Deliberate practice is a method for improving your performance at anything, based on constant feedback and working at the edge of your abilities. Elite people in every field use it to build up their expertise. Let’s take a look at exactly what deliberate practice is, how to do it, and why it works.
You’ve probably been doing your job for a while. If you’re like most people, your performance has plateaued. Simply put, you’ve stopped getting better at what you do. This is because you don’t use deliberate practice to your advantage.
Despite repetition, most people fail to become experts at what they do. It doesn’t matter how many years they spend they stop getting better.
Experience does not equate to expertise.
In Geoff Colvin’s book Talent Is Overrated he writes:
In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience.
Society has always recognized extraordinary individuals whose performance is truly superior. If I were to ask you why some people excel and others don’t, you’d probably say talent and effort. These responses are misleading.
Conveniently, claiming that talent is the basis for success means we can absolve ourselves of our own performance (or, as the case may be, lack thereof). The talent argument, despite its popularity, is wrong. Yet research tells a very different story on how people become experts (for a more detailed argument read Talent Is Overrated, the source of most of the quotes in this article).
Research concludes that we need deliberate practice to improve performance. Unfortunately, deliberate practice isn’t something that most of us understand, let alone engage in on a daily basis. This helps explain why we can work at something for decades without really improving our performance.
Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.
Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.
When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.
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.
Let’s take a look at each of those to better understand what’s meant.
Designed to Improve Performance
The word designed is key. While enjoyable, practice lacking design is play and doesn’t offer improvement.
“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 it’s more than just the teachers’ knowledge that helps — it’s their ability to see you in ways you can’t see yourself.
“A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”
In theory, with the right motivations and some expertise, you can design a practice yourself. It’s likely, however, that you wouldn’t know where to start or how to structure activities.
Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. *
Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.
With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.
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 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 reach.
Consider a chess tournament:
Skill improvement is likely to be minimized when facing substantially inferior opponents, because such opponents will not challenge one to exert maximal or even near-maximal effort when making tactical decisions, and problems or weaknesses in one’s play are unlikely to be exploited. At the same time, the opportunity for learning is also attenuated during matches against much strong opponents, because no amount of effort or concentration is likely to result in a positive outcome.*
Repetition inside the comfort zone does not equal practice. Deliberate practice requires that you should be operating in the learning zone and you should be repeating the activity a lot with feedback.
Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. *
It’s no coincidence that Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would literally practice hitting until his hands bled.
Feedback on results is continuously available
Practicing something without knowing whether you are getting better is pointless. Yet that is what most of us do everyday without thinking.
“You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.”
Feedback gets a little tricky when someone must subjectively interpret the results. While you don’t need a coach, this can be an area they add value.
“These are the situations in which a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”
Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.
“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.”
Ben Franklin, an interesting example
Ben Franklin intuitively grasped the concept of deliberate practice. As a teenager Ben received a letter from his father saying his writing was inferior: “in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances,” as Franklin recalled.
“Ben responded to his father’s observations in several ways. First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.
It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …
Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”
Even without a teacher, Ben Franklin grasped deliberate practice.
The Role of Solitude
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes:
Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”
Still curious? Learn more about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated and this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.