Imagine this: you’re a kid again. And like every kid, you have a dream. Yours is to become a musician. You can’t stop fantasizing about becoming a great pianist. Somehow you persuaded your parents to buy you expensive equipment. Now, all you do during the day is punch keys. But one day, the natural happens. You go to class. It’s your turn on the piano. You do what you can do. Then, you impatiently turn to your teacher for her feedback. She opens her mouth and she mercilessly crushes your little soul without even realizing it, “Sweetie, it’s probably a better idea to do something else. You are simply not born to be a pianist.”
A similar thing happen to me when I was in 8th grade. My literature/writing teacher said that she’ll grade my final exam with a C minus only if I swore that I will never write again.
To my disaster, but to soothe her, I’ve listened to her. For years, I was afraid of placing pen on paper. I felt unworthy. After all, the teacher – the highly regarded intellectual – told me that I was no good with words.
What the above has to do with the deliberate practice theory?
Created by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the deliberate practice theory aims to debunk the myth about innate talent and explain how ordinary folks, too, can achieve extraordinary results.
This theory was developed after years of boring work of observation. Studying world-class athletes, musicians, chess players, etc. In other words, everyone who ever won a gold medal in the Olympics. Professor Ericsson was basically trying to figure out what one must do – what are the steps, the framework – to achieve expert performance, regardless of the field.
It turns out that achieving world-class results has nothing to do with genes, your IQ score, or how high you can jump.
Anders Ericsson, the father of deliberate practice, explained in his seminal work Peak, that pretty much everyone willing to endure the hardship of years of practice – deliberate practice – can produce expert performance.
Plainly, it’s not so much about what you can or can’t do now. But what you believe you can achieve by purposeful hard work.
In this article, I’ll cover the five principles of deliberate practice. The deliberate practice psychology. And what one needs to do to transform from human to superhuman.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a special form of practice that has the power to transform amateurs into professionals. It’s a systematic approach based on careful observation of what the best performers in your field of choice are doing.
This sounds too dry or confusing?
Let’s briefly compare just practicing versus deliberate practicing.
Regular practice states this: just do the work. Work hard and you’ll eventually succeed.
Sadly, this often tossed advice around the online hemisphere can rarely lead to good results. I mean, moving rocks from one pile to another is hard work. But does this guarantee riches?
Not at all.
In contrast, deliberate practice is all about setting a detailed plan that is focused on gradual improvements. You still work hard, but you are strategic. You aim to improve – step by step – every skill related to the thing you want to master. Eventually, you reach a point where the accumulative, focused practice sessions make you extraordinary.
Here are a couple of examples:
Deliberate Practice Examples:
- Regular practice when learning how to write will simply tell you to sit and write.
- Deliberate practice will tell you to improve one specific thing in each practice session related to writing based on research. For instance, improve the introductions of your articles by first examining how the best writers craft intros and then writing 5 different intros.
When playing basketball:
- Regular practice when playing basketball will tell you to just go and throw the ball.
- Deliberate practice will tell you to first improve your dribbling by making sets like two ball dribble crossover, two ball front-to-back dribble, behind-the-back dribble.
Let me visualize this.
Practicing is simply executing the task.
Deliberate practice is carefully thinking about the discipline, breaking the task into different components, and mastering the components one by one.
In short, deliberate practice preaches that if we want to improve a skill. We need to figure out exactly what component of the skill we want to strengthen in our current sessions. And when practicing, we target one specific area and we aim for a specific outcome.
Why is Deliberate Practice Important To Get?
In Peak, the so-called deliberate practice book. The authors share something quite interesting and uncommon:
“There is no such thing as talent.”
People become great not because they were born with a beautiful voice or strong arms. But because they develop these skills through years of hard, focused work.
Consider the example I included in the beginning.
It’s not an isolated case that we get discouraged by parents and teachers – what we consider authority figures. Somewhere along the way, someone convinced you that you can’t become a writer – or a singer, or a dancer, or an astronaut. If you believe this person, this will become your reality.
But there is an alternative route.
You can choose to rebel. Regardless of what others say you can or can’t do. You can simply focus on the things you want.
When we are young. This is not something we do intuitively. If we don’t have someone to support us. Someone to pick us up when we are down. We’ll be convinced that we really can’t do great things.
That’s why the famous quote by Henry Ford is so famous, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Deliberate practices take the concept of innate talent and smash it into pieces.
“It’s not about talent,” the authors of the book I mention preach. It’s about believing in yourself and your ability to make it. And, of course, how often you practice the skill you want to get good at.
Why Do We Need Deliberate Practice?
The usual fraud you see all across the internet is that you can achieve anything if you put enough work into it.
You know, the 10,000-hour rule where it’s stated that you become semi-god if you work for this mystical number of hours.
But guess what, doing something for 10 years, or more, doesn’t guarantee that you will be invited to the round-table of super-smart folks or get a handshake with the president.
There are plenty of folks who are doing the same job for an infinite amount of years and still perform poorly.
I see it all the time myself. Not only am I regularly exposed to mediocre performance – probably you are too. But this is a kind of disease state.
For example, doctors who have worked on the same job think they know all the answers because they rely on their prior experience. While this is surely helpful, what often people with 10, or even 20 years of experience fail to consider is innovation. They rely solely on their past experience without ever trying something new.
Said differently, their past experience determines their current experience. But their past experience can’t help them improve. They need to change something.
Putting in the hours is still a large component of the deliberate practice theory. But this is not the most important component.
Anders Ericsson says that to become a master in your field and stay on top, it’s much more critical to continuously improve.
You laser target one specific component, ask for feedback, and then apply the learned. All of this involves getting out of your comfort zone. Plus, simple things like showing up every day, staying curious, adaptive thinking, entering the flow state.
But there is more.
Bear with me as I walk you through the five principles of deliberate practice. I promise that if you adopt the steps below and put them into action, you will hugely improve your performance.
The Five Principles of Deliberate Practice
Here’s how to integrate deliberate practice:
1. Find What The Best Performers Do
Applying deliberate practice starts with identifying what the best in the field are doing. What sets them apart? What are the habits of the most effective people in the discipline you want to master? What are they doing differently?
Search online. Listen to interviews. Read the books of the greatest.
Answering these questions will prompt you to get a sense of what your typical day should look like.
2. Develop A Detailed Plan (To Get Outside of Your Comfort Zone)
An essential part of deliberate practice is breaking one big goal into tiny little steps.
To become one of the best violinists in the world, your plan won’t include simply playing the instrument. You will create a schedule that will include all the important components to become a great musician.
Quite normally, these tasks will have to push you to do things you haven’t done before – i.e., outside your comfort zone.
3. Develop the Right Mental Representation
You need to know what good looks like, sounds like, to create good things. To create quality things.
If you hold a mediocre view about what a quality song should sound like. Quite naturally, you will produce a sucky song.
So, learn what should be the best outcome when you are holding the violin, what should be the best posture, the best diet, etc. Tattoo these frameworks in your brain.
While the first principle is about what the best performers are doing. This step is about how the best performers think about the discipline.
4. Regular (Focused) Practice Sessions
Obviously, to improve. You need to practice. In the book Peak, the author shares that the only thing that distinguishes the good from the best is the hours of practice.
But one thing is crucial. While you are doing the work, your mind should be fully concentrated on what you are doing. One hour of deep, focused work is way better than 3 hours if your mind is wandering.
5. Feedback In The Moment
Receiving feedback from someone better than you can help you in a lot of different ways. Not only the person can share his expert opinion, but a coach aids in another important way – he can correct you while you train.
If you practice alone, and if what you are practicing is not the correct approach. There is a possibility that you can learn to do something incorrectly.
That’s why feedback during your practice session is so valuable in your quest to improve.
We can label the above as the five principles of deliberate practice but there is one extra component.
And more particularly: How to keep your motivation high while doing consistent work?
There are plenty of joyful things awaiting at the end of the road. But the road is long and quite lonely.
And also, the road to excellence is full of things that can literally make you cry.
There will be times when we will want to quit. Times where we’ll let self-doubt consume us. Times where the critique we’ll receive from our mentors will feel crushing.
What will help us prevail is the ability to fall in love with the practice sessions despite all the obstacles. Plus, nearly insane belief that we can do what we’ve set ourselves to do.
The Downside of Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is structured, methodical, and as you have probably noticed – depressingly boring and lonely.
There are a few downsides, and passing through them will determine your level of improvement.
Let’s check them out:
Repetition Strips Away Joy
So, how you can maintain a high level of motivation while you are basically struggling daily to improve while results are stagnant?
There is no easy formula. There is no magic.
It’s probably modern media’s fault. Where advertising agencies try to convince us that by purchasing their new, innovative thingy, we will significantly improve our outcomes.
But no. It doesn’t work like that.
Nothing will get you closer to the ranks of the best except your ability to keep your spirit high and do the work.
According to the book The Four Tendencies, I’m an Upholder. In short, this means that I don’t need a lot of outside help to keep my motivation high. However, a lot of folks do need someone to keep them accountable.
But that’s not all.
Say that you’re a teenager and you want to become a great actor. Let’s assume that you have the grit and the stamina to do the boring work every day. Is this enough to eventually win an Oscar?
Probably not. You will need a lot of support from your family members. Someone to drive you to practice. Someone to pay for the training sessions, the coaches, etc.
I consider this a downside because it’s really hard to find folks to support you along the long journey.
Years of Commitment
Many of us hold the belief that we need to be born with certain skills to succeed.
Yes, probably a melodic voice is something that does come naturally. Plus, it certainly does help if you decide to form a band or go to karaoke. But according to experts, anyone can learn to sing. You just need the right approach.
The problem is not so much can you do something. But can you do something for years? Are you willing to keep doing it even when you suck at the beginning?
In theory, deliberate practice sounds so reassuring. “Just practice daily, get 1% better, and you will eventually hold a gold statuette in your hands.”
But as you can guess, most people fail because they can’t keep following their plan after the initial setbacks.
How Do You Deliberately Practice Something?
The below is, ultimately, the shortest way to do deliberate practice:
- Get feedback.
- Try again better.
Yep, no fancy equipment or talent is required.
But to wrap things up around deliberate practice.
I want to tackle this final question:
How do you keep deliberately practicing something?
How to ensure that you won’t quit along the way?
I’m regularly asking myself this question.
My personal problem is not related to showing up. I’m a strange animal. I get up every day at 5 AM and I do the work – write content with the goal to grow this website.
The problem is more related to uncertainty.
In particular, will I succeed if I keep doing what I’m doing right now?
I believe that most people quit because there is a level of uncertainty around their actions.
You pursue a career. You diligently follow your plan for years. But there is no evidence that you are getting closer to your goal. Probably you are not getting promoted. Probably you can’t lose weight as fast as you anticipated. Or probably you’ve hit a plateau and you just can’t raise above.
In such cases, your mind becomes a dangerous enemy. Thoughts are formed in your head that try to convince you that you should quit and do something else. After all, there are no results, right? Only a mad man will keep doing something when there are no gains.
In such situations. Instead of abandoning your project. A good approach is to try different, not try harder.
If you are struggling to get a new job. Don’t send more resumes. Focus on creating one perfect resume for a particular company you really adore.
If you are struggling with losing weight. Don’t add more training sessions. Change your diet and your workout regime.
The way you practice. Creating a plan. Getting feedback and using it.
These are all essential things to improve. But based on my personal observation and experience. I consider the most important component of becoming a top-ranked player in your field of choice this:
Persisting when everything around you whispers to give up.
Some Closing Thoughts
Something I really admire about the people we see on the cover of magazines is that they tend to do boring hard work year after year without giving up.
All of this, without complaining.
Deliberate practice is exactly this.
Yes, have a systematic approach when you are practicing.
Yes, being open to feedback and applying it.
Yes, being comfortable with going outside your comfort zone.
But most importantly, possessing a nearly insane drive that allows you to practice even when you don’t feel like practicing.
Now when you know what is the secret component of all great achievers.
When you know what is needed to transition from good to great.
What are you going to commit to?
But not just for a year.
But for the rest of your life.
“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
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