Deliberate practice, continued

Deliberate practice, continued

In the previous entry, we discussed the importance of the mentor or coach in the concept of deliberate practice. The coach not only designs the practice activity that pushes the student toward continuous improvement; she also must have the type of discerning eye that can deconstruct the process in order to provide ongoing feedback and encouragement.

Other than coaches who design the practice and give the feedback, several other characteristics are essential. In this entry, we take a brief look at two more aspects of deliberate practice.

The amount of repetition: A third critical aspect of deliberate practice is that there are simply a lot of iterations of the activity. As we noted in the example of Winston Churchill, the learner has occasion to repeat the practice often, and he turns each repetition into a learning opportunity.

In his best-selling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell embraces the theory that successful people and groups—The Beatles, Bill Gates and dozens of others whose stories the author tells—have all practiced at least 10,000 hours at their craft before achieving their remarkable success. For example, according to Gladwell, The Beatles were not simply genius musicians who stunned the world with an innate ability to perform and write songs. Instead, they succeeded largely because they practiced and learned endlessly in the breakneck performance culture of Hamburg in the early 1960s. In that environment, they played so often and accumulated so much experience that, by the time they entered the mainstream, they were seasoned performers rather than talented young boys.

Passion is also critical, and it constitutes a fourth key element of deliberate practice. Whether we speak of Michael Jordan, The Beatles, Churchill, or Mozart, none would have become great in their respective fields without developing a singular passion. It is their passion for the activity itself that pushes them to engage fully in the practice process. And, beyond the enthusiasm for what they are doing, they also embark on a relentless pursuit, with a passion for constant improvement.

Often, this desire to progress grows gradually over time. Particularly in a young person, the passion to improve may start out as a small spark. Then, little by little, with positive feedback from his mentors and support his environment, the learner develops a resolve to become ever better at the chosen activity.

In fact, the numerous stories I have read or heard about achieving any kind of greatness all lead me to the same conclusion: The passion we need to master anything does not accompany us into this world; like the high-level skills themselves, the passion develops.

Deliberate practice is often not much fun, as it requires an intense commitment and sustained effort. As such, one’s passion to improve continuously is vital because it engenders a high level of focus. Hank Aaron, one of the greatest American baseball players of all time, often said that, at the highest levels, what separates a truly great hitter from a good hitter is the ability to hold concentration longer.  In my research and coaching endeavors, I have found that Aaron’s observation holds true for any complex activity one seeks to master. Such mastery requires high levels of single-mindedness and focus.

Since we are talking about the long road to 10,000 hours and beyond, both passion and focus are necessary, because without them the effort will not be sustained. It takes unrelenting concentration to stay on the path of deliberate practice for the length of a career or a lifetime, but that is precisely what the outstanding performers seem to do. Their inner passion, along with encouragement from coach and environment, pushes them to take on tougher and tougher challenges while remaining attentive to the learning process.

When we read Colvin’s description of Tiger Woods’ practice routines in Talent is Overrated, we understand the distinction between practice and deliberate practice. Simply hitting buckets of balls, as most of us do, is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers reach a plateau and stop improving. Stepping on hundreds of golf balls in a sand trap to create nearly impossible lies, as Tiger does, and then working on hitting the balls out until he masters this tough test—that’s deliberate practice. The great performers hone their skills and learn new ones by isolating particular aspects of what they do, and focusing on just those things until they achieve significant improvement. Then, they create and apply themselves to a new challenge.

So, as this blog entry is getting longer than I anticipated, and since there is more to say, I will stop here and look to write more in the coming weeks, particularly about deliberate practice, child prodigies, mastery, and how it all applies to our daily lives and our work.


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