Category: Creativity

Mirror Your Audience: Four Life Lessons From Performance Artist Marina Abramović

Imagine it is a Saturday. You are in New York and decide to go to the Museum of Modern Art. There is a special exhibit on called The Artist is Present. Performance artist Marina Abramovic is sitting in one of the galleries. You wait in line to sit across from her, noticing that hundreds of people are lined up for the experience. Anticipation slowly builds as your time gets closer.

From your spot in line, you can see her seated in a red dress. Across the table from her, people sit; some for mere moments, others for long stretches. You later learn that there is no limit on the length of time you can sit at the table across from her, but you are not allowed to touch or talk to her. As you are waiting in line, the experience is like looking at a living painting.

When it’s your turn and you take your seat across from her, your experience transforms and becomes part of the art itself.

Marina Abramovic performed The Artist is Present, sitting eight hours a day for three months in 2010. She trained for months to build the physical stamina to perform the piece, and in her memoir Walk Through Walls she comments on how the performance demonstrated the profound need for people to connect.

Originally from Belgrade, Abramovic began her art career in the 1960s, starting with traditional painting, before moving into performance pieces in the early 1970s. Many of her pieces are iconic, and she continues to work all over the world.

Here are some of her insights from her memoir that transcend performance art and speak to how we can move through life to achieve our goals.

On fear

It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you.”

Human beings are afraid of very simple things: we fear suffering, we fear mortality. What I was doing in Rhythm 0—as in all my other performances—was staging these fears for the audience: using their energy to push my body as far as possible. In the process, I liberated myself from my fears. And as this happened, I became a mirror for the audience—if I could do it, they could do it too.

The relationship we have with fear can be one of the defining relationships of our life. Finding a way to accept and process our fears is an ongoing task that can be mastered by willingly exploring them.

For the first three months, I place each student at a table with a thousand pieces of white paper and a trash can underneath. Every day they have to sit at the table for several hours and write ideas. They put the ideas they like on the right side of the table; the ones they don’t like, they put in the trash. But we don’t throw out the trash. After three months, I only take the ideas from the trash can. I don’t even look at the ideas they liked. Because the trash can is a treasure trove of things they’re afraid to do.”

Part of dealing with fear is acknowledging it. Hiding fear in the garbage bin does us no good. When we confront what we are afraid to do, we find immense opportunities to develop and grow because we increase our options and adaptability. We both remove limits and teach ourselves how to handle a wider spectrum of fear-inducing situations in the future.

On finding your place

“All at once it occurred to me—why paint? Why should I limit myself to two dimensions when I could make out from anything at all: fire, water, the human body? Anything! There was something like a click in my mind—I realized that being an artist meant having immense freedom.”

We need to explore until we find our “clicks.” Limiting ourselves to convention might not be satisfactory. As Abramovic began to develop her performance art pieces, her physical self was at the center of her work. In most of her pieces, the audience was confronted with the idea of art as a living thing: not a painting on a wall, but a physical body.

“The essence of performance is that the audience and the performer make the piece together.”

In one of her pieces, people entered the gallery while she stood completely still, dressed in a blouse and pants. On a table in front of her were dozens of objects—things like cards, lipstick, pins, and even a gun. Over the next hours, the audience was invited to use any object to do whatever they wanted to Abramovic. Slowly at first, but with increasing momentum, they began to interact with her body. They moved her arms, put lipstick on her, put cards in her hand. One person stuck a pin into her. Only at the end of the night did security intervene when someone picked up the gun and prepared to shoot her.

It must have been an incredible experience.

The notion that an audience can participate in the creation of art as it is happening has been an important aspect of many of Abramovic’s performances. In the dynamic nature of performance art, Abramovic has found her medium to explore the nature of art itself.

“I had experienced absolute freedom—I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all—and it intoxicated me. I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I’d received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium.”

Paying attention to our moments as we experience them helps us find our place. Abramovic writes often in her memoir about the success that came with being fully committed to her performances while they were happening. Her ability to move through physical pain in pursuit of artistic expression, and to communicate with her audience, stems in part from her knowing she was creating from a place of authenticity.

On art

“What is art? I feel that if we see art as something isolated, something holy and separate from everything, that means it’s not life. Art must be a part of life. Art has to belong to everybody.”

Another famous piece of hers was done in a gallery space, where she lived in front of the audience in three open rooms. Each room was a square box with one side removed. One was a living room, another one was a bedroom, and the final one was a bathroom. Abramovic did everything in front of the crowds who came into the gallery—sleep, meditate, shower, and use the toilet. One interpretation of the work is that by inviting the audience to watch her doing some of the mundane daily tasks that we all do, she provided a way for them to find the art in their own lives.

“This is a rule of performance: once you enter into this mental-physical construct you’ve devised, the rules are set, and that’s that—you’re the last one who can change them.”

Part of Abramovic’s success has stemmed from her fearlessness in using performance art to explore basic questions of humanity, as well as from her total respect for the medium. Her pieces are thoughtful, and no doubt leave a lasting impression on those who are able to watch and engage with them.

On the business of art

“It’s interesting with art. Some people have the ability—and the energy—not just to make the work, but to make sure it’s put in exactly the right place, at the right moment. Some artists realize they have to spend as much time as it took them to get an idea in finding the way to show it, and the infrastructure to support it. And some artists just don’t have that energy, and have to be taken care of, by art lovers or collectors or the gallery system.”

The business of creating and the business of selling one’s creations require different skills and temperaments that are not always found in the same person. When we know our capabilities, we can try to set ourselves up for success by knowing how and where to ask for help. All of us want our outputs to be recognized in some way. What we don’t often realize is that we have a part to play in getting that recognition to happen. We can’t expect everything to magically fall into place.

From the mid-1970s to the end of the decade, performance art caught on. . . . The originators of the medium were no longer young, and this work was very hard on the body. And the market, and art dealers especially, were putting increasing pressure on artists to make something to sell, because, after all, performance produced nothing marketable.”

Choices close some doors and open others. Having a personal definition of success is critical. We have to make sacrifices to achieve our goals, so we must be confident we are working toward our own idea of success and not someone else’s. Abramovic continues to do performance art, but she also became an art teacher and has partnered on numerous other art projects, including films. From her memoir, we learn that an insightful way of measuring our achievements is against what we believe gives life meaning.

How to Write Creative Fiction: Umberto Eco’s Four Rules

Umberto Eco (1932–2016) was one of the bestselling authors of all time. In Confessions of a Young Novelist, he shares some unique advice for writing fiction.

Umberto Eco wrote Confessions of a Young Novelist in his late seventies. But having published his first novel, The Name of the Rose, only twenty-eight years earlier, he considered himself a newcomer to fiction writing. Looking back on his career so far, Eco reveals some valuable insights into his writing process. In this post, we’ve extracted four of the key lessons for fiction writers from Confessions of a Young Novelist.

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Defining creative writing

“A text is a lazy machine that wants its readers to do part of its job.”

It seems a given that fiction writing is inherently creative, but what exactly makes a piece of writing creative?

“I have never understood why Homer is viewed as a creative writer and Plato isn’t. Why is a bad poet a creative writer, while a good scientific essayist is not?”

Some languages draw a distinction between the kind of writer who creates texts out of their imagination and the kind who simply records information, such as a poet versus a court stenographer. Eco disagrees with the notion that we can make this distinction based on the function a writer’s work serves in society. Nor can we define as creative solely writing that does not pretend to state the truth:

“Can we say without a doubt that Melville, in telling the story of a nonexistent whale, had no intention of saying anything true about life and death, or about human pride and obstinacy?

…It is problematic to define as creative a writer who simply tells us things that are contrary to fact. Ptoelmy said something untrue about the movement of the Earth. Should we then claim that he was more creative than Kepler?”

For Eco, the distinction lies in how a writer responds to interpretations of their work. It is possible to misunderstand an uncreative piece of writing. It is not possible to misunderstand a creative piece of writing—creative writers leave it to the reader to decide what their work means.

The most creative works are those that can be endlessly reinterpreted and reinvented by readers. Every reader can understand their own version of them depending on their particular worldview. Some of the most popular works of fiction ever written are ones that reflect common dreams and fantasies or idealized versions of life. They afford enough ambiguity to allow readers to project themselves into the text, thereby formulating their own interpretation of it. They also present worlds that readers want to be a part of and characters that readers want to spend time with (whether from affection or morbid curiosity or a hundred other reasons). And just like we all get something different out of various relationships, so too do we connect with books differently than other readers do.

“…in a theoretical essay, one usually wants to demonstrate a particular thesis or to give an answer to a specific problem. Whereas in a poem or a novel, one wants to represent life with all its inconsistency.”

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Defining fiction

“Fictional characters live in an incomplete—or, to be ruder and politically incorrect—handicapped world. But when we truly understand their fate, we begin to suspect that we too, as citizens of the here and now, frequently encounter our destiny simply because we think of our world in the same way that fictional characters think of theirs. Fiction suggests that perhaps our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world.”

Now let’s take a look at Eco’s four rules for writing creative fiction.

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Rule 1: Start with a seminal image

Each of Eco’s novels began with a striking image around which he constructed an elaborate narrative.

For The Name of the Rose, he began with the image of a monk being poisoned while reading a book, which first came into his mind forty years earlier. For Baudolino, Eco began with the image of the city of Constantinople set alight by the Crusaders at the start of the thirteenth century. For Foucault’s Pendulum, he began by imagining the juxtaposition of two things: the device made by physicist Léon Foucault in 1851 to demonstrate the earth’s rotation and a trumpeter playing in a cemetery on a sunny morning.

“But how to get from the pendulum to the trumpeter? To answer this question took me eight years, and the answer was the novel.”

Once he had the seminal image, Eco would construct an entire world around it. Everything else in the book was about making that image make sense. Once you pick your image, you close the door on hundreds of other choices. To make that image work, you need to build your world so that image fits seamlessly, and so there are many element which you can no longer incorporate.

The place in which your image is set, the time, the people in it—all of these will help you determine what characteristics your world must have.

If your seminal image is a woman in a torn coat holding a drooping bouquet of daffodils in the rain at the end of a long driveway, here are some of the questions you might immediately ask yourself: Is she coming or going? Do daffodils grow everywhere? How old is she? What color is her coat? What style? Is the driveway paved?

Once you start to answer these questions, more will appear. You will start to get a feeling for the style and genre of your story. If you make your audience care about the woman, you will have to get her out of the rain. Where can she go? Does she have a car? Is she walking? How long to the closest refuge? You will make decisions. You will choose elements for your setting that are incompatible with others. You will choose plot points that necessitate certain elements in the backstory of your characters, which will then influence what they do during the course of your story.

Your choices will narrow. You will begin to build your world.

Eco cautioned that having a multitude of images in mind is a bad sign: “If there are too many seminal images, this is a sign that they are not seminal.”

Sometimes two or three seminal images can be signposts as you build your story. But one image will always be the starting point, and as you keep creating, you may find those other images need to be discarded.

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Rule 2: Don’t expect inspiration to come out of nowhere

It’s a common misconception that the inspiration for a great work of fiction comes to a writer in a sudden flash. While particular ideas or images can seem to appear out of nowhere, they are often still the product of the long, slow digestion of relevant material. Creating a whole world requires a great deal of contextual information.

For Eco’s first novel, the material for it was collected in his subconscious mind for many years, during which he never intended to turn it into a work of fiction. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Middle Ages which inspired years of interest in the subject, and so he accumulated “twenty-five years’ worth of old filing cards” on the topic. As he began writing his novel, he had a rich collection of knowledge about the area from which to draw information.

After a chance suggestion, Eco discovered the inspiration he’d accumulated for The Name of the Rose:

As soon as I returned home, I hunted through my desk drawers and retrieved a scribbling from the previous year—a piece of paper on which I had written down some names of monks. It meant that in the most secret part of my soul the idea for a novel had already been growing, but I was unaware of it.

…When I decided to write the novel, it was as if I had opened a big closet where I had been piling up my medieval files for decades. All that material was there at my feet and I had only to select what I needed.

To illustrate the reality of creative writing, Eco gives the example of Alphonse Lamartine. The French poet claimed to have written one of his most famous works in a sudden flash of inspiration. After his death, a plethora of versions of that poem were found in his study, revealing he’d actually worked on it for years.

For later novels, Eco spent years studying relevant subject matter to fit with his main idea. Although he always picked topics he had some knowledge of to begin with, later novels required far more research than his first. Once he had his seminal image and knowledge of relevant subjects, he used these to create an entire world for his story to live in.

Curiosity is a much more useful starting place for a writer than inspiration. Even with a topic you know well, there is so much you don’t know. Being curious about what you would need to know to set your story in a field hospital during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a penthouse in contemporary Hong Kong, or a saloon on a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy is how you find the inspiration to write and the elements of the story you want to tell.

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Rule 3: Create an entire world for your story to live inside

Whether you aim to set your story in the so-called “real world” or to create an entirely fabricated one, you need to know as much as possible about that world. It needs to have a consistent logic and rules that make sense to the reader. You then need to write with that world in mind, ensuring every part of your story truly inhabits your world.

Writing of the time he spent researching for novels in order to gain inspiration, Eco explained:

“What do I do during the years of literary pregnancy? I collect documents; I visit places and draw maps; I note the layouts of buildings, or perhaps a ship…and I sketch the faces of characters…I give the impression of doing a lot of different things, but I am always focused on capturing ideas, images, words for my story.”

For example, for The Name of the Rose, Eco sketched hundreds of maps and plans of its locations so he would know how long it would take characters to get between different places. When writing dialogue for scenes in which characters conversed while walking, he knew precisely how long to make each conversation, so “the layout of my fictional world dictated the length of the dialogues.

Eco believed that the physical world a writer creates should dictate a great deal of the way they write. In particular, he believed in knowing what locations looked like “down to the last millimeter.” He went on to write:

To narrate something, you start as a sort of demiurge who creates a world—a world that must be as precise as possible, so that you can move around in it with total confidence.

…If you design every detail of a world, you know how to describe it in terms of space, since you have it before your eyes.

Having created an entire world, you will then have a clear sense of the kind of language to use within it. You will be influenced not only by the time and place but also by the history of your characters. You will know more about your world than will ever make it into the pages of your story. You will know what one character received for Christmas when she was ten, and all the years before and after. You will know exactly how long a certain pub has been in business and the color of the fabric on its barstools. You will know the bus routes and the frequency of buses at each stop and what the driver looks like on each one. You will know intimately the details of every part of the world that your characters inhabit.

The makeup of your world will also influence other factors, such as the overall structure of the writing. Certain worlds demand a certain pacing. You will find a cadence that suits your world. A world in which everyone is moving quickly can suggest sentences in which the words tumble over each other. Intense actions demand short, clear descriptions so a reader can easily imagine they are going through it all with the character.

The rhythm of the words you use to tell a story has a huge impact on the story you tell.

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Rule 4: Enforce constraints on your writing

Once you have your seminal image, you’ve crafted a world for your story to live in, and you’ve gathered the material necessary for inspiration, Eco proposes one more step for writing creative fiction. You need to place some constraints on your work. Counterintuitively, constraints lead to greater creativity and make it easier to come up with ideas.

Eco writes:

“In order to enable the story to proceed, the writer must impose some constraints. Constraints are fundamental to every artistic endeavor. A painter who decides to use oils rather than tempera, a canvas rather than a wall; a composer who opts for a given key; a poet who chooses to use rhyming couplets, or hendecasyllables rather than alexandrines—all establish a system of constraints. So too do avant-garde artists, who seem to avoid constraints; they simply construct others, which go unnoticed.”

For example, in Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco imposed a constraint on the book’s structure. He decided it needed to have one hundred and twenty chapters and be divided into ten parts. Naturally, this decision shaped the way he wrote the book. In his novels, Eco also often employed temporal constraints. He might decide a particular character needed to be in a particular city on a particular date in order to witness a real historical event, or that a plot required the existence of a particular piece of technology, meaning events needed to happen after its invention.

Some constraints will naturally occur as you build your world. But if you find yourself creatively blocked, adding more constraints (instead of removing them) can help the writing flow. Constraints are powerful because they cut down the number of options open to you, making it easier to know how to proceed.

To give an example: if you’re writing a story and need to decide on several locations for different events to happen, you could decide they all need to happen in real cities with names beginning with the letter “C.” This reduces the number of possible locations, meaning less deliberation over where to situate your story. Once you choose the cities, you’re then further constrained by the nature of the places themselves. If you decide that the first chapter will take place in Chicago and the second in Copenhagen, the differences between those two cities will naturally influence what can happen in those parts of the story.

You may decide to kill a character, or make a commitment to another one that they are going to live. You may create obstacles to limit the movement of your characters. You may set yourself a cap on your word count. There are many ways to introduce constraints once you have started to write.

Ultimately, constraints are necessary to tell a story. Stories themselves have built-in constraints called the beginning and the end. No work of fiction can be everything to everyone. All choices in storytelling introduce constraints, and employing them deliberately is a powerful tool for a writer.

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Eco’s advice in Confessions of a Young Novelist offers some excellent signposts for aspiring fiction writers. But remember: “In order to write a successful novel, one needs to keep certain recipes secret.

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:

Why You Should Practice Failure

We learn valuable lessons when we experience failure and setbacks. Most of us wait for those failures to happen to us, however, instead of seeking them out. But deliberately making mistakes can give us the knowledge we need to more easily overcome obstacles in the future.

We learn from our mistakes. When we screw up and fail, we learn how not to handle things. We learn what not to do.

Failing is a byproduct of trying to succeed. We do our research, make our plans, get the necessary ingredients, and try to put it all together. Often, things don’t go as we wish. If we’re smart, we reflect on what happened and make note of where we could do better next time.

But how many of us make deliberate mistakes? How often do we try to fail in order to learn from it?

If we want to avoid costly mistakes in the future when the stakes are high, then making some now might be excellent preparation.

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Practicing failure is a common practice for pilots. In 1932, at the dawn of the aviation age, Amelia Earhart described the value for all pilots of learning through deliberate mistakes. “The fundamental stunts taught to students are slips, stalls, and spins,” she says in her autobiography The Fun of It. “A knowledge of some stunts is judged necessary to good flying. Unless a pilot has actually recovered from a stall, has actually put his plane into a spin and brought it out, he cannot know accurately what those acts entail. He should be familiar enough with abnormal positions of his craft to recover without having to think how.

For a pilot, stunting is a skill attained through practice. You go up in a plane and, for example, you change the angle of the wings to deliberately stall the craft. You prepare beforehand by learning what a stall is, what the critical variables you have to pay attention to are, and how other pilots address stalls. You learn the optimal response. But then you go up in the air and actually apply your knowledge. What’s easy and obvious on the ground, when you’re under little pressure, isn’t guaranteed to come to you when your plane loses lift and function at 10,000 feet. Deliberately stalling your plane, making a conscientious mistake when you have prepared to deal with it, gives you the experience to react when a stall happens in a less controlled situation.

The first time your plane unexpectedly stops working in mid-flight is scary for any pilot. But those who have practiced in similar situations are far more likely to react appropriately. “An individual’s life on the ground or in the air may depend on a split second,” Earhart writes. “The slow response which results from seldom, if ever, having accomplished the combination of acts required in a given circumstance may be the deciding factor.” You don’t want the first stall to come at night in poor weather when you have your family in the cabin. Much better to practice stalling in a variety of situations ahead of time—that way, when one happens unexpectedly, your reactions can be guided by successful experience and not panic.

Earhart advises that in advance, the solution to many problems can be worked out on paper, “but only experience counts when there is no time to think a process through. The pilot who hasn’t stalled a plane is less likely to be able to judge correctly the time and space necessary for recovery than one who has.

If you practice failing every so often, you increase your flexibility and adaptability when life throws obstacles in your way. Of course, no amount of preparation will get you through all possible challenges, and Earhart’s own story is the best example of that. But making deliberate mistakes in order to learn from them is one way to give ourselves optionality when our metaphorical engine stops in midair.

If we don’t practice failing, we can only safely fly on sunny days.

“Jootsing”: The Key to Creativity

Creativity can seem like a mysterious process. But many of the most creative people understand that you can actually break it down into a simple formula, involving what researcher Douglas Hofstadter calls “jootsing.” Here’s how understanding systems can help us think more creatively.

“Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If in your bold creative way you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.” —G.K. Chesterton

We can break the creative process down into the following three steps:

  1. Gain a deep understanding of a particular system and its rules.
  2. Step outside of that system and look for something surprising that subverts its rules.
  3. Use what you find as the basis for making something new and creative.

It may not be simple to do, but it is reliable and repeatable.

In Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett describes this process of understanding a system in order to step outside of it as “jootsing,” using a term coined by Douglas Hofstadter. “Jootsing” means “jumping out of the system.”

Dennett explains that jootsing is the method behind creativity in science, philosophy, and the arts: “Creativity, that ardently sought but only rarely found virtue, often is a heretofore unimagined violation of the rules of the system from which it springs.” The rules within a system could be things like the idea that a painting must have a frame, a haiku must only have seventeen syllables, or a depiction of landscape must have a blue sky. But galleries hang paintings without frames all the time. Haiku without seventeen syllables win international contests. And landscape paintings don’t need to contain a sky, let alone a blue one.

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Creativity, as Dennett describes it, is not about pure novelty. The concept of jootsing shows us that constraints and restrictions are essential for creativity.

Breaking rules you don’t know exist is not a statement. It’s a common refrain that much of modern art could be the work of a five-year-old. Yet while a five-year-old could produce a random combination of elements that looks similar to a famous work of modern art, it would not be creative in the same way because the child would not be jootsing. They wouldn’t have an understanding of the system they now sought to subvert.

Limitations are essential because they give us a starting point and a shape to work against.

While amateurs may attempt to start from scratch when trying to make something creative in a new area, professionals know they must first get in touch with the existing territory. Before even contemplating their own work, they take the time to master the conventional ways of doing things, to know what the standards are, and to become well-versed in the types of work considered exemplary. Doing so can take years or even the best part of a career. Dennett summarizes: “It helps to know the tradition if you want to subvert it. That’s why so few dabblers or novices succeed in coming up with anything truly creative.”

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Understanding a system first is necessary for creativity for two reasons. First, it provides something comprehensible to use as a starting point, and second, it makes it possible to come up with something more interesting or useful. If you try to start a creative effort from nothing, you’ll end up with mere chaos.

Dennett writes: “Sit down at a piano and try to come up with a good new melody and you soon discover how hard it is. All the keys are available, in any combination you choose, but until you can find something to lean on, some style or genre or pattern to lay down and exploit a bit, or allude to, before you twist it, you will come up with nothing but noise.

Creativity often begins with accidents that end up showing a new possibility or reveal that violating a particular rule isn’t as harmful as expected. Elsewhere in the book, Dennett suggests that any computer model intended to generate creativity must include mistakes and randomness, “junk lying around that your creative process can bump into, noises that your creative process can’t help overhearing.

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Most of us say we want to be creative—and we want the people we work with and for to be creative. The concept of jootsing reveals why we often end up preventing that from happening. Creativity is impossible without in some way going against rules that exist for a good reason.

Psychologists Jacob Getzels and Phillip Jackson studied creativity in the 1950s. Their findings were repeated across many studies and described what was termed as the Getzels-Jackson effect: “The vast majority—98 percent—of teachers say creating is so important that it should be taught daily, but when tested, they nearly always favor less creative children over more creative children.”

Kevin Ashton, in How to Fly a Horse, explains why. Teachers favor less creative children “because people who are more creative also tend to be more playful, unconventional, and unpredictable, and all of this makes them harder to control. No matter how much we say we value creation, deep down, most of us value control more. And so we fear change and favor familiarity. Rejecting is a reflex.” Ashton notes that the Getzels-Jackson effect is also present in the organizations we are a part of in adulthood. When the same tests are applied to decision-makers and authority figures in business, science, and government, the results are the same: they all say they value creation, but it turns out they don’t value creators.

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If you want people to be creative, you can’t complain or punish them when they question a system that is “typically so entrenched that it is as invisible as the air you breathe,” as Dennett says. You need to permit a lot of exploration, including ideas that don’t work out. Not everything outside of a system proves worth pursuing. And often the rules that are most beneficial to break are those that seem the most load-bearing, as if meddling with them will cause the whole system to collapse. It might—or it might make it much better.

You also need to permit the making of mistakes if you want to foster creativity, because that often ends up leading to new discoveries. Dennett writes, “The exploitation of accidents is the key to creativity, whether what is being made is a new genome, a new behavior, or a new melody.” Most accidents never end up being profitable or valuable in a measurable way. But they’re necessary because they’re part of the process of developing something new. Accidents fuel creativity.

In the book Loonshots, Safi Bahcall explores, among other ideas, how to nurture and develop those seemingly crazy ideas that turn out to be paradigm-shifting innovations. He gives many examples of now ubiquitous technologies that were initially laughed at, rejected, or buried. He notes that it’s not easy to immediately buy in to radical developments, and if we want to have environments where creating is possible, then we have to give creativity space and understanding. “It’s worth keeping in mind,” he says, “that revving the creative engine to fire at higher speeds . . . means more ideas and more experiments, which also means, inevitably, more failed experiments.

As individuals, if we want to be creative, we need to give ourselves space to play and experiment without a set agenda. Amos Tversky famously said that the secret to doing good work is being a little unemployed so you always have hours in the day to waste as you wish. During that wasted time, you’ll likely have your best, most creative ideas.

If your schedule is crammed with only room for what’s productive in an obvious way, you’ll have a hard time seeing outside of the existing system.