In the last several years something called deliberate practice has gotten a lot of press. The 10,000 hour rule and the ten year rule have become part of our lexicon. Here is a link to a video by Malcolm Gladwell on genius that is related but not exactly the same thing being described in this article. I’m including it because I thought it was very interesting. You might have to be a nerd to enjoy it.
To me this is all a good news / bad news / good news story. The good news is that with enough deliberate practice, anyone of normal ability may be able to become world-class in their chosen field. The bad news is that it takes 10,000 hours or more of the right kind of practice. The good news is that with the right kind of practice you can start improving right away. You don’t have to wait to become world-class to see the benefits.
My favorite source for all this is a book by Geoff Colvin: Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. It’s a practical book that gives you a method for implementing deliberate practice. I thoroughly enjoyed and gained insight from this book.
Talent is Overrated
I do agree that talent is overrated. The evidence is clear on that. But some people, including Geoff Colvin, go so far as saying it is irrelevant. I don’t think so. OK, Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team. Michael Jordon worked harder than everyone else and was the last person to leave the practice court, even as a pro. Maybe that is what separated him other basketball players with natural talent, but seriously does anyone believe that if Michael Moore practiced basketball for 10,000 or even 1,000,000 hours he would be another Michael Jordon? Clearly Michael Jordon was born with some natural athletic ability that most of us don’t have.
It has been pointed out that some chess grandmasters have below average IQ’s. I find this very difficult to believe, but I will accept it has been confirmed. Thus talent is overrated in chess players. However, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the greatest chess player of all time, Gary Kasparov, has a measured IQ of 190. That puts him in the 99.999999 percentile. He is not even one in a million, he is one in a hundred million. Bobby Fischer’s IQ was 185. Those are cream of the crop geniuses. Yes, they still had to practice deliberately to develop their skills, but they clearly had natural talents that most of us don’t. They started way ahead of me.
So What Should You Do?
I think the concepts of deliberate practice can be put to good practical use by everyone and that benefits can be derived without 10,000 hours of practice. You don’t one day go from average to world-class. You become better, then good, then exceptional, and maybe then great. Not surprisingly, if you want to separate yourself from the crowd, you are going to have to work hard.
The Elements of Deliberate Practice
“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 a sports; and it isn’t much fun.” — Geoff Colvin
It is designed specifically to improve performance
The key point is designed. Just repeating what you do over and over is not going to cut it. Deliberate practice is designed to develop. Deliberate practice stretches you beyond your current abilities. You are out of your comfort zone and away from you already do so well. Colvin insists you will probably need a teacher or coach in the early going.
It can be repeated a lot
This doesn’t require a lot of explanation. You have to practice in your stretch zone (described above) a lot. If you want to be a great writer, you have to write a lot. If you want to be a great violin player, you have to practice several hours a day. This is where the hard and not-so-much fun work comes into the picture.
Feedback on results is continuously available
The bottom line is that you have to see the results of what you are doing or it won’t matter. Some activities like sports have fairly objective feedback on results. Other areas like business or the arts might need some interpretation. This is where a coach or teacher can be invaluable.
It’s highly demanding mentally
Deliberate practice requires intense focus and concentration. It is mentally exhausting and thus you can’t do it for more than an hour or two without a break. If you are mindlessly practicing some repetitive motion or mental activity, you are not practicing deliberately.
It’s usually not fun
There is nothing inherently enjoyable in deliberate practice. This is what prevents most people from engaging in it for very long. I think there may be some activities that you can do as deliberate practice and still enjoy it. Writing may be one of those activities, but the mental exertion required to do it right and the repetitive nature of the practice sessions almost guarantee it is not going to be the most enjoyable thing you do in your day.
I hope this article stimulated your interest in the subject. Like all aspects of human psychology, behavior, and performance I personally find it fascinating. If you really want to be great at something, the evidence clearly shows you will have to put in your time. If you are interested you should pursue the many available resources:
The article that started it all:
Geoff Colvin’s article:
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
What do you think? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
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