A New Yorker (or in some versions Arthur Rubinstein) is approached in the street near Carnegie Hall, and asked, “Pardon me sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” He replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” (Wikipedia)
We’ve all heard the old Carnegie Hall joke (well, at least those of us above a certain age have). In more recent times, you may have caught the buzz about the importance of “10,000 hours” as popularized by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers. The message in both cases it that if you really want to excel at something, a lot of time and a lot of practice are required.
The time part seems straightforward enough, but I know from my own love/hate experience with learning the guitar over many years that simply clocking hours of practice is not enough. The practice has to be of a certain quality. As Anders Ericsson has argued in his body of work on the topic, it has to be deliberate practice.
The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else. – Anders Ericsson
I found an interesting take on the concept of deliberate practice a while back in an article on “expert performance” in the Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal. I recommend the full article. If you can motivate yourself to read and take notes on the whole thing (it is, as might be expected, a bit long and academic), I think you will find some great wisdom in it. You don’t have to consider yourself an entrepreneur to benefit from the insights – they apply broadly.
Whether or not you read the whole thing, here are eight key features of deliberate practice as it is discussed in the article. I’ve provided my own gloss on each:
1. Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally, requiring high levels of focus and concentration.
You’ve heard it before – no pain, no gain. But the authors also stress that you have to be “fully absorbed” in your practice for it to truly be effective. This is partly a matter of discipline, but it is even more a matter of tapping your sources of implicit motivation – it’s very hard to keep at this kind of practice if you are not clear about why doing it matters to you.
2. It is designed specifically to improve performance—to strengthen it beyond its current levels.
This is the part that says you can’t just put in time and expect to get significantly better at anything – you have to consistently stretch yourself, and then stretch some more. I do my best to keep this in mind, for example, when I am practice the piano and fall into just practicing scales mindlessly or playing the same old songs again and again.
Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice. – Anders Ericsson
3. It must continue for long of periods of time.
This is Gladwell’s 10,000 hours/10 years. The authors go on to say “Basic research on expert performance suggests that the benefits it generates cannot usually be attained with less than 10 years of continued, vigorous effort (e.g., Ericsson, 2006).” “10,000” is an average, of course, and one that depends on a lot of other factors – including all of those listed here.
4. It must be repeated.
Even though repetition alone won’t get you to the level of excellence, you also won’t get there without it. Perhaps this why the word “Practice” is repeated three times in the old joke. In my experience, there are very few areas of life in which achieving true excellence doesn’t require some level of practice pretty much every day.
As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration. – Anders Ericcson
5. It requires continuous feedback on results.
Sometimes you can tell on your own whether you are doing things right. I know when I hit a wrong note on the guitar, for example. But very often this is the area where having a great teacher, coach, or mentor can make all the difference. I know that personally I don’t seek outside guidance often enough. You may want to consider whether you do.
Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong. – Anders Ericcson
6. Pre-performance preparation is essential.
This is where goal setting comes in – you have to know where you want to go if you expect to get there. And as the authors stress, goal-setting “should involve not merely outcomes, but also the processes involved in reaching predetermined goals.” In other words, you need to have a plan, and having one helps tremendously with sticking to the points above.
7. It involves self-observation and self reﬂection.
As you practice, you need to be continually aware of your own performance and be focused on correcting and adapting as appropriate. This kind of in-the-moment self-assessment is critical regardless of whether a teacher is involved. You have to develop a strong ability to objectively assess your own performance so that you can make any necessary adjustments to your practice.
8. It involves careful reﬂection on performance after practice sessions are completed.
In addition to being aware of your performance as you are practicing, you need to look back on it once you are done and determine where you stand with respect to your overall goals. You need to continue to reflect and adjust over time as you make progress toward your goals. What might you change to ensure ongoing progress? (See my thoughts on reflection as a learning habit and on becoming a reflection ninja.)
Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there. – Anders Ericsson
As noted earlier, the overall focus of this article is on entrepreneurship, but regardless of whether you are an entrepreneur, I think you will find many insights here that are useful to practice in your own particular area of interest. Given that “entrepreneurship” is a somewhat fuzzy area, however, the article may be especially helpful to you if you are pursuing interests that are not as straightforward as learning a musical instrument or a new language.
Whatever you are pursing, if excellence is your goal, be sure to practice, practice, practice – and be deliberate about it.
How does deliberate practice factor in to your learning habits? Please comment and share with other readers.
P.S. – Also be sure to check out why practice may not be enough.
P.P.S. – The quotes from Anders Ericsson throughout this post come from his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which was published well after this post was originally published. Obviously, I’ve made some updates – and, of course, I have read Ericsson’s book, which I now highly recommend to you.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.