The Effective Way to Practice New Skills

Deliberate practice is the secret to becoming a master at anything.

Let’s look at how skills are learned. Many of these insights come from K. Anders Ericsson’s groundbreaking work in studying top experts and how they have become the best in their fields.

Learn skills, not knowledge

I’ve previously written about why it makes sense to learn new skills, not just knowledge:

Ericsson puts it very nicely:

“You pick up the necessary knowledge to develop the skills; knowledge should never be an end in itself.” — Ericsson (Peak, p.250)

His position is very clear. Experts do not learn new knowledge. They attempt to become better at what they do, and while developing these skills, they will need to also learn new knowledge, as it becomes necessary. Having a good teacher or a good path to follow help the learner anticipate when new knowledge is needed, before lack of it becomes a hindrance.

There’s no inborn talent

This should be obvious: No-one is born talented at anything.

We need to practice and learn everything, starting from breathing, seeing, moving, all the way to being able to assemble fusion reactors. Ericsson has studied human prodigies extensively and has always found that all amazing experts have practiced their skills all their lives. Even savants (autistic people with miraculous-seeming skills) have in fact obsessively spent most of their waking hours on that one thing, thus becoming experts in that one thing.

Expert performance in any field looks deceptively easy: be it gymnastics, writing, playing an instrument, or anything else. Since we realize that those easy seeming tasks are way beyond our current capabilities, they take on a magical nature:

“With everything perfect, we do not ask how it came to be. Instead, we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.” — Nietzsche

But in fact, if we had pursued those same skills all our lives, we could be there, giving that expert performance. Barring some severe handicaps, no inborn quality limits what we could achieve, if we really put in the effort.

Inborn talent is a very powerful myth, so it bears repeating: No-one has ever become talented at anything without first being a novice, and developing their skills over time, often to the exclusion of many other pursuits.

It’s easy to believe in talent. In her book Grit, Angela Duckworth’s main message is that passion and perseverance are the key to great achievements, while many naturally talented people may never amount to anything.[2] See what just happened? In a book whose main message is about working towards success, the author uses the mythical concept of “natural talent”. Ericsson, in turn, completely obliterates the concept of natural talent and shows that all talent is a result of hard work and practice.

There’s no 10,000 hour rule

You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. It’s a partial misunderstanding of Ericsson’s work. He had found that in one case, violin students had spent an average of around 8,000–10,000 hours into practicing their craft. That number is not exact and may vary from one field to another, but the point is that experts practice a lot.

And the other point that Ericsson makes is that the quality of practice matters. It’s not enough to spend 10,000 hours on an instrument, mindlessly repeating whatever, but what you need is actually purposeful practice, for thousands of hours. What’s purposeful practice, you ask? Read on…

Purposeful practice

To become an expert, you need a lot of purposeful practice. Routine or relaxed playing around or repetition will not be of use. Here are the main aspects of purposeful practice, as Ericsson describes them.

You need a suitable challenge that brings you out of your comfort zone. If the challenge is too low, the practice is just routine for you, and while you may gain slight improvements in routine performance, you will not really advance.

You need to be focused. If you’re not paying attention to your performance, your practice is mostly wasted. In other words, you can practice in a single session only for as long as you can stay focused.

You need to have goals. A large goal, but also small intermediate goals that can be reached relatively quickly, in a few practice sessions. So you need to have a plan for reaching those larger goals through several intermittent goals.

You also need to monitor your progress. This means all your goals need to be measurable, so you know how you’re progressing towards them.

Finally, you need to keep practicing, so you need to be motivated. We’ve discussed motivation in a previous article. Achieving high levels of motivation and flow state will also increase your ability to sustain focus and increase your practice time.

But you can go even beyond purposeful practice. In the following diagram, purposeful practice can happen in the flow zone. Even larger gains can be had when you engage in deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is an extension of purposeful practice, described above. In addition, there are two requirements:

  1. The field of study must be reasonably well established. There should already be experts and there is understanding on effective training practices and learning paths to becoming an expert.
  2. You need a teacher or mentor or coach that will give you personalized guidance to improve your skills.

In other words, with the help of an expert and their understanding of how to reach expertise, you will practice at an even higher challenge level. Vygotsky would call this the zone of proximal development, which the learner cannot reach without external help. The teacher will make it possible for (and require) you to train at a near-maximal performance, which is going to be hard work.

All of the features of purposeful practice are still present, but modified by the availability of a teacher. The teacher will help in establishing goals, plans, and progress monitoring. They will modify the challenge level to vary between maximal ZPD and individual flow zone. They will provide feedback and teach the learner to monitor their own progress and spot mistakes. They will ensure that the initial skills learned are amenable to develop into expert skills.

And finally, the teacher will ensure the learner develops proper mental representations.

Developing mental representations

What should all those hours of purposeful and deliberate practice accomplish? Depending on the field they may of course develop physical strength or stamina, manual dexterity, willpower, intermediate-term memory, and so on: various skills and capabilities. But, according to Ericsson, there’s one common outcome of all physical and mental practice: development of mental representations[1].

“…mental representations can be used to plan a wide variety of areas, and the better the representation, the more effective the planning.” — Anders Ericsson (Peak, p. 72)

Ericsson argues that the quality of mental representations in a field is what differentiates experts from novices. This applies to rock climbing, surgery, playing musical instruments, sports, research, writing, sales, anything.

Mental representations allow us to plan and visualize a process, which will help us in performing it. They also allow us to foresee and expect any problems or surprises, and plan responses to them.

It’s important to note that you cannot create mental representations by just studying a topic. You will need to act. Try something, or create something, get feedback on your attempt, and retrying over and over again to get better outcomes and learning the various ways in which one can fail. In effect, practicing is the way to develop mental representations, and mental representations are what is needed for expert performance in any field.

On a side note, research into neuropsychology and memory has shown that while our working memory can only hold 4–6 items or chunks active simultaneously, those chunks can become quite complex as our expertise in a topic increases. I would claim that mental representations, as Ericsson describes them, manifest in the brain as increasingly complex chunks being manipulated in the working memory.

Summary

To really become proficient at something, you need to have goals and a way to measure your progress. Always focus when practicing, so start with short practice sessions and only extend them when you can keep up your focus. Get a private teacher if possible. And of course, you’ll need to be motivated to keep up the demanding work of purposeful and deliberate practice.

Needless to say, just looking at text or videos and then answering a quiz will never create expert skills. Unfortunately most e-learning solutions out there are mostly about drilling and quizzing. LifeLearn’s goal is to connect learners with expert teachers and mentors, in communities of like-minded people.

References

1. Ericsson, K. A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak : Secrets from the new science of expertise. Bodley Head.

2. Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit : the power of passion and perseverance. Vermilion.

About the Author

Tarmo Toikkanen is Chief Science Officer at LifeLearn Platform. He has over a decade of research experience in the fields of learning environments, participatory design, and educational psychology. His passion is to save the world by helping people learn and teach in better ways. This article is part of a series to explain LifeLearn Platform’s ideas on learning.