Deliberate practice

David Brooks today summarizes a hot topic relevant to every parent, educator, mentor, trainer, coach, and manager: deliberate practice.

The key factor separating geniuses from the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess. Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft…

[Initially] practice would be slow, painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse. Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how many errors you detect.)

Deliberate practice is a special type of practice involving constant self-criticism and (ideally) critiquing by expert coaches. Deliberate practicers never settle for “good enough” but instead push for constant improvement by identifying and correcting flaws in their technique:

Our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside, correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future problems.

Two other keys to greatness are passion/ambition and great coaching. Passion/ambition spurs one to deeply engage in an activity for many years. And great coaching speeds the learning process by enhancing the quality of deliberate practice through rapid expert feedback on performance.

Brooks mentions two books: Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code and Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated.

I heartily recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which covers the same topic from a different angle (such as a discussion of Bill Gates' many lucky breaks that — combined with his drive and focus and passion — helped him achieve such incredible success). Deliberate practice is a necessary — but not a sufficient — condition for success.

Posted by James on Friday, May 01, 2009