I mentioned yesterday that one of the things studies have found that differentiate those who are great at something vs. those who are merely “good enough” is deliberate practice. Scientific research shows that the quality of practice is just as important as the quantity. I thought it might be helpful to elaborate on that a bit.
The concept of deliberate practice is explained in detail in the book Talent is Overrated (an excellent book, by the way!) but to summarize, deliberate practice is characterized by these elements:
1. It is designed specifically to improve performance (usually by a teacher who can give feedback. Specific goals are set with the purpose of meeting those goals.)
2. It can be repeated a lot (think pitching a baseball at a target with the intent improve accuracy or practicing scales to work on intonation.)
3. Feedback on results is continuously available (again by a teacher’s evaluation or by results – hitting the target more consistently the more often you throw, for instance.)
4. It is highly demanding, mentally. It’s an extreme effort in focus and concentration – “continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better.” (in fact, most people can only engage in this type of practice for an hour or so at a time, and many professionals will break up their practice times throughout the day so they can rest in-between sessions.)
5. It isn’t much fun. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we’re good at, we insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over.”
(I’d like to make a personal amendment to number five and say that deliberate practice CAN be fun, especially for a person who likes to be challenged. But it certainly isn’t ALWAYS fun, nor should we expect it to be.)
The first aspect of deliberate practice was beautifully illustrated by Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan and former chief of General Electric’s Crotonville management development center. He explains how improving performance can be achieved by drawing three concentric circles. The inner circle is labeled “the comfort zone,” the middle circle is “the learning zone” and the outer circle is “the panic zone.” Inside the comfort zone are all the things you already know how to do. They’re comfortable because you can do them well and little effort is needed to accomplish them. Inside the learning circle are those skills and abilities that are just out of reach. They’re the things that are difficult to accomplish, the things that require work and effort to do. The panic zone contains things that are so difficult that we don’t even know how to approach them.
The key to improving performance through deliberate practice is to get out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone. As we do this, the circles expand and the things inside of them change. Lets take baseball as an example. A child learning to play baseball may start with the ability to catch, with two hands, a ball slowly lobbed to him. This is a skill inside the comfort zone. Now, we’ll give him a glove and start teaching him to catch slow, underhanded throws with one hand. He’s now working within the learning circle. As he becomes more proficient at catching these balls, the comfort zone expands and the work moves out of the learning circle and into the comfort zone. Now it’s time to make things a little bit harder – throw the ball a little bit faster, throw a little to the left or to the right – to keep the child working within the learning circle. A child just starting out would never be asked to catch a ball being thrown toward him at 100 miles per hour. This skill, in the beginning, is firmly set inside the panic zone. But as the comfort and learning zones expand, the panic zone begins to shrink and new, previously unobtainable, skills can be learned.
Being willing to work within the demanding, frustrating (and rewarding!) learning zone is one of the best things we can do to build confidence within ourselves regarding a particular field. Rather than going out and lobbing balls around the back yard, we’re stretching ourselves and forcing ourselves to learn what works and what doesn’t. If I draw my string across my bow like this, it produces this sound. But if I play this way, this is what happens. Through deliberate practice, you learn exactly how to nail it, know exactly why you miss it, and have “identified the key technical or mechanical factors that are necessary to play the passage perfectly, every time.” (1) This kind of feedback can only be achieved by setting goals and figuring out, through trial and error, what works and what doesn’t.
As my daughter’s teacher told her just last week:
“Once we get it right, the real work begins.”
1. For more information about deliberate practice and why practicing any other way can actually be harmful to progress, here is an excellent article on the subject: A Better Way to Practice