How to Harness the Power of Deep Practice to Master Any Discipline
I practice guitar twice a day, six times a week. Several times a month, well-intentioned friends and mentors ask me to quit.
Because I don’t like playing guitar.
They insist, “Eliminate what doesn’t serve you.” They appeal to my intense sense of responsibility to my business and suggest, “As an entrepreneur, you should dedicate your time to building your business, and whatever time you have left, to what you love.”
Yet I can’t think of any practice in my life that serves me better, strengthens my entrepreneurial skills as tangibly, or amplifies my ability to do what I love more than practicing my guitar.
I’ve been playing for four years, but in the last year, my rate of improvement has accelerated. This is a credit to my new practice schedule, but more importantly, to the way I practice.
By implementing what Daniel Coyle terms “deep practice,” I’m literally boosting the stores of the material in my brain that neurologists attribute to genius, heightening my abilities to learn and think with just 35 minutes of activity a day.
While I’m certainly no genius — especially at guitar — I’m not alone in my commitment to deep practice. Chances are, the artists, innovators, scientists, musicians, athletes, and leaders you most admire achieve mastery through this unique form.
What is Deep Practice?
What do a famed American composer, an intrepid Buddhist nun, and a contemporary blues folk singer have in common?
In the early 90s, Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson linked the concept of “deliberate practice,” a mode of practicing that involved improving technique, soliciting a steady stream of critical feedback, and perfecting weaknesses, to improved performance and mastery.
Since then, a host of writers, researchers, and psychologists have expanded on this idea by studying elite performers across disciplines.
Among this group is Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent, who takes the idea of deliberate practice and layers in recent findings in neuroscience along with research on talent hotbeds — areas that produce many elite performers.
The result is a theory of “deep practice,” which involves practicing by struggling in targeted ways. As Coyle writes in The Talent Code, “operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes — makes you smarter.”
Why does making mistakes make your smarter?
The answer is neurological. Myelin is a neural substance that wraps around and insulates the fibers of your nerve cells like beads on a string, improving the speed and accuracy with which bio-electrical signals (in other words, thoughts) travel through the brain.
Speed and accuracy of thought, as well as extensive myelination of the brain, are both hallmarks of genius.
This is good news for anyone aspiring to genius, because unlike the size of your head or your neuron count, the amount of myelin in your brain is not fixed by adulthood. You grow myelin by struggling and pushing beyond your comfort zone.
Take contemporary blues folk musician Ray LaMontagne.
For two years, Ray LaMontagne locked himself in his apartment with Otis Redding and Ray Charles records and practiced imitating them until he had developed his voice. By deconstructing their work, listening to his own voice — which he described as terrible — and listening deeply enough to lengthen his vowels, enhance his rasp, and emote convincingly, he became a Grammy award-winning musician.
On the other side of the world, legendary Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo honed her meditation prowess and spiritual abilities by retreating into a cave in the Himalayas for twelve years, three of which she spent in complete silence and isolation.
Palmo followed a strict routine in the cave, meditating for three hour blocks during the day, and staying seated in her meditation box during the evening, meditating instead of sleeping. When she emerged, she had achieved a level of practice and proximity to enlightenment that no known woman had before.
And then there’s 20th century composer Morton Feldman, famous for pioneering indeterminate music.
Feldman composed his work by writing for a short period of time, stopping, and then copying out what he had written. The process surfaced new changes, additions, and ideas that improved the overall work, which paved the way for the rise of experimental New York composers.
But deep practice does not exist in a vacuum. As Daniel Coyle explains of deep practice, two other elements are necessary: ignition and master coaching.
Ignition is essentially passion and persistence. It’s a phenomenon that often occurs in a flash, motivating someone to pursue longer practices in service of interest and determination.
Ignition comes from many sources.
The desire to belong can spark ignition, particularly wanting to be part of a specific group, team or class. This might sound more like, “I want to be a soccer player for FC Barcelona” than “I want to play soccer.”
Similarly, seeing someone else achieve success may spark ignition, especially if that person doesn’t seem that differently equipped (e.g. there was a boom in Russian female tennis players after Anna Kournikova — generally considered mediocre — started taking home international titles).
Finally, a genuine interest in an area can trigger ignition. An obsession with genetic engineering that might trigger hours and hours of study and practice in a lab that leads to mastery of open source science.
Deep practice cannot exist without ignition. The inner spark of motivation cuts through an often painful and challenging process to engender continued commitment.
My first foray into guitar playing came during a phase of intense obsession with Appalachian clans, followed by a chance encounter with a well-known banjo player at a festival I helped organize. In our conversation, I decided then and there to pick up banjo, but after struggling to find group classes, switched to guitar.
At that point, guitar didn’t stick. After about a year of playing in an ensemble, I took a six-month hiatus.
A closer look at what sparks ignition explains why my initial attempt at mastering guitar failed. I didn’t imagine myself as a guitar player, see others who motivated me to push myself further, or experience a deep interest in the instrument itself.
Yet, after my six-month break from guitar, I resolved to try again. This time, I was not motivated by a topical obsession and a random meeting with a banjo player. Instead, I visualized myself playing better than before after watching my husband improve his own skills with regular practice. I believed I could do the same.
But that moment of ignition likely wouldn’t have been enough to keep me going if I hadn’t found a master coach.
Identifying a Master Coach
Coaches are a unique type of person, but are often confused with mentors because both help to guide our lives.
However, as Adam Fisher explained in Tribe of Mentors, coaches “focus on you first. Mentors rightly focus on themselves first and you second…a good coach builds regimens designed to make you better [versus simply] providing advice, as a mentor would.”
Coaches care about the performance of those they coach — their lived experiences, skills, blind spots, and more. Master coaches truly understand those they coach and design practices, exercises, feedback, and actions individually tailored to them.
In many ways, the master coach is like the Buddhist guru.
As Vicki McKenzie writes in Cave in the Snow:
“The guru was the guide who, knowing his disciple’s mind more intimately than anyone else, could steer her course and tailor-make her path to ensure maximum progress towards Enlightenment in her lifetime.”
Master coaches are essential to deep practice.
They can be the catalysts behind ignition. By setting high expectations for those they coach, they can draw out harder work and better performances. With praise and love, they can trigger the loyalty, devotion, and sense of belonging students need to continue practicing. Or as living examples of mastery, they can represent what’s possible.
When I first started working with my master guitar instructor two and a half years ago, my playing started to change. I wanted to practice every day. I would come home from a work event at 10:00 pm without having eaten and still pick up my guitar and go through my music. There’s even a video of me on Instagram practicing after a party, working off a buzz to the tune of a Tchaikovsky funeral march.
But remember, I didn’t enjoy practicing.
What did my instructor do that motivated me to make these choices?
For one, he warmed up before lessons with the pieces he was working on, which happened to be jaw-droppingly complex and beautiful. These warm-ups signaled to me that with enough practice, I could be at that level, too.
In fact, he affirmed that was exactly the case.
At one point, I shared with him that I had been previously told I “didn’t have the ear,” and therefore would never be great. He dismissed the comment, emphasizing that the ear comes from practice and that he personally wasn’t good at music for many years himself. Knowing that he wasn’t always talented but had gotten to professional levels — he was a musician by trade, teaching on the side — made me believe I could do the same.
Master coaches also refine deep practice. By truly understanding those they coach, they craft the exact conditions for learning to take place.
As Daniel Coyle demonstrates repeatedly throughout The Talent Code, the best coaches don’t provide an abundance of negative or positive feedback, but supply information-heavy feedback that helps correct, modify, and sharpen.
For example, legendary basketball coach John Wooden rarely gave negative or positive praise, but instead was constantly offering adjustments and statements like, “do this,” “try that,” “more of X,” or “less of Y.”
Yet, depending on the player, Wooden might provide more positive or negative feedback, provided it incited the desired action in the player. His neutrality wasn’t evenly dispersed because it wasn’t evenly required.
A coach is not someone who beats you down to build you back up, or acts like a close friend. A coach focuses on delivering information customized to your needs, whether that means being supportive or being tough.
Implementing Deep Practice
Deep practice is built on attention to fundamentals, breaking activities down into their smallest actions, consistent and intensive periods of study, and breaks for rest and recovery.
When I practice guitar, I divide practice into two sessions: one in the morning and one in the evening. I focus on the technical elements of my practice for my first 20-minute session, and the more artistic, interpretive elements for my second. I developed this pattern after reading research in When by Daniel Pink that showed people are most analytical in the morning and most creative in the evening.
I also isolate areas instead of playing through the song. I may play the same two bars for the entire session, carefully paying attention to each repetition for the correct finger placement, stroke duration, connection between notes, tone, and any other elements necessary for perfect execution.
This is simply my personal mode of deep practice, and may change over time with my abilities.
To cultivate your own deep practice regimen, focus on the following:
1. Ask who you want to become and then watch them perform.
Who do you admire and why? If it’s a tennis player you can model yourself after, then start watching YouTube videos of her games. Or, if it’s a high school friend who landed on SNL, watch his sketches. The secret is to watch a master perform for fifteen minutes a day. This is actually linked to enhanced performance, even if you don’t change anything about your practice. Humans are natural-born and unconscious imitators.
2. Identify someone in your orbit who has achieved success.
Ignition often begins with the question, “If they can do it, why not me?” Look at those who are within reach who have achieved success. Often identifying someone with a shared identity, or frankly, who isn’t that remarkable, is enough to motivate deep practice.
3. Find a coach that embodies both meanings of the word.
Coaches are not just people with the skills you want to acquire; they are also strong, solid, and trustworthy enough to take you to your end goal. You know, like a four-wheeled carriage, also known as a coach.
4. Embrace breakdowns.
Or more accurately, breaking things down. Start with the big picture, break it down into its simplest elements. Start working towards the big picture by putting the simplest elements together, one-by-one.
5. Forget the big improvement and focus on the small.
As John Wooden put it, “Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.” In other words, what are the smallest steps you can take towards improving? Maybe it’s not the big bad bar chord, but a little more finger independence.
6. Keep asking this one question.
“If I pushed as hard as I possibly could, what could I almost do?” The answer is where you need to direct your deep practice. Eventually, you’ll be able to reach that goal.
7. Love the plateau.
While the practice should involve increments, your progress won’t. It’s likely you’ll go through stretches of incredible learning, followed by a whole lot of nothing. As long as you are stretching towards the edges of your abilities, you’re building the stores of talent you need to reach them. Remember, more struggle, more myelin.
8. Be Bruce Lee’s nightmare.
Bruce Lee famously said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.” Repetition is your greatest teacher.
In the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, which follows the fictional New York Symphony Orchestra, aspiring oboist Hailey Rutledge enrolls in private lessons to strengthen her abilities.
Used to practicing five hours a day and playing in concerts and competitions, she balks at being presented with a beginner’s book of music for children as her primary tool for lessons. Yet, it’s this attention to the fundamentals that ultimately elevates her playing to new heights.
This jibes with how Tenzin Palmo analogizes her own commitment to basic meditation techniques in Cave in the Snow:
“Although a concert pianist is very skilled at playing, still his difficulties are there. They may be at a higher level and not apparent to other people, but he sees his own problems.”
Deep practice reminds us that mastery comes from sustained practice and close attention. Being better means seeing errors no one else can, and feeling enough devotion to the craft to iron them out anyway. Learning and development are a continuous process, not a closed goal.
For me, that’s why I need to practice guitar twice every day. Yes, I am heightening my abilities in that particular discipline.
I am also learning how to learn, cultivating patience, and reminding myself that no matter how good I may be in another area of my life, I can always be better.