Screw You, Talent! Ave, Deliberate Practice!
An illustrated user guide for those wounded by this whole “you’ve got no talent” thing
When I was three, my great-grandmother taught me how to read. This turned me into some kind of a local genius, since, while all the kids I knew were building painfully imperfect towers out of wooden blocks, I, after spending hours with my gaze fixed on our local newspaper, was lecturing a group of octogenarians, my great-grandmother and her BFFs, that is, in the political situation in the world.
Now, I can see that it was an astute tactic my poor Nana had to turn to, since reading was the only thing that could prevent me, a born adventurer with ADHD, from all those hazardous activities I was naturally inclined to. Besides, the font size in the local newspaper was too small for her 80-year-old eyes, so my fantastic Babushka was kind of killing two birds with one huge boulder.
When I was four, my Babushka decided it was time for me to take piano lessons. It turned out she was right since I was really good at it. After only four months, I started torturing my neighbors’ eardrums with improvised home concerts. With delight and a hardly concealed air of superiority, I would begin my performance with the plain “Chopsticks,” followed by the melancholic “Moonlight Sonata” and romantic “Für Elise;” in the end, to top it all off, I would triumphantly play the “Flea Waltz” at full speed.
I guess I was regarded as a sensation in the neighborhood: everyone praised me and my talent. I basked in the glory, enjoying every moment of it. It was totally my jam.
When I was five, I found out that when Mozart was the same age, he performed much more elaborate pieces for Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, and the whole English royal family. Needless to say, that very moment I lost my musical mojo and decided I would never play the piano in my life again: there was no point for me in doing that. Why should I if someone had already done it much better and for a much more genteel audience? That’s when I got hit by this whole “talent” thing for the first time.
When I was six, I discovered the fabulous world of sci-fi books and comics, and I immediately lost any interest in the mundane things the ordinary world could offer me. I decided I was going to dedicate my life to writing and drawing sci-fi graphic novels “that would make people cry” (yes, cry!)
When I was seven, I finished my first “graphic novel” and, after gathering up all my courage, I approached my elementary school art teacher and asked what she thought about it. “Sweetie, can I be totally honest with you?” inquired the redheaded beauty whom I adored with all my seven-year-old heart. “Yes, Ma’am,” I responded modestly, while my heart was singing “Gloria!” since I knew what was coming next.
“You are so talented, I’ve already talked to my husband who works for the most important publishing house in the world and they want to meet you,” she told me. But only in my head. In real life, her verdict was very cruel, basically a life sentence for a tender damsel like me: “You should stop thinking about being an artist. Or a writer. You are a smart girl, but you’ve got no talent. But you could become a good accountant, though, I heard you are quite good at math, ain’t you?” That’s when I got hit by the “talent” thing for the second time. I solemnly promised myself there would never be the third time since I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to survive it.
Many moons later, when the job I was doing was safe, boring, and required zero talent, I heard of “deliberate practice,” and I got absolutely captivated. Just like I get captivated by every new concept or phenomenon which promises to turn me into the best version of myself.
But there was more to it. Much more. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, that wonderful human being who coined the term, clearly stated that talent didn’t matter anymore, since, when properly performed, the deliberate practice would turn a Salieri into a Mozart.
Oh mon Dieu, is this the panacea I’ve been searching for my whole life? Maybe that’s how I can finally get around that darn talent thing? Maybe this time I can hit the talent below its belt?
I devoured Dr. Ericsson’s book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise in two days. I filled the pages of my bullet journal with thoughts, insights, epiphanies, and quotes. I was ready to implement this promising concept into my everyday life. But when I asked myself what the difference between the deliberate and the ordinary practice was, I had no answer.
I mean, every practice is kind of deliberate, since no one in their right mind would unintentionally spend thousands of hours playing scales and arpeggios just because they sincerely and wholeheartedly enjoy such activities. Some greater cause must certainly be involved, like becoming an excellent musician. Or driving the neighbors crazy. Or both.
So, my question was: What was that special trick that would turn an ordinary practice into a deliberate one?
It turned out, the devil was in the smallest, almost imperceptible details. In trifles, I would say. Just a bunch of words (I called them “magic words”) changed everything and led to some fascinating results.
In order to have a simplified and easily digestible version of what deliberate practice means to me, I created some kind of an illustrated manual. The main character is my alter ego, an aspiring pâtissier who dreams of having her own pâtisserie somewhere in Le Marais.
Step 1: Get Extremely, Emotionally, Irrationally, Viscerally, “Limbicly” Motivated
Magic Words: emotionally, irrationally, viscerally, limbicly.
It’s extremely simple: your “Why” must be bigger than the sum of all the possible excuses. Your “Why” mustn’t be rational. It must be emotional. Visceral. It must go right to your limbic system and knock that smartypants brain of yours down. Like “I-wanna-make-a-million-dollar-to-save-as-many-homeless-pups-as-I-can” kind of visceral. Or “I-want-that-bully-who-tortured-me-in-seventh-grade-watch-me-play-the-first-concert-of-Chaykovskiy-at-our-alumni-reunion” kind of emotional. Or “I-wanna-make-my-own-french-pastries-out-of-healthy-ingredients-and-open-my-own-pâtisserie-and-have Keanu-Reeves-among-my-favorite-clients” kind of irrational.
Step 2: Set Very Simple, Realistic, and Detailed Micro-Goals. With Deadlines. But Your Main Goal Must Remain Big, Hairy, Audacious, and Almost Unrealistic
Magic words: simple, realistic, detailed.
That’s the trick: in order to keep being motivated, you must have that Big Hairy Audacious goal of yours in mind, but in order to stay calm and not get overwhelmed by your goal’s grandiosity, your daily micro-goals must be simple, realistic, and detailed.
If you ever tried to do the splits, you know what I am talking about. Each day, you just tried to spread your legs a little bit further away, just one extra inch. That extra inch was your simple and boring daily goal, but being able to do the splits in front of your BFF was that Big Hairy Audacious Goal of yours!
Having a good productivity system comes in handy at this stage. A combination of Adam Savage’s Lists system and Jerry Seinfield’s Don’t Break the Chain system is what really works for me: I just write an exorbitantly detailed checklist for every goal and make sure I don’t break the chain.
Step 3: Try Differently. Or, If You Can’t Enter Through the Door, Enter Through the Window.
Magic word: differently.
There’s always that thing that you are not that good at. Or, to put it bluntly, you really suck at. That’s where the real fun begins. So if you try, and then try again, harder this time. And then try even harder, for the 400th time, the only guaranteed result is a total burnout. Break out of your comfort zone, they say.
What they forget to say is that breaking out of your comfort zone isn’t about “trying harder.” It’s about “trying differently.” If you can’t enter through the door, try entering through the window. Or through the chimney, for that matter. Or, as Dr. Ericsson puts it, “the best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction.”
For my aspiring pâtissier alter ego, making meringue is the epitome of the utmost difficulty. Most of the time, the result is a deformed sticky sugary something. And a shattered ego. So you can either give up or try differently:
- First, you try different types of eggs, the trick is, they should not be fresh, the older the better. But no one knows how exactly old these eggs should be, so the only thing you can do is try eggs with different level of freshness and come up with your magic number;
- Then, you try different room (kitchen) temperature and humidity, since egg whites seem to be the ficklest substance you can ever deal with;
- Then, you play with the tempo: you need no rush when adding the sugar, but don’t be too sluggish either, it’s totally like dancing the perfect tango!
(And you don’t give up until you find that perfect combination for a perfect result, a crispy cloud that disappears as soon as it lands on your palate!)
Step 4: It’s All About Consistent, Brief but Intense Bursts of Effort. Period.
Magic words: brief, intense, consistent.
The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’” — Anders Ericsson, The Making of an Expert
You must come at it with the same determination Rocky Balboa came at those poor beef carcasses. It must be a full-blown unabashedly unapologetic nuclear explosion, not some shy indecisive flickering flame. You must go all in, and this “all in” must include everything: your head, your senses, your existing skills, and your not existing ones. (Or, if you are a fan of the Dirty Dancing movie, it must be no-one-puts-Baby-in-the-corner kind of intense, and not just I-carried-a-watermelon kind of intense.)
And the best (and the hardest) part is you’ve got to do it in quite a short span of time. This is some kind of “it’s now or never” situation, and it helps you get around that darn Parkinson’s law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
“In fact,” Ericsson says, “most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities, such as writing about new ideas.”
Step 5: Get Feedback. Even From Yourself. And Yes, Self-Feedback Is a Thing.
Magic word: self-feedback
Of course, getting feedback is one of the best ways to find out what really works and what doesn’t. And if you are lucky enough to have a wonderful coach who can lead you through the whole process, I really envy you. In a good way.
For introverts, however, seeking feedback or finding a coach may be a real torture. But there is some good news: we can self-coach ourselves! As Dr. Ericsson and his co-authors state in the article “The Making of an Expert”:
Benjamin Franklin provides one of the best examples of motivated self-coaching. When he wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he began to study his favorite articles from a popular British publication, the Spectator. Days after he’d read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults.
Of course, I was more than happy to follow the steps of Mr. Franklin and become my own coach! Besides, in my case, it is quite simple, since my palate never lies!
Step 6: Recover
Magic word: Netflitation.
The best part, right? But the thing is, it must be deliberate as well! Just as you went all-in with the thing you were practicing, now you’ve got to go all out and rest like a champ: it’s all about doing something totally different or not doing anything at all. According to Ericsson, top performers tend to find napping the most beneficial type of recovery!
As for my wanna-be pâtissier, since the result of her deliberate practice is not only palpable but also eatable, her recovery is a guided Netflitation (Netflix+Meditation) and a huge tray of French pastries!