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The Complete Guide to Deliberate Practice
We are capable of incredible feats, but they won’t come without focused effort, consistent feedback, and expert guidance.
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published his third nonfiction book, Outliers: The Story of Success. The book is perhaps best known for introducing the world to the concept of “10,000 hours to mastery”:
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
And a few paragraphs later:
Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.
These ideas took hold, inspiring everyone from Dan McLaughlin, who tried to put in 10,000 hours of golf training to play in the PGA Tour, to Tony Hsieh, who believes that great entrepreneurs are made from 10,000 hours of practice.
Today, Gladwell says that “no one is more surprised than me that [10,000 hours] was the average takeaway” and claims his emphasis on the number was meant to serve an “argumentative function” about the support and resources needed to reach the highest levels of performance.
The wildly overstated precision of the 10,000-hours concept took hold as the most well-known detail within the concept of “deliberate practice.” Despite Gladwell’s suspect level of precision, he did help popularize important findings on how people develop expertise and reach high levels of performance—findings that were uncovered by a number of psychology researchers, most prominently Anders Ericsson.
As a professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson has been studying ballerinas, doctors, violinists, teachers, and chess masters, among other kinds of experts, for three decades.
But his pioneering work began in memory. Ericsson coached several grad students who had no prior memorization experience to reach astounding levels of memory in just a few years. In 1979, his test subject, a cross-country runner named Steve Faloon, was able to memorize 82 digits in a row—a feat on par with world champion mnemonists at the time. Ericsson was fascinated by how Faloon got so good so quickly, and thus began a lifelong interest in studying practice and the development of expertise.
I am passionate about improving. As a former gymnast, I spent more than a decade training four hours a day, five days a week, in a grueling, difficult sport, finishing my career as a member of Stanford’s NCAA championship-winning team. I have studied and put into practice, sometimes inadvertently, many of the tenants of deliberate. [Editor’s note: Jason is also a YC founder and, in his spare time, set a world record for a particularly hard form of pushups.]
Based on my personal experience, careful reading of many papers and books (including Ericsson’s own Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, published in 2016), as well as a lengthy phone conversation with Ericsson, I am excited to share everything I’ve learned about practice and becoming a world-class performer.
Defining Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is a planned, effortful series of activities designed to improve skill in a particular domain and guided by well-informed feedback.
While that may seem like a simple, almost obvious definition, here are some points to keep in mind about what deliberate practice is not:
- Deliberate practice is not mindless repetition. If that were true, most Americans would be expert drivers and speakers, since many of us drive and speak every day.
- Deliberate practice is not sporadic. Because of its planned nature, deliberate practice typically involves building up layers and layers of skill and understanding over time. A haphazard approach to practice does not achieve this.
- Deliberate practice is not relaxing. Following a plan, responding to feedback, and pushing oneself is cognitively demanding and physically tiring. Most people can’t last more than few hours at a time.
Deliberate Practice with a Master Teacher
The video below is perhaps one of the best demonstrations of deliberate practice under the guidance of a master teacher. Benjamin Zander is the founder and 30-plus-year conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. At the PopTech! conference in 2008, he coached a strong 15-year-old cellist on a Bach bourrée:
Some takeaways from the video:
- Great coaches/teachers need to be experts themselves. Zander demonstrates this with his understanding of the piece. Though he is a conductor, Zander easily plays sections of the bourrée on both the piano and cello.
- Zander pays close attention to the student’s performance and provides a ton of immediate feedback, acknowledging improvements while noting mistakes.
- By introducing the “how fascinating!” concept, Zander prevents the student from shutting down when he makes a mistake while making sure the mistake was noticed and thus more likely to be corrected.
- Instead of musical jargon or vague concepts, Zander uses plain language, metaphors, and gestures to help the student understand the piece in a more intuitive way.
- To make sure the student isn’t mindlessly going through the corrections, Zander quizzes him on the right way to do things, forcing the student to think about what he’s performing.
- Zander tries to withhold heavy applause from the audience until the very end, when the student gets it right, and he allows all that good work to be rewarded and reinforced in the student’s brain.
At the end of the clip, the student has made vast strides in his performance. The results speak for themselves.
How Deliberate Practice Shapes the Brain
The fact that adults can improve dramatically in a skill through deliberate practice means that some kind of neurological change must be happening in the brain.
The key is in increasing the speed and fluidity of our neural impulses through a fatty white tissue called myelin. Brain scans of musicians via diffusion MRI find that the areas of the brain associated with finger motor skills and visual and audio processing, among others, have more myelin compared to nonmusicians, and the density of myelin was directly correlated with how many hours the musicians practiced over the years.
Relatedly, demyelination can occur with diseases like multiple sclerosis, which can lead to loss of dexterity, blurry vision, and general weakness and fatigue, which is what you’d expect when your neurons no longer fire properly.
Imagine we have a bunch of homes that are connected by telephone cables. Occasionally, people like to gossip — Nikhil calls Rachel, Rachel calls Marshall, Marshall calls Fei. Let’s say the telephone company notices certain patterns of activity in the network, like Rachel calling Marshall almost every night with some new scoop. The company then dispatches a worker to upgrade the ordinary cable between Rachel and Marshall’s house with a high-speed fiber-optic cable. Now these calls are accelerated and the messages go through much faster.
This is basically how the brain works. Two important cells (that are not themselves neurons) exist in the brain. One of these cells monitors neuron activity. When it senses a lot of repeated activity, it releases chemicals that induce the second cell to produce myelin, which then wraps around the neuron’s axon body (the “telephone cable”). Myelin acts like a fiber-optic cable, increasing the speed and strength of nerve impulses, which leads to better performance.
This is in part why getting feedback and making corrections during practice is so important. If we practice poorly and do not correct our mistakes, we will myelinate those axons, increasing the speed and strength of those signals — which does us no good.
Now that we’ve taken a deep dive into the brain mechanics behind deliberate practice, let’s take a step up and look at how deliberate practice creates expertise and superior performance.
How Deliberate Practice Creates Mental Representations
Ericsson defines an expert as someone who can consistently produce superior performance on a range of representative tasks in a given domain (chess, violin, programming). In other words, a master.
What do masters have that mediocre and even solidly good performers do not? A strong mental representation. A mental representation is like a really well-developed mental model of how the world should work.
- When soccer players and non-soccer players watch a clip of a soccer game, the players are much better at remembering where all the other players on the field were and predicting what would happen next.
- Great engineering managers often have a sense of what part of a system might be producing the bug, even if they’ve only skimmed through the codebase.
- My old gymnastics teammate and former U.S. national champion David Sender would sometimes get stuck on a learning a skill. He’d watch someone do it one time, and then immediately understand how to perform it himself.
As Ericsson says in Peak:
[Mental representations are] preexisting patterns of information — facts, images, rules relationships, and so on — that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations. The thing that all mental representations have in common is that they make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short term memory.
Mastery is what you can achieve after decades of deliberate practice, and mental representation is your secret weapon in your corner.
Mastery is a beautiful thing, and it is possible with deliberate practice. Magnus Carlsen, the reigning chess champion since 2013, has played simultaneous games against 10 other players without looking at the board. The U.S. Navy was able to achieve a 500 percent improvement in its air combat kill ratio after implementing the infamous “Top Gun” training program, because its pilots learned how to push their aircraft to the limit and survive. Colombian archer Sara Lopez set the world record in 2013 for the 15-arrow match—launching each of her arrows directly in the middle of a three-inch center ring on a target 150 feet away—because she intimately understands her bow and how her arrow release affects the arrow’s flight.
Let’s look at how we get there.
Putting Deliberate Practice into Practice
Choose Well-Defined Goals
When I reflect on my gymnastics training as a whole, I can hardly believe I went from being a clumsy and hyperactive six-year-old to a powerful, coordinated, and acrobatic elite athlete. But it’s because I was striving toward a goal every step of the way. I had a goal to learn how to do a single circle on the pommel horse. Then 10 circles in a row. Then circles while traveling across the horse. Then a whole routine. Then the whole routine with perfectly straight legs and pointed toes.
As you approach your deliberate practice, make sure you can measure your performance and constantly set small, specific, achievable goals for yourself. The Suzuki method of learning to play the violin is a perfect example: Each book builds on the last one, and each song in the book is a little harder than the one before it.
Get Frequent Feedback
A recent New York magazine profile revealed how comedian Aziz Ansari was able to nail the SNL opening monologue he performed on the day of Trump’s inauguration. Far from winging the performance, Ansari had done nearly 100 shows in the month leading up to his nine-minute sketch, getting valuable feedback from live audiences that helped him refine his jokes and delivery. From the article:
What no one saw, though, were the 100 stand-up sets Ansari had done, mostly at New York’s Comedy Cellar, over the course of a month to get ready for his nine minutes on air. He’d skipped the holidays at home and performed up to nine times in a night. According to [Chris] Rock, that’s what Ansari had to do to get out of his comfort zone.
Without feedback, you have no way of refining your practice and your abilities will plateau. For instance, if you’re trying to become a better cook, consider hosting a dinner party every week; ask your guests for honest, anonymous scoring of your dishes. Taking their comments into account, refine your approach for the following week.
Break It Down
As Ericsson says in Peak:
Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previous acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of the skills and working to improve them specifically.
While we often want to make improvements in a lot of areas at once, that’s not how deliberate practice works. Our brains struggle to multitask, and it’s much easier to respond to one specific piece of feedback than to try to change everything at once.
To improve your communication skills, you first have to break the concept into areas: writing skills, presentation skills, and conversational skills. Let’s say you want to focus on conversational skills. You can then further break that area into components like active listening, building on ideas, using humor, sharing stories. Now you can pick one of these components to focus on, like active listening, and set a goal of using active listening to summarize what someone is telling you for each of your one-to-one meetings this week. Once you’ve mastered that, you can layer in humor and so on.
Never Stop Pushing Yourself
Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his current abilities. Thus it to commands near maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
While scientists or musicians sometimes like to say they’ve never worked a day in their life, the fact is that practice is hard work. It is tiring and requires grit. If you’re only consuming information, you’re not doing deliberate practice, and you’re probably not improving very much.
Kobe Bryant’s legendary work ethic carried him throughout his long basketball career. For the 2008 Olympics, a sporting event that most NBA players don’t take very seriously, Kobe was in the gym at 5 a.m. doing strength conditioning and shooting until he made 800 baskets, just in time for the 11 a.m. team workout.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s important to rest, or your practice won’t sink in, but never forget that the only way to build skill is to go a little further than last time.
Get a Coach
I would argue that a couple of hours with a tennis coach is going to improve your backhand volley so much more than playing maybe even for several years with your friends. That attitude of actually pinpointing something and then figuring out, “What are the best conditions under which you would be able to improve it?” and then basically work under those conditions until you’ve actually changed it [is critical] and only then do you actually start using it and embedding it in the normal activity.
This can be a difficult ask for many people, because while we all understand the idea of coaches for sports and teachers for certain subjects, most professions do not have dedicated coaches. Not the kind who will work with you and offer one-to-one feedback and expert counsel to actually improve your training.
One way to get around this is to research the examples of the best people in your field and study them like they were your teachers. If you’re in advertising, look for the most powerful commercials you can find and deconstruct them. If you’re a programmer, review the code of highly respected open-source software repos. If you’re a writer, analyze the best articles from the New Yorker or Medium, or, as Benjamin Franklin did, try rewriting them in your own words and comparing the two essays.
But if you can find a real coach, either someone you hire or a good friend who’s really good at what they do and willing to be open with their comments and generous with their time, you can accelerate your learning and improvement through targeted coaching work. The right teacher is most definitely worth the money and time investment.
Of course, there’s more to deliberate practice than we could cover here, but I hope this article gave you both a high-level overview and concrete tactics that you can start using tomorrow. The bottom line is that we are capable of incredible feats, but they won’t come without focused effort, consistent feedback, and expert guidance.
I’ll wrap up with more from Ericsson in Peak:
One way to think about this as simply as a reflection of the fact that, to date, we have found no limitation to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice. As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor of constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop.