The science of deliberate practice

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According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “practice makes perfect” is “said to encourage someone to continue to do something many times, so that they will learn to do it very well.” But does practice really make perfect?

We tend to see practice as tireless repetition of the same task, where the goal is to progressively become an expert by building intuitive memory. Such a simplification is evident in the common misconception surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

Of course, more practice will make the difference between being good and being great, but the most efficient route to expertise is not mindless practice—it’s deliberate practice.

The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance - research paper

The talent fallacy

Society tends to recognise experts as talented, as if these successful people are gifted with inherent qualities resulting in higher performance. The innate nature of talent is in contrast to skills which are purely gained through learning.

The talent fallacy can be a sign of fixed mindset and lack of self-confidence. For some people, seeing talent as an inborn quality is a comforting way to justify their own lack of performance. 

However, expert performance is not based on a set of intrinsic aptitudes which only some individuals possess.

“People believe that because expert performance is qualitatively different from a normal performance the expert performer must be endowed with characteristics qualitatively different from those of normal adults. (…) 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,” explains psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University.

Becoming an expert at a particular skill has more to do with the quality of the practise than with talent. Instead of merely practicing a skill a large number of times—and blaming a lack of talent when that strategy does not result in clear improvements—deliberate practice consists in continually practising a skill with the conscious intention of mastering it.

The promise of deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is focused, systematic, and purposeful. It’s enhanced by active coaching to generate continuous feedback. “Deliberate practice (…) is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun,” writes Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated.

Deliberate practice requires to be able to fail like a scientist in order to build a learning loop. Many of the most successful people in their fields have internalised this iterative approach to mastery.

For instance, award-winning chef Jiro Ono, made famous by the Netflix documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, requires his apprentices to use deliberate practice to master each aspect of the sushi-making process, practicing how to cook rice and cut fish for ten years before they can serve customers. Jiro is often called a shokunin—someone who embodies the artisan spirit of the relentless pursuit of perfection through their craft.

Another famous example of a person using deliberate practice to reach mastery is Benjamin Franklin. After his father criticised his poor writing when he was a teenager, Franklin started reading magazine articles, and re-writing them in his own words. He would then compare his version to the original, and take notes of all the places where he could improve his vocabulary.

Deliberate practice can be applied in many areas, such as music, arts, science, when learning a new language, or when acquiring any kind of challenging skill, whether intellectual or physical. In music, the famous violinist Nathan Milstein said: “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’”

The 3 M’s of deliberate practice

Instead of mindlessly practicing a skill for months without improving, being deliberate can result in a better performance, and to a shorter road to mastery. Deliberate practice requires three specific skills:

  1. Measurement. You cannot manage what you cannot measure. Deliberate practice requires to objectively track and measure your progress. You do not need complicated tools: a simple note-taking app or a spreadsheet can do the job.
  2. Metacognition. Simply measuring your progress is not enough; it’s important to make space for self-reflection. Journaling can be a powerful metacognitive tool to understand and improve one’s performance.
  3. Mentoring. Finally, having a coach or a teacher can vastly improve the impact of deliberate practice. The mentorship often consists in assisting with both the measurement and the metacognitive aspect of deliberate practice. For instance, an expert could keep track of your progress while you are practicing, and recommend improvements before you give the activity another go.

Taken together, measurement, metacognition, and mentoring form the basis of deliberate practice. Used consistently, they can help anyone learn anything better and faster.

The road to mastery

Even with deliberate practice, mastery takes time. As Geoff Colvin puts it: “Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.”

Don’t be afraid to fail many times over and make sure to create feedback loops so you can make the most of deliberate practice. If you can, find a mentor who can guide your learning process. The road to mastery will be shorter, and, most importantly, the hours you spend practicing will actually help you progress towards expertise.