deliberate practice

Practice makes perfect? Not so much

Turns out, that old “practice makes perfect” adage may be overblown.

New research led by Michigan State University’s Zach Hambrick finds that a copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level of skill in two widely studied activities, chess and music.

In other words, it takes more than hard work to become an expert. Hambrick, writing in the research journal Intelligence, said natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity.

“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology.

The debate over why and how people become experts has existed for more than a century. Many theorists argue that thousands of hours of focused, deliberate practice is sufficient to achieve elite status.

Hambrick disagrees.

“The evidence is quite clear,” he writes, “that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”

Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, looking specifically at how practice was related to differences in performance. Practice, they found, accounted for only about one-third of the differences in skill in both music and chess.

So what made up the rest of the difference?

Based on existing research, Hambrick said it could be explained by factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity. A previous study of Hambrick’s suggested that working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – may sometimes be the deciding factor between being good and great.

While the conclusion that practice may not make perfect runs counter to the popular view that just about anyone can achieve greatness if they work hard enough, Hambrick said there is a “silver lining” to the research.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” he said, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

Focus Hard. In reasonable bursts. One day at a time.

Cal Newport on deliberate practice.  He discusses the distinction between “hard work” and “hard to do work”, with the goal of deliberate practice being to do less work that is harder to do.

Some more reading about deliberate practice.  I heard about the study with the violinists a while ago, so it’s not exactly new news, but it’s definitely worth sharing.

Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, [Ericsson] has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. In other words, they force themselves to stay in the “cognitive phase.”
—  Foer, J. 2011. Moonwalking with Einstein. The art and science of remembering everything. Pg. 171. The Penguin Press. NY.
Deliberate Practice ISN’T What Most of Us Do When We’re “Practicing”

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post asking for someone to please enlighten me:

What specficially is “deliberate practice?”  Like, down-and-dirty, roll up your sleeves, step-by-step, What Is It?

This much I know:  "Deliberate Practice" feels much different from the trenches than it does when you’re just hearing about it as a concept.

I hit the “Publish” button on that post, and then I picked up Geoff Colvin’s book,Talent is Overratedin he describes in precise detail, What Deliberate Practice Is and Isn’t:

“For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing.”


It’s an excellent book that I highly recommend for anyone trying improve at almost anything (i.e. school, sports, music, and even corporate America).

For now, I’ll leave you with a few quotes from the book that describe “deliberate practice” in the kind of detail I was looking for:

“…deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.”

“High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task of performing and the task for real, when it counts.”

“Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.”

Feedback is essential: “…practicing without feedback is like bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level.”

“It’s highly demanding mentally.  Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.”

“The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. A finding that is remarkably consistent across disciplines is that four or five hours seems to be the upper limit of deliberate practice, and this is frequently accomplished in sessions lasting no more than an hour to ninety minutes.”

“It isn’t much fun…..Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable.”

“…great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development state in their chosen field. …The essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one can not do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible.”

There’s a lot more to say about this.  To be continued…..

For now, I’m off to write more SAT questions.  After reading the book, I’m further convinced that SAT question writing falls squarely in “deliberate practice” territory.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Many of our escapes are involuntary: addiction and dissociating from painful feelings are two examples. Anyone who has worked with a strong addiction—compulsive eating, compulsive sex, abuse of substances, explosive anger, or any other behavior that’s out of control—knows that when the urge comes on it’s irresistible. The seduction is too strong.

So we train again and again in less highly charged situations in which the urge is present but not so overwhelming. By training with everyday irritations, we develop the knack of refraining when the going gets rough. It takes patience and an understanding of how we’re hurting ourselves not to continue taking the same old escape route of speaking or acting out.

—  Pema Chödrön from Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change
What Is “Deliberate Practice” (and am I doing it)?

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Everyone talks a good game about the essential ingredients for mastery (myself included) – there's "deliberate practice,“ and "10,000 hours,”  etc.  But I ask of you,* and with the utmost sincerity:

What exactly– specifically and punctiliously** is this "deliberate practice?“

Does this all count towards my 10,000 hours?

I just started reading Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, which seems like it could answer my questions.

I can tell you that I feel mentally fatigued at the end of each day.  I want the lights dimmed and no loud noises.  This is a particular challenge when you’re living with teenagers.  My son told me the other night that I’m acting like Cromwell (he wouldn’t allow “merrymaking” and made everyone wear black).

Oy.  Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.  Maybe the SAT really is for young people – like what they say about having babies.

I can tell you I did not fare well when I ran my one and only marathon. You know how some people just pick up and get on with their lives like it was nothing?  That was not me. It did me in; I never ran again.

Maybe it’s the adult pressures on top of the SATs.  I don’t want to cook and pay bills – and I don’t want to take another full, timed practice test – which PWN says I must do before the next real SAT (Oct. 1).

Here’s what I know:

All those theories about learning and mastery feel much different down here in the trenches. (just sayin’)

*The most valuable “you,” for me, is the “you” who’s been down here in the trenches.

**Yes, I keep repeating this word.  It’s my new favorite – replacing jejune – and topping my list of words to bring back in rotation.

Illustrations by Jennifer Orkin Lewis



Amy Henion’s TED Talk offers perspective from the recent graduates contributing to the growing momentum of the tiny house movement. Enjoy.

Amy Henion believes tiny houses could be the ticket to the freedom and security she and other young professionals need to succeed.
…like most college students and recent grads, isn’t sure what the next few years will hold. While fretting about how she will manage to pay the bills while still being flexible to new opportunities, Amy stumbled upon a potential solution to her concerns of high rent and poor mobility: tiny houses! In this talk Amy shares the benefits of tiny living, and the history of the ever growing tiny house movement in America.

The things we own have power over us. They have the power to keep us rooted in one place and they have the power to drown out our need for human interaction. If you detach yourself from the things you own you find that you’re free from the restrictions they place on you.
~ Amy Henion

Related: Should I live in a tiny house? [Infographic] Is Your McMansion Killing You? [Infographic]One Year Retrospective by Golden Tiny House [short read]  ↬ smalltopia

Most of what you’ll read online about the Small House Movement has to do with the architecture of small homes.

Yet, what’s more important than the architecture are the choices we make that get us to a point of simple living. To do so, one really needs to assess their priorities, passions, and goals.

Living small is made possible by living a focused life. Choosing those things and activities you enjoy most, and discarding everything else.

Since yesterday afternoon I found myself google stuff like “practise schedule”, “figure drawing bootcamps” and “how to get good at figure drawing in *** days” … It took me a night’s sleep to figure out in what trap I was walking in and I’m actually delighted that this happened to me so soon in the game. Otherwise I might have misinterpreted it as lack of something other than what it is: lack of patience. Always. Over and over.

The tricky thing is that my mind always sounds so reasonable and that you can always find enough opinions online who support that same belief, so that whatever you’re doing seems not good/fast/clever/intense enough and that there is something out there that will be the right thing to do. Just stop whatever you’re doing and go look for that Holy Grail.

Reading back in my morning pages I can also see that about 6 months ago I experienced something similar and that was tied to the steps I took to get out of my comfort zone.

And what have I been doing these past days? Drawing boxes in space. And I actually spelled that out on this page: that’s me getting uncomfortable. It’s the boxes.

So while there might be some truth in my doubts that I could do more (there is always more to do) I am not to forget that I’m implementing a new habit right now. The habit of ‘deliberate practise’ - which, believe me, does not come naturally to me. And when I have mastered that - an almost daily habit of sitting down and getting out of my comfort zone - then I’m allowed and capable of expanding that habit into hours and new fields.

It’s not fast, it’s not a ‘full immersion’ strategy - but a daily deliberate practise habit will be the true foundation of a lifelong positive attitude towards learning.

In the future I would love to explore bootcamps and full immersion weekends for specific topics… I’m, as everyone, absolutely fascinated by the idea of getting somewhere faster, but it is not this day, this week or even this month. Instead I’m going to practise my patience, get to it daily, work through the basic stuff that makes me uncomfortable and grow. In tiny steps. Because before I can run I have to walk.

(exercise is from ‘Draw a box’)