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Deliberate Practice – How to Become a Master at Your Skill


I was first introduced to the idea of deliberate practice after reading the book, Grit, by Angela Duckworth. The concept, which seems obvious now, was actually a huge revelation for me. Simply practicing a task can obviously help you improve, but you will likely plateau and stop seeing gains unless you make the practice truly focused and challenging. As someone who was learning most things I was doing (languages, sports, piano) for the enjoyment of that activity, I was not doing deliberate practice and not challenging myself like I should have. This hindered me in becoming great at those things.

Let’s take a better look at exactly what deliberate practice is, and how we can utilize it to improve our ability of mastering different things.

What is Deliberate Practice?

“Deliberate practice” was first coined by a psychologist named K. Anders Ericsson. One of his most notable studies involves analyzing concert violinists, and determining what are the factors that separated the most elite violinists from the very good. What he and his colleagues discovered was that it all came down to the time spent practicing. He found that the very best violinists accumulated at least 10,000 hours of practice since childhood. This is what inspired Malcom Gladwell to write in his notable book, Outliers, where you states that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master something. Gladwell is now commonly referenced in the “10,000 hour rule”.

Ericsson thought Gladwell over simplified his findings, but the main point holds true: practice, not innate talent, is what separates the elite from the non-elite. Innate talent is of course important and helps, but not enough to make a master

Another important thing we need to clarify is that it is not just the quantity of practice that’s important. The quality of it is essential. This is where deliberate practice comes into play. So, what exactly is deliberate practice, right? The experts agree that deliberate practice differs from more regular forms of practice in the following ways:

  • Challenging – Practicing what we already do well can be pretty fun, especially if we are doing something we love, but to really improve at any skill, we need to make our practice outside of our comfort zone in some way. Try and work on a particular part of the process you are not as good at, or try to move quicker. These are ways you can make your practice challenging.
  • Consistency – This one is obvious, but for us to be able to compound the effect that practice has on us improving, we need to do it as often as possible. To truly master something, we probably need to do it daily.
  • Goals – Goals give us a roadmap to tell us if we are moving in the direction we want to be. How do you know if you are improving without some sort of goals? If you’re a swimmer, you likely have a time you want to reach for a certain stroke. Any skill or talent will be put to the test in some sort of way.
  • Feedback – I truly don’t believe there is anyone who has become a master at anything without some sort of mentor or coach. Ericsson says that feedback is essential for deliberate practice, and it is virtually impossible to do it without someone to give you constructive and sometimes even painful feedback to show where to improve. Even for professional athletes whose achievements have far exceeded their coaches, almost all of them still need a coach to engage them with this feedback. I imagine that we can give ourselves feedback, but to really make improvements and avoid our own blind spots, we would need a coach.
  • Focus – it is important that there is concentration when practicing. Very few experts, no matter if they athletes, musicians, or writers, are able to concentrate and do deliberate practice for more than 4-5 hours at a time. When deliberately practicing, we need to make sure we never enter a mindless state.

Why is Deliberate Practice Important?

Without utilizing deliberate practice, at some point our skills will plateau. Have you ever found yourself agitated that you were “practicing” something and just not getting better? I have been in this exact scenario countless times, but I realize now that I was falling into the space where I was doing easy practice that was somewhat enjoyable. Early on, when you have no experience you may see some quick gains, but your progress will likely plateau quick. That’s why deliberate practice is so important – it is the only path to greatness.

Deliberate Practice Success Story

If you ever have been to a stand-up comedy show, you have likely witnessed a comic make a crowded room crack-up with seemingly effortless flow and unique talent. If you are anything like me, you are in awe of the skill and innate ability to make people laugh that stand-up comedians possess. Even though, this art form seems so natural to some, it turns out it is anything but. They, more than most people, know go through the pain-staking practice and workshop sessions.

Jerry Seinfeld, probably the most successful comedian of all time (at least financially), and co-founder of the show Seinfeld, is famous for saying that comedians need to spend at least 3-4 hours of writing each day. This is deliberate practice of sitting in one spot with maximum focus, thinking about things that seem comedic about life. This sounds quite dull compared to the thrill of performing onstage.

Not only does this process already take a lot of effort, but then every successful comedian has to take their material to a room to work through their jokes. Some of the jokes land, and some of them don’t. This is where they get feedback on what will make a successful bit. As they work with some parts of a routine, they fine tune different jokes, until after a while they have a rock-solid set of jokes to keep an audience giggling for an evening.

No matter how successful of a comedian you see perform, all of them, including Jerry Seinfeld himself tells you that failing is common place. The work that goes into creating a great comedy set is never easy. It is challenging. Fun fact: the show Seinfeld, practically failed in its pilot showings and the supporting cast was labelled weak by “experts”. Now, if you ever have watched the show, you realize how ridiculous these thoughts were. Flash forward to today and Seinfeld is the most successful show ever made, and all those involved, including the supporting cast, have done more than well for themselves.

How to Execute Deliberate Practice In Your Life

Since learning about this practice, I have tried implementing deliberate practice in several ways throughout my own life. Here are some examples:

Golf

As I’ve been dedicated to improving my golf game, I had a similar routine every time I went to practice. I would go to the driving range, and hit an assortment of different clubs, ranging from a pitching wedge to my driver. It sounds like I I was working on plenty of different shots, but I was still leaving quite a few areas of my game in need of work. First off, if you know anything about golf, you know that putting, and short game are essential for being a good golfer. When I was finally ready to play a round of golf, I noticed the things I neglected in my game were lagging.

What I realized was that I was enjoying my practice. I was practicing what I was already best at. And even in that, I wasn’t pushing that part of my game forward. Instead of just hitting the ball for fun, there needed to be focus on trying to different things with my strokes. When I am at the driving range now, I try to challenge myself, by hitting a certain target, or by changing the distances I want to hit, or even to try and be close to a certain target in a consecutive number of ways. Also, I want to pay attention to every shot I hit, observing what it feels like when I hit a good shot vs. a bad shot, and to increase overall body awareness/focus.

The lessons I learned in practicing my golf were that I had to practice the weaker parts of my game more, and challenge myself to accomplish things that pushed my skills farther. The next steps are to get a coach for feedback and analysis, but you know that can be expensive, so in the meantime I will continue to challenge myself as much as I can on my own. It could be helpful to use my peers who are on my level to offer feedback as well, but in this case I have to ensure the feedback I am getting is useful.

Piano

Another great example – I started tinkering around on the piano about a year ago. I’m obviously no Mozart, but when I sit down to play, I enjoy reading some music and making songs I love come to life on my own. Well, I noticed my progress slowed down once again. When I went to practice, I wanted to play songs I already knew how to, and sounded good. There is nothing more frustrating than hearing yourself flow along, and then all of a sudden you hit the wrong note, and it just kills the vibe. Well the only way to get better is to butt up against the point where you are exceeding your current limits, and making mistakes. As you get experience on the other side of your limits, you will be able to read and process sheet music faster, and the coordination in your hands will follow.


That’s it! Let me know if you have used deliberate practice in your own ways or how you have adapted it to your learning process.

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