increasingly large intervals between them. The most effective way to learn new information is through spaced repetition. It works for learning almost anything, and research has provided robust evidence of its efficacy for people of all ages—and even for animals.

Spaced repetition is also satisfying because it keeps us on the edge of our abilities (which, as we saw earlier, is a core element of deliberate practice.) Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session. Of course, when we’re bored we pay less and less attention. The authors of Focused Determination put it this way:

There is also minimal variation in the way the material is presented to the brain when it is repeatedly visited over a short time. This tends to decrease our learning. In contrast, when repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.

We simply cannot practice something once and expect it to stick.

By engaging in deliberate practice on a regular basis, even if each practice session is short, we leverage the power of the spacing effect. Once we learn something through spaced repetition, it actually sticks with us. After a certain point, we may only need to revisit it every few years to keep our knowledge fresh. Even if we seem to forget something between repetitions, it later proves easier to relearn.

How to implement this: Forget about cramming. Each time you’re learning a new component of a skill, make a schedule for when you’ll review it. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.

The history of deliberate practice

Karl Anders Ericsson: The expert on expertise

Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak

The concept of deliberate practice is attributed to Florida State University psychologist Karl Anders Ericsson, who along with his collaborators performed pioneering research in the field of expert performance. Ericsson spent decades seeking to answer the question of what it takes to become really good at something difficult. His research often focused on medicine, music, and sports.

Ericsson’s interest in expert performance kicked off in the late 1970s, when he began working with psychologist Bill Chase at Carnegie Mellon University to study short-term memory. Together, they began a series of experiments to see how many random digits it’s possible to memorize after hearing them once. Ericsson and Chase used an undergrad named Steve Faloon as their guinea pig. For a few hours each week, they read out numbers and Faloon repeated as many as he could recall.

Although the experiment might sound dull, they uncovered something intriguing. In a 1982 paper entitled “Exceptional Memory,” Ericsson and Chase summarized their findings. Previously, researchers believed the average person could hold just seven random digits in their short-term memory. Yet with careful practice, Faloon began to remember more and more numbers. At his peak and after 200 hours of practice, he could recall 82 digits. To assess if this was a fluke, Ericsson tried the same with a friend, Dario Donatelli. Five years later, Donatelli could recall 113 digits. Both he and Faloon went far beyond what seemed to be an immovable ceiling on human performance and blew past existing world records.

The experience of seeing two people who started off with ordinary memories enhance their capabilities in such a drastic way inspired Ericsson to further study the effects of practice on skills. Could it be that extraordinary abilities came from extraordinary practice, not just innate ability?

Through his studies of expert performers in a range of fields, Ericsson concluded they practiced their skills in a fundamentally different way than amateur practitioners. Ericsson described this kind of practice as “deliberate” due to its methodicial, hyper-conscious nature. He argued that experts become experts largely as a result of the way they practice. They may benefit from innate advantages, but their talents themselves are not innate.

Ericsson also believed that the standards in many additional fields could be improved far beyond their current level if practitioners employed the principles of deliberate practice. Indeed, many fields have seen remarkable increases in their standards for high performance over time. Today, high-schoolers manage athletic feats that were once Olympic level and children play music once considered world-class. This is possible because of better training and knowledge of what it takes to be the best. The more we improve how we train, the more we expand our range of possible performance.

In 2016, Ericsson published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, a popular science book condensing his learnings from thirty years of research. He also co-edited the 2006 Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.

Malcolm Gladwell: The 10,000 hour rule

The widespread awareness of Ericsson’s work outside the scientific community is in part a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success. In the book, Gladwell attributed unusual success in different fields to a mixture of lucky factors (such as when or where a person was born) and around 10,000 hours of practice. He based this figure on research, including Ericsson’s, that suggested top performers tended to have put in about that amount of time before reaching peak performance.

Gladwell showed how the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and other outstanding performers is not so much to do with what they are like but rather where they come from. “The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves,” Gladwell writes. “But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.

The so-called “10,000 hours rule” caught on. It’s a catchy idea, and many people took it to mean that anyone can master anything if they just put the time in. Ericsson himself disputed Gladwell’s representations of his research, which led to the widespread belief that the time someone spends practicing predicts their success, without emphasizing the quality of their practice.

Although the backlash against Gladwell’s calculation has arguably been exaggerated, it’s important to stress that research into deliberate practice emphasizes quality of practice, not quantity. It’s all too possible to spend 10,000 hours engaging in a skill without serious improvements. For example, most of us spend hours per day typing, yet we don’t see continuous improvements in speed and quality because we’re not using deliberate practice.

The useful takeaway from the “10,000 hours rule” is simply that it takes a lot of work to become the best. There’s no magic number of practice sessions, and everyone’s path will look different. Just because successful people in a given field have spent around 10,000 hours practicing their key skill, that doesn’t mean every person who practices that skill for 10,000 hours will become successful.

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The limitations and downsides of deliberate practice

Part of us wants to believe expert performance is something innate and magical so we can recuse ourselves from hard work. The other part of us wants to believe that it’s something earned through blood, sweat, and tears—that we too could achieve amazing performance, if only we could devote ourselves to something.

Deliberate practice, in reality, is far more complex and nuanced than many people would have you believe. It’s not a panacea, and it won’t solve all of your work- and art-related problems. Let’s take a look at some of the limitations of deliberate practice.

First of all, deliberate practice is a necessary but insufficient part of becoming a world-class performer. You can’t rise to the top without it. But it’s not enough on its own to be the absolute best in any field. Once you reach higher echelons for any skill, everyone is engaging in a lot of deliberate practice.

If you’re aiming at expertise or just really good performance, deliberate practice will most likely get you there. But the higher you rise, the more luck and randomness end up mattering. However much you engage in deliberate practice, you can’t control the chance events (good or bad) that dictate a great deal of life.

When we look at the lives of top performers, they often benefited from specific backgrounds or opportunities, in addition to engaging in deliberate practice. For example, if you’re trying to become a champion chess player, it’s a big boost if your mother was a champion chess player. Not only will you have potential genetic advantages, you’ll have also likely grown up hearing about chess, been encouraged to practice it from a young age, and have someone to turn to for advice.

Seeing as it takes years of consistent deliberate practice to master a skill, people who begin early in life have an advantage over those who start later on. That doesn’t mean you can’t become exceptional at something you discover well into adulthood (just look at Julia Child or check out the book Guitar Zero). But it does mean that people who begin deliberate practice as kids are more likely to enjoy the success that makes it possible to keep committing to it. If you’re trying to master a skill while also having to work an unrelated job, care for your family, and deal with the other myriad responsibilities of adult life, you likely will have less room for it than a ten-year-old.

People who discover they want to master a skill or are encouraged to do so by others early in life have an advantage. Once the opportunity for practice is in place, the prospects of high achievement take off. And if practice is denied or diminished, no amount of talent is going to get you there.

In addition to lucky circumstances, high performers benefit from a combination of deliberate practice and innate talents or physical advantages. However much you practice, certain physical limitations are insurmountable. For example, if you’re 165 centimeters tall, you’re unlikely to become a professional basketball player. There are some physical abilities, such as particular kinds of flexibility, that can only be developed at a young age when a person’s skeletal structure is still forming. It’s important to be realistic about your starting point and be aware of any limitations. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop workarounds or even use them to your advantage.

Another downside of deliberate practice is that the level of focus it requires can mean practitioners miss out on other parts of life. Top performers often devote almost every waking hour to practice, recuperation from practice, and support activities. For example, a professional dancer might spend several hours a day on deliberate practice with all of the remaining hours going toward sleep, low-impact exercise, stretching, preparing nutritious food, icing his feet, and so on. There is enormous satisfaction in the flow states produced by deliberate practice, but practitioners can absolutely miss out on other sources of happiness, such as spending time with friends.

Deliberate practice is part of the exploit phase of new opportunities. Yet sometimes we can end up having too much grit. We can keep persevering with the skill we’re practicing right now, remaining overly passionate, past the point where it serves us. We can wear ourselves out or get hurt or fail to realize when it’s no longer worth practicing a skill. For example, a new technology might mean our skill is no longer valuable. If we keep on deliberate practicing due to sunk costs, we’ll be unlikely to see many long-term benefits from it. A crucial skill in life is knowing when to pivot. Focusing too much on our goals can blind us to risks.

In some fields, expertise is hard to quantify or measure, which makes it less clear how to structure practice. There may be no single target to hit or universal rule for what improves performance.

A final limitation to keep in mind is that, as Ericsson explained, “the cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training and they go away.” If someone can’t practice for a period of time, such as due to an injury or having a child, they’re likely to see the skills they developed through deliberate practice deteriorate.

Summary

Deliberate practice isn’t everything, but if you want to keep improving at a skill or overcome a plateau, you’ll benefit from incorporating the principles mentioned in this article. To recap:

  • Deliberate practice means practicing with a clear awareness of the specific components of a skill we’re aiming to improve and exactly how to improve them.
  • The more we engage in deliberate practice, the greater our capabilities become.
  • Our minds and bodies are far more malleable than we usually realize.
  • Deliberate practice is structured and methodical.
  • Deliberate practice is challenging because it involves constantly pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.
  • Deliberate practice requires constant feedback and measurement of informative metrics—not vanity metrics.
  • Deliberate practice works best with the help of a teacher or coach.
  • Continuing deliberate practice requires a great deal of intrinsic motivation.
  • Deliberate practice requires constant, intense focus.
  • Deliberate practice leverages the spacing effect—meaning a consistent commitment over time is crucial.
  • If you’re content with your current level of skill or just doing something for fun, you don’t necessarily need to engage in deliberate practice
  • Deliberate practice is best suited to pursuits where you’re actively aiming for a high level of performance or to break beyond some kind of supposed limit.

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Books about deliberate practice (further reading)

A world in which deliberate practice is a normal part of life would be one in which people had more volition and satisfaction.” —Karl Anders Ericsson, Peak

If you’d like to learn more about the art and science of deliberate practice, check out any of these books:

What Information Do You Need in Order to Change?

Feedback is an effective tool for promoting efficient behavior: it enhances individuals’ awareness of choice consequences in complex settings.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra

We all want to improve at something. Skills we’d like to develop, habits we like to change, relationships we’d like to improve—there are lots of areas where we’d love to see positive, meaningful change.

Sometimes though, we don’t know how to keep moving forward.

We do research. We think of strategies. We try to implement a few tactics. And then we get stuck because we aren’t sure if what we’re doing is moving us in the right direction. So we keep on spinning our wheels, running without getting anywhere.

When you’re stuck, you need feedback. Feedback is a valuable source of information that you can use to effect the changes you want. You need information that tells you what you’re doing well and where you’re going wrong. Then you can use that information to plan tactics for bridging the gap between where you are now and where you want to be.

The more feedback you can get, the better. But how do you get good feedback?

Sometimes feedback is obvious, like when someone laughs at one of our jokes. They found it funny, and their reaction emboldens us to later try the joke on someone else. Sometimes feedback is codified into our professional lives, such as during a formal performance review.

Often though, if we want feedback we have to actively seek it out.

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How feedback works in behavior change

A robust finding in economics, psychology, and behavioral sciences is the systematic failure to act according to rational well-informed preferences. This failure to rationally process and integrate information due to limited cognitive resources may lead to inefficient behavior in many domains of everyday life and may produce costs that, in some cases, can be avoided simply by highlighting the consequences of such behavior.” —“Feedback and Efficient Behavior,” Sandro Casal, Nives DellaValle, Luigi Mittone, and Ivan Soraperra

A really simple example of the effect of feedback on behavioral change is energy consumption. Most people don’t have a deep understanding of their energy usage. In your home, do you use more or less energy than your neighbors? What’s your consumption like compared to the national average? The global average? What activities and habits use the most energy? Studies show that feedback on usage can be used quickly by consumers to make lasting change.

If you decide you want to reduce your energy consumption, research on how to do it is a great place to start. But feedback on the impacts of your subsequent choices is equally important.

Energy companies have started providing consumers with detailed information on their consumption, such as amount used in comparable months, what in the home is using the most energy, and usage according to time of day. Some companies go further by relating energy consumption to local and global effects, like brownouts and light pollution. People can then further adjust their behavior by switching appliances or better insulating their home, and they can stay motivated to stick to the new behavior because of the consistent feedback.

Having direct feedback on the results of your specific actions can reinforce positive changes, help you develop habits, and inspire you to take further action. Feedback also helps you set goals for what you can reasonably accomplish.

Trying to make ongoing systemic changes in life without feedback on those changes is hard. Feedback gives you the information you need to improve. Without it, you may be completely missing the mark of what you want to achieve.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback

Asking how you could be a better partner, team member, friend, or leader from the people best placed to give you accurate feedback is a requirement for improving. If your actions are eventually going to get you fired, divorced, or ghosted by your close friends, you probably want feedback communicating the steps you’re taking toward disaster. Getting useful information in an ongoing, iterative loop gives you the opportunity to discuss solutions and make changes.

Feedback is baked into some professions. Writers have editors. Athletes have coaches. Actors have directors. In a New York Times article about the television show The Good Place, the show’s creator, Michael Schur, says of actor Kristen Bell, “She just has a really low center of gravity for how she approaches her job; you can give her forty notes on a line, and she’ll go, ‘Yep, got it,’ and she’ll do all forty of those notes at once.” When you trust the source, it’s easier to accept and incorporate feedback.

If you aren’t getting enough feedback or you want to augment what feedback you routinely get, hire a coach—an expert who knows how to give useful feedback in the area you want to improve in. No one is so good at something that they have no room for improvement. We can all get better. And if you want to get better, you have to be open to the feedback you receive. You don’t have to agree with it, but you do need to hear it. Getting defensive, critical, or shutting down will lead you to miss information and prevent others from attempting to give you feedback in the future.

If you want honest feedback, you have to prepare yourself to listen to things you might not want to hear. When you ask for feedback, explain that you’re looking to identify your blind spots and that you’re genuinely seeking information that will help you improve. Be as specific as you can. Be gracious with the results, even if they’re unpleasant. Remember that listening to a perspective doesn’t mean you endorse it.

Of course, not all feedback is good. Sometimes it’s just noise. Knowing when to ignore feedback that isn’t useful or is badly intentioned can be just as useful as knowing when to seek out the kind of feedback that is instructive. For example, feedback and opinions are not the same thing. Feedback is based on observation and reactions to your specific actions. It does not aim to tell you what you should be doing; it simply seeks to enlarge your perspective on what you are doing. Opinions are just someone sharing how they feel about a particular aspect of the world – they have nothing to do with you in particular.

The person giving you feedback is also indirectly sharing a wealth of information about themselves. Often what we give feedback on is related to what we find important, and what directly connects with our values.

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The power of feedback

When you’re aware of how powerful strong feedback can be, you may find you’d like to start giving more of it. When giving others feedback, ask yourself what information they might need to make meaningful change. Giving great feedback isn’t about convincing others to do things your way. It’s about giving them insight into how to improve on their own methods.

Giving good feedback requires an awareness of both what you’re saying, and how you say it. To the first point, make it personal, provide specific examples, and notice how things have changed over time. Reassure the person that you are trying to help them be a better version of themselves, that you are in their corner. Consequently, be aware of your tone. You’re a team member, not an accuser. And choose your timing wisely. At the end of a busy work day is probably not the time to give constructive feedback. People need the space to hear and process what you have to say.

We all want to get better at something. Don’t underestimate the importance of feedback in helping you reach your goals.

John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy of Equality

Sometimes in the debates about how to improve equality in our society, the reason why we should desire equality gets lost. In his classic text The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill explains why equality is critical for solving the world’s problems—because it allows everyone to decide how they can best contribute to society.

“The loss to the world, by refusing to make use of one-half of the whole quantity of talent it possesses, is extremely serious.”

The Subjection of Women was released in 1869, a time when, in most of the world, women were considered the legal property—objects, not subjects—of men, specifically their fathers and husbands. John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century British philosopher who not only wrote political philosophy but also served in Parliament and advocated for many liberal reforms, challenged the status quo by pointing out the incredible cost to society of maintaining inequality between the sexes.

Mill was specifically addressing the equality of women in relation to men, but his reasoning as to why equality is desirable transcends that one case. Because his argument rests on the social cost of inequality, a modern reading of his text is easily reframed as “the subjection of people.” Even if that was not his initial intent, we can use our current understanding to adapt his ideas.

He argued that we need to give people a choice as to how they will best contribute to society. If we don’t, we prevent ourselves from accessing the best ideas and contributions. Humans face enough natural challenges, Mill thought, that to cut ourselves off from any part of the available pool of brainpower costs society timely and insightful solutions to our problems—solutions that may be better than the existing ones. People need to have equal freedom to choose the paths that they want to pursue.

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Equality of opportunity

Mill was not delusional about equality and did not assume that everyone is equally capable of doing everything. His was more an equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcomes. That is, all people should be in a position to determine how they can best contribute to society. “It is not that all processes are supposed to be equally good, or all persons to be equally qualified for everything;” he explains, “but that freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes, and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it.

In his time and place, he observed that women were not allowed to decide on how they would or could contribute to society. But, more importantly, their opinions and feelings on the subject of their lives were not even solicited.

He observed that the lack of testimony and perspective of women in both history and contemporary society, as well as the lack of access to education to enable them to contribute, meant that men’s general understanding of them was weak at best. Most men derived their opinion of women based on their feelings about the women with whom they had direct contact and the opinions of other men. “Accordingly, one can, to an almost laughable degree,” Mill wrote, “infer what a man’s wife is like from his opinions about women in general.

The cultural conditioning of the time rendered women obscure. Mill notes that men often criticized women for possessing the qualities that men insisted they have:

When we put together three things—first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character.”

For women, it is a catch-22. You must be what you are expected to be in order to be seen, but then you are seen only for what has been culturally prescribed.

The lack of access to women’s perspective often means that cultural stereotypes continue. Mill asks, “Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers belong to a woman by suggestion?” To give just two of many examples, Zelda Fitzgerald probably contributed a fair amount of ideas to the books attributed only to her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And William Wordsworth reputedly used passages from his sister Dorothy’s writing journal in his own works. Not to mention the many male writers whose wives were their editors, typists, and critics. The question Mill asked is still relevant today. The history of the Nobel Prize alone demonstrates how often men are given credit for the ideas of women. Aside from being an annoying injustice, the problem is that it obscures the contributions of women and reinforces antiquated notions of women’s capabilities.

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For most of history, Anonymous was a woman

Mill was fully aware of the reinforcing feedback loop that made it hard for women to challenge the status quo. He supposed that women did not write more about their true feelings and perspectives because the power difference made it almost impossible. “As yet very few of them dare tell anything,” he writes, “which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.” Thus, the feedback loop is that women could only express those opinions that men would support in order to achieve literary success, but then that success simply reinforced those opinions.

But in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds.”

The fact of cultural bias, and how it perpetuates itself, is easily extrapolated from the specific case Mill was arguing against to many similar power dynamics throughout history. One group has power. They justify that power as being natural in order to keep it. That idea of naturalness becomes part of the cultural rhetoric and becomes the lens through which the powerless are viewed. The powerless struggle to change because before they can attain rights they have to change the cultural narrative.

When we take away someone’s freedom to choose where they can best contribute based on cultural biases, it does not benefit society as a whole. It does us no good “to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all of life.

When we don’t organize society on the premise of equality, we miss opportunities for improvement and development. We hold everyone back.

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No one wants to be at the bottom

Mill was aware that to promote equality one had to deal with overcoming the influence of legalized power, which can be understood as one group having the power to direct the lives of another powerless group. His conclusions about the role and expression of power are applicable to any instance of systemic inequality.

For everyone who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences.

It is an argument we have all heard time and time again: because the inequality is assumed to be just the way things are, the power difference must be normal as well. Mill exposes the fallacy in this type of thinking when he asks, “But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” The exercise of power by one group over another certainly does not feel natural to those who are being dominated, even if they may have internalized the same oppressive beliefs about themselves.

In the case of women in Mill’s society, the power to dictate their choices and options in life was not given to select men, but all men. In many cultures, the legal subjection of women to men is still the norm. In both cases, there is no evaluation of any man’s ability to exercise their power. As Mill pointed out, no one verified if a husband would be any good at being a husband.

In systems in which women have no power, there are fewer incentives for men to treat them well. He explains the backwardness of, for example, requiring marriage to a man to be the sole role for women when he says, “Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them lay themselves open to a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women as to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations.” When something is desirable, people want it for themselves. If the choice is between some degree of liberty or total subjugation, people will choose the former. Thus, for the power to enforce the latter to exist, it has to be mandated and justified as “natural.”

Mill argued that “it is perfectly obvious that the abuse of the power cannot be very much checked while the power remains.” It is very unlikely that people who have power are inclined to give it up. In order to justify power accorded solely because of who you happen to be born as, the power must be conceived of as earned.

It’s often a case of making up arguments in order to justify the status quo, rather than deciding on a status quo based on objective observation and evidence.

For the same reasons that the way we justify our actions on an individual level makes it hard for us to admit we are wrong and change our minds, the justifications that a society produces to maintain a power structure are very hard to dislodge. Mill observed, “So long as the right of the strong to power over the weak rules in the very heart of society, the attempt to make the equal right of the weak the principle of its outward actions will always be an uphill struggle.

Why bother to try to change power structures? For Mill, when power is concentrated in the hands of a section of the population, the people in the society with that power imbalance cannot exercise freedom. “The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism,” Mill writes. “Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous.

According to Mill, liberty is the goal. His idea of liberty is incompatible with systemic inequality. To legislate inequality, to make it part of the social fabric, has two problematic effects. First, those who are considered “less than” cannot have liberty. But those who run the show do not have liberty either, because of the effort required to maintain inequality.

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An accident of birth

The real problem is not that inequality works as the best state of affairs for everyone, but that there is fear of what an equal society might look like because we have yet to experience one. Essentially, there exists a fear of the unknown. Because an equal society would necessarily function differently, there is, of course, a hesitation regarding what one might be giving up.

Mill argued against the idea that the various states of inequality that he saw around him, the ownership by one group of people over another, were the result of careful decisions. “Experience cannot possibly have decided between two courses, so long as there has only been experience of one.

Inequality is often explained by some version of “that’s just the way things are.” Certain groups of people are assumed to have certain intrinsic, unchangeable qualities and thus must be treated accordingly. Mill, however, felt that a lot of what we attribute to biology was actually a product of cultural conditioning. We inaccurately assume that what is common practice represents objective truths about the world, as opposed to being deliberately created and perpetuated because it benefits certain groups. Mill writes, “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.

The dishonesty of conflating the privileges you happened to be born to with your right to have those privileges was observed by Mill. He saw all around him evidence of those who were unable to acknowledge the extent to which their achievements were a result of the accident of birth. “Those whom privileges not acquired by their merit, and which they feel to be disproportioned to it, inspire with additional humility are always the few, and the best few,” he wrote. “The rest are only inspired with pride, and the worst sort of pride, that which values itself upon accidental advantages not of its own achieving.” It’s like congratulating yourself for winning a race without acknowledging, or even being aware, that you started closer to the finish line than all the other participants.

Mill suggests that maintaining inequality distracts us from addressing more pressing challenges:“One feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth,” Mill explains, “there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another.” There are struggles that we have to face together because they affect all of us.

In Mill’s time, he might have been thinking of the vulnerability of humans to disease, or the environmental and social effects of the Industrial Revolution. These same struggles frame the challenges we face today. We conquer one disease only to become vulnerable to another, and we are now trying to figure out how to not destroy our environment so much that we cause our own extinction. Reading his polemic suggests that expending any effort to maintain “prejudiced restrictions on one another” is a waste of energy that could be more effectively spent dealing with the very real threats we face as a species.

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The greater good

Although Mill was writing about the specific case of the subjection of women in the society in which he lived, his arguments about the detriment of inequality to society are more broadly applicable. Thus, when he observes: “Is it not a mere truism to say that such functions are often filled by men far less fit for them than numbers of women, and who would be beaten by women in any fair field of competition?” we can say we agree that fitness for a position matters far more than the cultural attributes of the person filling it.

And when he questions: “Is there so great a superfluity of men fit for high duties that society can afford to reject the service of any competent person?” we can easily answer no.

When we limit people’s access to society based on assumptions about broad categories of attributes, we hurt everyone. Mill writes:

To ordain that any kind of persons shall not be physicians, or shall not be advocates, or shall not be member of Parliament, is to injure not them only, but all who employ physicians or advocates, or elect members of Parliament, and who are deprived of the stimulating effect of greater competition on the exertions of the competitors, as well as restricted to a narrower range of individual choice.

Just as monopolies on goods distort the value and availability of a commodity, a monopoly on choice by one social group distorts competency and achievement.

Mill suggests that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Regardless of how we go about promoting equality, it’s important to always remember why equality is desirable. The more equal we are in our freedom to choose how we can contribute to society makes it more likely that the best contributions will be realized.

The OODA Loop: How Fighter Pilots Make Fast and Accurate Decisions

The OODA Loop is a four-step process for making effective decisions in high-stakes situations. It involves collecting relevant information, recognizing potential biases, deciding, and acting, then repeating the process with new information. Read on to learn how to use the OODA Loop.

When we want to learn how to make rational decisions under pressure, it can be helpful to look at the techniques people use in extreme situations. If they work in the most drastic scenarios, they have a good chance of being effective in more typical ones.

Because they’re developed and tested in the relentless laboratory of conflict, military mental models have practical applications far beyond their original context. If they didn’t work, they would be quickly replaced by alternatives. Military leaders and strategists invest a great deal of time and resources into developing decision-making processes.

One such military mental model is the OODA Loop. Developed by strategist and U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, the OODA Loop is a practical concept designed to function as the foundation of rational thinking in confusing or chaotic situations. “OODA” stands for “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.”

What is strategy? A mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.” —John Boyd

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The four parts of the OODA Loop

Let’s break down the four parts of the OODA Loop and see how they fit together.

Don’t forget the “Loop” part. The process is intended to be repeated again and again until a conflict finishes. Each repetition provides more information to inform the next one, making it a feedback loop.

1: Observe

Step one is to observe the situation with the aim of building the most accurate and comprehensive picture of it possible.

For example, a fighter pilot might consider the following factors in a broad, fluid way:

  • What is immediately affecting me?
  • What is affecting my opponent?
  • What could affect either of us later on?
  • Can I make any predictions?
  • How accurate were my prior predictions?

Information alone is insufficient. The observation stage requires converting information into an overall picture with overarching meaning that places it in context. A particularly vital skill is the capacity to identify which information is just noise and irrelevant for the current decision.

If you want to make good decisions, you need to master the art of observing your environment. For a fighter pilot, that involves factors like the weather conditions and what their opponent is doing. In your workplace, that might include factors like regulations, available resources, relationships with other people, and your current state of mind.

To give an example, consider a doctor meeting with a patient in the emergency room for the first time to identify how to treat them. Their first priority is figuring out what information they need to collect, then collecting it. They might check the patient’s records, ask other staff about the admission, ask the patient questions, check vital signs such as blood pressure, and order particular diagnostic tests. Doctors learn to pick up on subtle cues that can be telling of particular conditions, such as a patient’s speech patterns, body language, what they’ve brought with them to the hospital, and even their smell. In some cases, the absence (rather than presence) of certain cues is also important. At the same time, a doctor needs to discard irrelevant information, then put all the pieces together before they can treat the patient.

2: Orient

Orientation isn’t just a state you’re in; it’s a process. You’re always orienting.” —John Boyd

The second stage of the OODA Loop, orient, is less intuitive than the other steps. However, it’s worth taking the effort to understand it rather than skipping it. Boyd referred to it as the schwerpunkt, meaning “the main emphasis” in German.

To orient yourself is to recognize any barriers that might interfere with the other parts of the OODA Loop.

Orientation means connecting yourself with reality and seeing the world as it really is, as free as possible from the influence of cognitive biases and shortcuts. You can give yourself an edge over the competition by making sure you always orient before making a decision, instead of just jumping in.

Boyd maintained that properly orienting yourself can be enough to overcome an initial disadvantage, such as fewer resources or less information, to outsmart an opponent. He identified the following four main barriers that impede our view of objective information:

  1. Our cultural traditions – we don’t realize how much of what we consider universal behavior is actually culturally prescribed
  2. Our genetic heritage – we all have certain constraints
  3. Our ability to analyze and synthesize – if we haven’t practiced and developed our thinking skills, we tend to fall back on old habits
  4. The influx of new information – it is hard to make sense of observations when the situation keeps changing

Prior to Charlie Munger’s popularization of the concept of building a toolbox of mental models, Boyd advocated a similar approach for pilots to help them better navigate the orient stage of the OODA Loop. He recommended a process of “deductive destruction”: paying attention to your own assumptions and biases, then finding fundamental mental models to replace them.

Similar to using a decision journal, deductive destruction ensures you always learn from past mistakes and don’t keep on repeating them. In one talk, Boyd employed a brilliant metaphor for developing a latticework of mental models. He compared it to building a snowmobile, a vehicle comprising elements of several different devices, such as the caterpillar treads of a tank, skis, the outboard motor of a boat, and the handlebars of a bike.

Individually, each of these items isn’t enough to move you around. But combined they create a functional vehicle. As Boyd put it:

A loser is someone (individual or group) who cannot build snowmobiles when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change; whereas a winner is someone (individual or group) who can build snowmobiles, and employ them in an appropriate fashion, when facing uncertainty and unpredictable change.

To orient yourself, you have to build a metaphorical snowmobile by combining practical concepts from different disciplines. (For more on mental models, we literally wrote the book on them.) Although Boyd is regarded as a military strategist, he didn’t confine himself to any particular discipline. His theories encompass ideas drawn from various disciplines, including mathematical logic, biology, psychology, thermodynamics, game theory, anthropology, and physics. Boyd described his approach as a “scheme of pulling things apart (analysis) and putting them back together (synthesis) in new combinations to find how apparently unrelated ideas and actions can be related to one another.”

3: Decide

There are no surprises here. The previous two steps provide the groundwork you need to make an informed decision. If there are multiple options at hand, you need to use your observation and orientation to select one.

Boyd cautioned against first-conclusion bias, explaining that we cannot keep making the same decision again and again. This part of the loop needs to be flexible and open to Bayesian updating. In some of his notes, Boyd described this step as the hypothesis stage. The implication is that we should test the decisions we make at this point in the loop, spotting their flaws and including any issues in future observation stages

4: Act

There’s a difference between making decisions and enacting decisions. Once you make up your mind, it’s time to take action.

By taking action, you test your decision out. The results will hopefully indicate whether it was a good one or not, providing information for when you cycle back to the first part of the OODA Loop and begin observing anew.

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Why the OODA Loop works

The ability to operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than an adversary enables one to fold the adversary back inside himself so that he can neither appreciate nor keep up with what is going on. He will become disoriented and confused.” —John Boyd

We’ve identified three key benefits of using the OODA Loop.

1: Deliberate speed

As we’ve established, fighter pilots have to make many decisions in fast succession. They don’t have time to list pros and cons or to consider every available avenue. Once the OODA Loop becomes part of their mental toolboxes, they should be able to cycle through it in a matter of seconds.

Speed is a crucial element of military decision-making. Using the OODA Loop in everyday life, we probably have a little more time than a fighter pilot would. But Boyd emphasized the value of being decisive, taking initiative, and staying autonomous. These are universal assets and apply to many situations.

2: Comfort with uncertainty

There’s no such thing as total certainty. If you’re making a decision at all, it’s because something is uncertain. But uncertainty does not always have to equate to risk.

A fighter pilot is in a precarious situation, one in which where there will be gaps in their knowledge. They cannot read the mind of the opponent and might have incomplete information about the weather conditions and surrounding environment. They can, however, take into account key factors such as the opponent’s type of airplane and what their maneuvers reveal about their intentions and level of training. If the opponent uses an unexpected strategy, is equipped with a new type of weapon or airplane, or behaves in an irrational way, the pilot must accept the accompanying uncertainty. However, Boyd belabored the point that uncertainty is irrelevant if we have the right filters in place.

If we can’t cope with uncertainty, we end up stuck in the observation stage. This sometimes happens when we know we need to make a decision, but we’re scared of getting it wrong. So we keep on reading books and articles, asking people for advice, listening to podcasts, and so on.

Acting under uncertainty is unavoidable. If we do have the right filters, we can factor uncertainty into the observation stage. We can leave a margin of error. We can recognize the elements that are within our control and those that are not.

In presentations, Boyd referred to three key principles to support his ideas: Gödel’s theorems, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Of course, we’re using these principles in a different way from their initial purpose and in a simplified, non-literal form.

Gödel’s theorems indicate any mental model we have of reality will omit certain information and that Bayesian updating must be used to bring it in line with reality. For fighter pilots, their understanding of what is going on during a battle will always have gaps. Identifying this fundamental uncertainty gives it less power over us.

The second concept Boyd referred to is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. In its simplest form, this principle describes the limit of the precision with which pairs of physical properties can be understood. We cannot know the position and the velocity of a body at the same time. We can know either its location or its speed, but not both.

Boyd moved the concept of the Uncertainty Principle from particles to planes. If a pilot focuses too hard on where an enemy plane is, they will lose track of where it is going and vice versa. Trying harder to track the two variables will actually lead to more inaccuracy!

Finally, Boyd made use of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a closed system, entropy always increases and everything moves towards chaos. Energy spreads out and becomes disorganized.

Although Boyd’s notes do not specify the exact applications, his inference appears to be that a fighter pilot must be an open system or they will fail. They must draw “energy” (information) from outside themselves or the situation will become chaotic. They should also aim to cut their opponent off, forcing them to become a closed system.

3: Unpredictability

When you act fast enough, other people view you as unpredictable. They can’t figure out the logic behind your decisions.

Boyd recommended making unpredictable changes in speed and direction, writing, “We should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries or inside our adversaries[’] time scales.…Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (non predictable) [and] thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries.” He even helped design planes that were better equipped to make those unpredictable changes.

For the same reason that you can’t run the same play seventy times in a football game, rigid military strategies often become useless after a few uses, or even one iteration, as opponents learn to recognize and counter them. The OODA Loop can be endlessly used because it is a formless strategy, unconnected to any particular maneuvers.

We know that Boyd was influenced by Sun Tzu (he owned seven thoroughly annotated copies of The Art of War) and drew many ideas from the ancient strategist. Sun Tzu depicts war as a game of deception where the best strategy is that which an opponent cannot preempt.

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Forty Second Boyd

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” —Sun Tzu

Boyd was no armchair strategist. He developed his ideas through extensive experience as a fighter pilot. His nickname “Forty Second Boyd” speaks to his expertise: Boyd could win any aerial battle in less than forty seconds.

In a tribute written after Boyd’s death, General C.C. Krulak described him as “a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war. Indeed, he was one of the central architects of the reform of military thought.…From John Boyd we learned about competitive decision-making on the battlefield—compressing time, using time as an ally.

Reflecting Robert Greene’s maxim that everything is material, Boyd spent his career observing people and organizations. How do they adapt to changeable environments in conflicts, business, and other situations?

Over time, he deduced that these situations are characterized by uncertainty. Dogmatic, rigid theories are unsuitable for chaotic situations. Rather than trying to rise through the military ranks, Boyd focused on using his position as a colonel to compose a theory of the universal logic of war.

Boyd was known to ask his mentees the poignant question, “Do you want to be someone, or do you want to do something?” In his own life, he certainly focused on the latter path and, as a result, left us ideas with tangible value. The OODA Loop is just one of many.

Boyd developed the OODA Loop with fighter pilots in mind, but like all good mental models, it works in other fields beyond combat. It’s used in intelligence agencies. It’s used by lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, politicians, law enforcement, marketers, athletes, coaches, and more.

If you have to work fast, you might want to learn a thing or two from fighter pilots. For them, a split-second of hesitation can cost them their lives. As anyone who has ever watched Top Gun knows, pilots have a lot of decisions and processes to juggle when they’re in dogfights (close-range aerial battles). Pilots move at high speeds and need to avoid enemies while tracking them and keeping a contextual knowledge of objectives, terrains, fuel, and other key variables.

And as any pilot who has been in one will tell you, dogfights are nasty. No one wants them to last longer than necessary because every second increases the risk of something going wrong. Pilots have to rely on their decision-making skills—they can’t just follow a schedule or to-do list to know what to do.

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Applying the OODA Loop

We can’t just look at our own personal experiences or use the same mental recipes over and over again; we’ve got to look at other disciplines and activities and relate or connect them to what we know from our experiences and the strategic world we live in.” —John Boyd

In sports, there is an adage that carries over to business quite well: “Speed kills.” If you are able to be nimble, assess the ever-changing environment, and adapt quickly, you’ll always carry the advantage over any opponents.

Start applying the OODA Loop to your day-to-day decisions and watch what happens. You’ll start to notice things that you would have been oblivious to before. Before jumping to your first conclusion, you’ll pause to consider your biases, take in additional information, and be more thoughtful of consequences.

As with anything you practice, if you do it right, the more you do it, the better you’ll get. You’ll start making better decisions to your full potential. You’ll see more rapid progress. And as John Boyd would prescribe, you’ll start to do something in your life, and not just be somebody.

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We hope you’ve enjoyed our three week exploration of perspectives on decision making. We think there is value in juxtaposing different ideas to help us learn. Stay tuned for more topic specific series in the future.