In Part 1 of our series on deliberate practice, explore the science behind why some people are really good at what they do.
10,000 hours is a long time. You’ve probably heard this number described as the amount of time needed to achieve “greatness” in a given skill or area of expertise.
It comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s popular 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, where he cites 10,000 hours as the “magic number” of practice time required to achieve true mastery in a given domain. He gives examples of people like Bill Gates and the Beatles, who spent large amounts of time honing their craft before achieving the great successes we know them for.
Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, whose research Gladwell used to devise his 10,000-hour rule, isn’t convinced. He called Gladwell’s interpretation “a popularised but simplistic view of our work … which suggests that anyone who has accumulated sufficient number of hours of practice in a given domain will automatically become an expert and a champion.”
Ericsson is a psychologist who has pioneered the study of expert performance — the science behind why some people are really good at what they do. He argues that the problem with Gladwell’s analysis is that he focused on the quantity of practice time rather than the quality. Practice is indeed an important stepping stone toward expertise, but not just any kind of practice will do.
Deliberate practice: the secret of high achievers
“In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way.” — Anders Ericsson
Pick any field or area of skill and look through its history, and you’ll find that top performers seem to be getting more and more talented.
Gymnast Simone Biles, winner of the individual all-around competition in the 2016 Summer Olympics, developed a gravity-defying flip dubbed “The Biles,” a mid-air move whose physics are near impossible. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, considered by the best violinists of his day to be too difficult to play, is now standard fare (even a nine-year-old can learn it). The world record set at the 1908 Olympic marathon would barely qualify for entrance into the Boston Marathon today.
It’s not that we’ve had a steady upswing of births of people with a gift for gymnastics or music or running in the last several decades. So something else must be at play. Why have standards of excellence risen so sharply?
Some psychologists and researchers would argue that we’ve learned how to learn — we’ve emphasized focused practice, developed more sophisticated training techniques, and gained a better understanding of how the human brain and body work.
Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is one of those people. He coined the term “deliberate practice” to describe the type of focused, consistent, goal-oriented training that exceptionally talented people across many different fields (whom researchers term “expert performers”) engage in to improve their skills.
He has also identified certain habits and features of this technique that anyone could potentially use to more effectively pick up or improve a skill. One of the most striking characteristics of deliberate practice is the brief (but intense) amount of time that many experts spend learning or practicing their skills.
Why practice trumps talent: introducing the 5-hour rule
In his groundbreaking research in the field of expert performance, Ericsson debunked the common assumption that exceptionally talented people are “born that way.” He argues that genetics play a much smaller role in the development of talent and expertise than previously thought, claiming that “with the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.”
For example, consider Mozart, a figure almost anyone would label a musical genius. Ericsson has a different perspective:
“If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart [could] play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average.”
He suggests that Mozart achieved greatness not necessarily due to any innate ability, or at least not innate ability alone, but rather because he started young and practiced long and hard. In other words, talent is overrated.
In his research paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” published in the journal Psychological Review, Ericsson looked at the habits of top performers in fields like sports, music, mathematics, and chess, and noticed an interesting pattern: They engage in focused, intense practice sessions, but usually only for an hour or two at a time.
Even though they may not have had a name for it, smart, successful people have been practicing a similar habit for centuries. In an informal study of the daily routines of highly accomplished people, past and present, Michael Simmons (author, entrepreneur, and co-founder of Empact) discovered a common denominator that ties in with Ericsson’s research: at least one hour each weekday spent reading, learning, or practicing a skill with intense focus.
There’s Benjamin Franklin, who kept a strict daily schedule to maximize his productivity and set aside time for focused learning and reflection—including an hour a day for reading, plus time in the morning and before bedtime to consider his goals and track his progress.
It clearly must have worked for him. Franklin was an author, publisher, diplomat, scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, and even a long-distance swimmer (one of his inventions was a pair of wooden swimming flippers) who was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968. Not to mention he helped draft both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Similarly, as a student at Harvard, future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt devoted a couple hours each day to focused studying — which was considerably less than his peers — but still received honors in the majority his classes. He continued his habit of daily study into his presidency and would often read one or more books each day.
Or take Elon Musk, who founded four multibillion-dollar companies in four different industries (software, energy, transportation, and aerospace) by his mid-40s. His deep commitment to learning (he started reading two books a day in his teens) and constant pursuit of improvement and feedback are both building blocks of deliberate practice.
Simmons calls this tendency to set aside time each weekday for focused learning the “five-hour rule” — which sounds much more manageable than the 10,000-hour rule, doesn’t it?
But whether you call it deliberate practice, the five-hour rule, or lifelong learning, it’s important to note that this form of focused learning isn’t about simple repetition of a task or skill, accumulating a lot of hours of training, or just “trying harder.” It’s structured, sustained, consistent, purposeful hard work directed at specific goals for improvement. It takes time and requires constantly getting outside your comfort zone and pushing the limits of your abilities.
So if you’re looking for a shortcut for achieving expertise, deliberate practice isn’t the answer. Stephen Dubner, host of Freakonomics Radio, gets to the core of the technique in a conversation with Ericsson for the episode “How to Become Great at Just About Anything”:
“So, Anders, when we began this conversation and you said that deliberate practice is the key to expert performance, it kind of sounds like magic, but it’s not at all, is it? I mean, deliberate practice sounds like a very organized, canonized, or codified, way of working really, really hard.”
Ericsson’s answer? “I think that’s exactly right.”
But while it may not make you an instant expert, a regimen of deliberate practice — with the explicit goal of improving your performance, skill, or knowledge in a given area — will produce results, as we’ll see in the next section.
The exciting potential of deliberate practice is that there’s no limit to how far you can take it. As Ericsson writes in an article adapted from his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,
In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement … You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you. . . . There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement.
Ericsson has distilled his research on deliberate practice and expert performance into several practical steps that anyone can apply to learn more, improve a skill, or be more productive.
In Part 2 of our deep dive into deliberate practice, we’ll look at six practical steps you can use to tap into this powerful learning technique.
Deliberate practice in action
In the 1970s, Ericsson was teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. He and an undergraduate student were working on an experiment to test the limits of short-term memory, which would become the impetus for Ericsson’s research on expert performance.
The experiment was simple: The student, Steve, would work on memorizing strings of numbers and see how far he could go with consistent practice. Steve and Ericsson would meet several times a week for one-hour practice sessions. Ericsson would read off a random series of numbers, and Steve would try to repeat them correctly.
During the first week, Steve seemed to reach a roadblock: He couldn’t get past eight or nine digits. This matched up with the scientific research of the time that indicated that there is a strict limit to the number of items that a person can retain in short-term memory — typically about seven items.
However, Ericsson was convinced the psychological research of the time might be faulty. He had stumbled across an obscure study describing a similar experiment where students had, with practice, worked up to memorizing around 10 to 15 digits. If these students had broken past what was considered the natural limit of short-term memory, could someone go even further?
So the two kept at it, and on the Friday of that first week of practice, Steve had a breakthrough: he reached nine, then 10, then 11 digits. Steve’s performance kept improving from there.
After 60 practice sessions, he was up to 20 digits, had reached 40 digits around the 100th session, and had broken 80 digits by the 200th session.
Steve’s all-time record was 82 digits. Here’s what that looks like:
This involved listening to 82 digits read out loud, one per second, and immediately repeating them back correctly. To put this accomplishment in perspective, 40 digits was more than even professional mnemonists had been able to achieve in terms of short-term recall at the time.
Steve achieved record-breaking short-term memory performance in about 200 hours of regular practice over the two years of the experiment, just by constantly pushing the limits of his abilities (with the help of Ericsson’s coaching and a healthy dose of personal determination).
If such dramatic improvement is possible for a mundane task like memorizing random numbers, imagine what you could achieve using this approach for a skill that you care about and are motivated to improve.
Let’s look at a couple more examples:
From psychologist to recording artist
Danish psychologist Susanne Bargmann was studying the lack of progress in the field of psychotherapy when she stumbled across Ericsson’s research about deliberate practice. She was intrigued.
So Bargmann formed a plan to explore the idea: she would apply the abstract concepts she was reading about in research literature to something concrete and observable — and personal. She would test the limits of deliberate practice on her lifelong dream of becoming a better singer.
In her 40s at the time and busy with a career in psychology, Bargmann had always loved singing, but was convinced she didn’t have the talent to pursue it professionally. This would be a genuine experiment in the power of deliberate practice to build competence, since she wasn’t starting out with any particular vocal ability or experience beyond singing in choirs as a child.
In fact, Bargmann’s first practice sessions (which she recorded to have evidence of her progress) were self-admittedly “horrible,” so much so that she initially had trouble convincing a professional vocal instructor to work with her due to her lack of skill.
To see if deliberate practice could really help her improve, Bargmann started a regimen of one hour of focused practice daily, supplemented by training with a vocal coach. Though she felt progress was slow at times, she kept at it and started seeing real improvement in the quality of her singing. She began performing in public, training with other singers, and even trying her hand at songwriting.
Finally, Bargmann felt that the next step in her progress would be to record her own music. She connected with a producer and released an album, which received a lot of radio play in Denmark; she called the reception of her music “phenomenal.”
So what started out as an unachievable dream, through deliberate practice over about two years (and counting), became a great personal and professional success. Bargmann’s experiment is a testament to the effectiveness of deliberate practice (you can hear her before-and-after results on the Freakonomics Radio episode “How to Become Great at Just About Anything”), and she hopes her experience will encourage others to try the technique:
“I really believe that it can inspire people to, instead of limiting themselves to what they think they can, to actually choose something they dream of or they have a passion for, and then experience how they can improve.”
From soil scientist to basketball phenom
One of the best free-throw shooters in the world isn’t a pro basketball player or an up-and-coming young athlete. It’s a 59-year-old soil conservation technician from Kansas named Bob Fisher.
In fact, Fisher currently holds 14 Guinness world records for free-throw shooting. A 2012 New York Times profile on Fisher reported:
“In the past 26 months. . . . He has made 33 [free throws] in 30 seconds, 50 in a minute, 92 in two minutes, 448 in 10 minutes. He made 2,371 in an hour — nearly 40 a minute — which he called ‘pretty close to a superhuman feat.’”
How did Fisher become so good at shooting free throws? He credits the principles of deliberate practice.
An average basketball player, Fisher had done some high-school coaching for a number of years without ever leading any of the teams to a winning record. His main job was with the Department of Agriculture as a soil conservation technician.
Fisher clearly wasn’t starting out with any exceptional basketball skills when he began his quest to master free-throw shooting in 2009. He set his first record, 50 free throws in one minute, in 2010. He broke eight more records by the end of that year.
On one occasion, he set six world records in the span of an hour. Fisher’s response: “I’ve gotten better, and I haven’t reached my potential yet.”
His domination of this specific skill boils down to one of the key components of deliberate practice: not letting your skills plateau. Fisher described how he applied Ericsson’s research to his training regimen:
What he [Ericsson] said was that people who continue to get better never allow themselves to go on automatic pilot; they’re continually breaking down the element they are trying to do and working on pieces and then putting it back together — which is nothing new. But I made a concerted effort to do that, and I think that was a large part, a reason of my success.
Instead of just practicing, you are focused; you’re engaged; it’s like a rubber band. You are constantly stretching the rubber band, and you don’t want to stretch it to the point that it breaks, but you want it to have continual pressure. In other words, you want to try and do things that you are not able to do at the present time.
These examples make it pretty clear that deliberate practice works. It’s not quick or easy; it’s not a magic formula; but it is an effective technique for significant skills development.
So the question is, how can you use the principles of deliberate practice to meet your goals? Maybe you want to pursue some professional development — learning a new programming language, or becoming a better writer or public speaker. Or perhaps you have a personal ambition like learning a musical instrument.
Deliberate practice may sound intense, even intimidating, but it can be broken down into components that make learning or improving any skill a structured, achievable process. Ready to get started?
Don’t miss Part 2, where you’ll learn how elements like motivation, goal-setting, and feedback combine to make deliberate practice a powerhouse skills development technique—and how you can put them to work.