The Art of Deliberate Practice

The content of this post is centred on Anders Ericsson’s research and his book titled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which he co-authored with Robert Pool. It is one of my favourite books, partly because it gives hope to mere mortals like me, who have always thought that mastery in any discipline belongs only to those born with innate talent.    

Anders Ericsson recently died in 2020, at the age of 72, while he was still very active in his research career. If you have not heard of him, you may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers: The Story of Success published in 2008. Gladwell used some of Ericsson’s research and popularize the idea that has come to be known as the “10,000-hour rule”.

Ericsson wrote Peak in 2016, partly as a response to the misrepresentation but increasingly commonplace idea of the 10,000-hour rule. He expounded that merely accumulating 10,000 hours of practice is not enough. The key is deliberate practice, which Ericsson coined to refer to the specific learning method used by experts to achieve superior performance in their fields.

The way to develop abilities in any field boils down to the same process – through dedicated training that drives changes in the brain and body that make it possible for us to do things that we otherwise could not.

I am not talking about world class abilities, which in this case your genetic endowment (physical and physiological characteristics you inherit from your parents) makes a difference, especially in areas where height or other physical factors are important. But if we are referring to above average kind of abilities for the rest of us, Ericsson’ research and findings will be of interest to you.

Just practicing is not enough

You can’t just slide the bow across the cello for thousands of hours and become a master cellist. You need deliberate practice. It is the deliberate part that we usually miss, which is critical to achieving mastery. Getting expert feedback, critical analysis, and attention to improvement are necessary for you to become a great cellist.

We often look in awe at the master cellist, or the professionals in any fields perform, and wonder how they became so good in what they do. Whilst their abilities are extraordinary, there is actually no mystery at all about how these people developed them. They practiced, deliberately. And a lot.    

Research shows that once a person reaches a level of acceptable performance, the additional years of automatic or routine practice will not lead to additional improvements. Just keep working at it will no longer work. It will not get you there. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time is what will lead you towards improvement.   

Ericsson illustrate this with an example of a pianist:

The amateur pianist who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but for the past thirty years has been playing the same set of songs in exactly the same way and over again may have accumulated ten thousand hours of “practice” during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was thirty years ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse. 

Deliberate practice is, as the term implies, much more purposeful, thoughtful and focused. Just as you won’t improve much without giving a task your full attention, you won’t see improvement in your craft if you practice without purpose. Purposeful practice involves feedback. You need to know whether you are doing something right, and if not, how you are doing it wrong.

Deliberate practice requires you to get out of your comfort zone. If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. It means trying and practicing to do something that you could not do before.

To do this successfully requires far more practice than most people are willing to devote. That is the reason why most people do not achieve extraordinary physical capabilities. It isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them. Rather, it is that they are satisfied staying comfortable thinking that it is good enough.

Deliberate practice requires you not to only to reach your potential, but to build on top of it. The aim is to make things possible that were not possible before.  

Work with a Teacher/Coach

The road to mastery is never smooth. You will run into obstacles that seem insurmountable. Finding solutions around these challenges is one of the hidden keys to deliberate practice. 

The solution is not to try harder, rather to try differently. The right approach to overcome a barrier is to work at it from another angle or from a different direction. This is where working with a teacher or coach is useful. Getting help and feedback from someone who is already familiar with the obstacles blocking your improvement can save you time and effort. 

Deliberate practice involves feedback and improvement of the efforts according to the feedback received. A teacher or coach’s role is to monitor your progress, point out weaknesses and offer solutions to your problems. With time and experience however, students must learn to be able to evaluate themselves, spot mistakes and make necessary adjustments accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires the effective use of mental representation.  

Mental representation is a structure in our mind that represents our knowledge, perceptions, thoughts and ideas, which stands for something else. It is a theoretical construct to explain ongoing information processed in the human brain. 

Expert performers and professional athletes use mental representations to improve their performance. They monitor and evaluate their performance and then modify their mental representation in order to make them more effective.

Think of it this way. The more you study a subject, the more detailed your mental representations of it become. And this will in turn make you better at assimilating new information, allowing you to elevate your mental representation of the subject more.  

It is a virtuous circle. Honing the skill improves mental representation, and mental representation helps hone the skill. That is why improving mental representation is a pre-requisite to improving performance. And as your performance improves, your mental representations become more detailed and effective, which in turn makes it possible for you to improve even more.

Quoting Ericsson:

Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.

There are no Shortcuts or hacks

In his book Ericsson presented his findings in a study into the development of musical accomplishment of academic violinists. It was carried out in collaboration with the Berlin University of the Arts, of which its college of music and performing arts is highly regarded and well known for turning out world-class violinists.

The goal of the study was to focus on the motivations of the music students and how that translates into how much practice they engaged in. This in return would explain at least in part how accomplished they became. He wanted to understand what separated the truly outstanding student violinists from those who were merely good.

Are the violinists performing at the highest levels primarily due to innate talents or it is due to the type and amount of practice they engage in, which in essence comes from the difference in motivation level.

I don’t play the violin but I can imagine how difficult it is to play it well. In the right hands it sounds beautiful, but put it in my hands all you get are horrible squeaks. You don’t play the violin by just picking it up casually and practise for a year of two.

All the students studied by Ericsson in the research have been playing for well over a decade and the average age at which they started was eight. They had all followed systematic and focused lessons early on, with a visiting music teacher usually once a week.

Because most students spend the same amount of time each week (which is an hour) with the teacher, the primary difference in practice between one student with another then lies in how much time the student devote to practicing on their own. It is not unusual for serious students to be investing up to fifteen hours a week on focused practice, and the weekly practice time generally increases as they get older.   

Amongst others, Ericsson shared the following findings:

The students pretty much all agreed that solitary practice was the most important factor in improving their performance, followed by such things as practicing with others, taking lessons, performing (particularly in solo performance), listening to music, and studying music theory. Many of them also said that getting enough sleep was very important to their improvement. Because their practice was so intense, they needed to recharge their batteries with a full night’s sleep—and often an afternoon nap.

The other crucial finding was that there was only one major difference among the students. This was the total number of hours that the students had devoted to solitary practice. We found that the best violin students had, on average, spent significantly more time than the better violin students had spent, and that the top two groups—better and best—had spent much more time on solitary practice than the music-education students.

One of our most significant findings was that most factors the students had identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labour-intensive and not much fun; the only exceptions were listening to music and sleeping. Everyone from the very top students to the future music teachers agreed: improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work they did to improve. In short, there were no students who just loved to practice and thus needed less motivation than the others. These students were motivated to practice intensely and with full concentration because they saw such practice as essential to improving their performance.

With this it can be safely concluded that nobody can develop extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amount of practice. No matter the discipline, music or sports, you will be sure to find that top performers have devoted tremendous amount of time to achieve greatness. There are no shortcuts, no hacks whatsoever.

Finding Motivation is Key

While is it possible to keep going and improving, it is not always easy. Maintaining the focus and effort required during deliberate practice is hard work. It is generally not fun. So how do people engage in this sort of training or practice? What keeps them going?

This is where the issue of motivation comes in. Motivation is a big thing and it is a topic I want to explore and study in detail in another post.  

Deliberate practice is a lot of hard work. It is hard to keep going, training day in and day out whilst maintaining the required focus. It is mentally draining. Therefore it is important that we figure a way to maintain our motivation.

Anyway, the most important takeaway from Ericsson’s research is that we do not need to have inborn or innate talent to excel in any field we desire to. I like his idea that all of us already have the seeds of excellence within us. It is just a question of whether we nurture and grow that potential. Now all we need to find is the motivation!