To learn any new skill or gain expertise you need to practice, practice, practice. There isn’t much debate about that.
But here’s what you might not know: scientific research shows that the quality of your practice is just as important as the quantity.
And, more interestingly, these scientists also believe that expert-level performance is primarily the result of expert-level practice NOT due to innate talent.
This concept is known as deliberate practice, and it’s incredibly powerful.
First, let’s look at what the experts have to say. This is from K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist and scientific researcher out of Florida State University in the paper titled ￼The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance:
People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. This view has discouraged scientists from systematically examining expert performers and accounting for their performance in terms of the laws and principles of general psychology.
The common view held until recently was that expert-level performance was simply the result of talent and “natural abilities.” This view has held back scientific progress towards learning what really makes experts so talented, from a psychological perspective.
Think about your own views for a moment.
How often do you say “wow, that guy is talented” when thinking about your favorite athlete, performer or other expert-level role models?
Have you ever thought you’re not cut out to do something due to a lack of talent?
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Back to the findings from Ericsson and his team at Florida State University:
We agree that expert performance is qualitatively different from normal performance and even that expert performers have characteristics and abilities that are qualitatively different from or at least outside the range of those of normal adults. However, we deny that these differences are immutable, that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
Experts then, aren’t people with freakish natural abilities in a particular domain. Experts are experts at maintaining high-levels of practice and improving performance.
In other words, it’s not about what you’re born with. It’s about how consistently and deliberately you can work to improve your performance.
The importance of a few obvious genetic differences like height can’t be denied within some areas of expertise (basketball or horse jockeying, for example), but in most other areas motivation and deliberate practice can overcome even differences in cognative abilities (brain power).
Introducing Deliberate Practice
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance.
Deliberate practice is different from work, play and simple repetition of a task. It requires effort, it has no monetary reward, and it is not inherently enjoyable.
When you engage in deliberate practice, improving your performance over time is your goal and motivation.
That’s not to say that deliberate practice can’t be designed to be fun, but it isn’t inherently enjoyable on it’s own.
If you want to gain skills rapidly or approach expert-level status at something, you must understand the importance of deliberate practice and learn how to incorporate it into your daily life.
The Four Essential Components of Deliberate Practice
Research into the history of education (dating back several thousand years), combined with more recent scientific experiments have uncovered a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement. Again, from K. Anders Ericsson, here are the four essential components of deliberate practice.
When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks:
You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.
It’s important to note that without adequate feedback about your performance during practice, efficient learning is impossible and improvement is minimal.
Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills.
Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance.
Your practice must be: intentional, aimed at improving performance, designed for your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious.
What Deliberate Practice Means for You
Natural ability is no excuse.
How you practice matters most.
How long you persevere determines your limits.
Motivation becomes the real constraint on expertise.
If you’re 5’5″, maybe you shouldn’t set your sites on becoming an NBA center. Some physical limits are obvious. Most other “limits” are cop-outs or relics of old misunderstandings about talent.
What’s cool is that even limits of brainpower can be overcome with deliberate practice. One-on-one tutoring has shown to greatly reduce the differences in achievement between students of different cognitive abilities.
To benefit from practice and reach your potential, you have to constantly challenge yourself.
This doesn’t mean repeatedly doing what you already know how to do.
This means understanding your weaknesses and inventing specific tasks in your practice to address those deficiencies.
Becoming an expert is a marathon, not a sprint.
You cannot reach your mental and physical limits in just a few weeks or months. To grow to the top of your game, you’ll have to persevere for years.
Your practice has to be deliberate and intense, but it also has to be carefully scheduled and limited in ways to avoid burnout and long-term fatigue (both mental and physical).
Practice isn’t always fun. It’s an investment into improving yourself, your skills and your future.
In order to practice with intention for long enough to become an expert or gain useful skills, you have to find the motivation to make the investment.
Where will you find that motivation?
Now we’d love to hear from you.
What is your experience with deliberate practice? How do you stay motivated to purposefully practice something to improve your performance?
Tell us in the comments.
Photo by svenwerk
For Further Reading
Several books have been written recently based on the underlying study I referred to in this post. Check out these excellent reads to start with: