Deliberate Practice

Ericsson’s excellent (and highly readable) article The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance from 1993 started what in the last 5 years or so has bubbled up to the surface1.

Deliberate practice is training on the edge of your ability with the sole aim to get better. It’s not the same as performing; playing a game of chess, a round of golf, or solving a familiar type of mathematic problem is not deliberate practice. Attempting 5 different openings in chess to figure out their strengths and weakness, hitting 300 golf balls with your 5 iron to get as close to the 150m sign as possible, or trying different solution strategies on a known mathematical problem, those are examples of deliberate practice.

Ericsson found that our ability to do something – sing, play football, read, do maths, negotiate, write – is proportional to how much deliberate practice we have had. That is a magnificent result with far-reaching implications; first of all, natural talent is largely overrated. If you think about it, that’s not surprising. The neural connections in our brain determines our performance. They are shaped by evolution (genetics) and environment. Even though being a musician is a great way to get laid (or so I hear), evolutionary pressures have not favoured piano virtuosos. They have, however, favoured the ability to learn whatever is useful at the time; thus, our brain has been optimised for learning.

Biologically, it turns out, deliberate practice wraps neural connections layer by layer with myelin – a form of insulation – that strengthens them and speed up the signals they carry. Here’s what a cross-section of a myelin wrapped nerve fibre looks like:

Cross-section of a nerve fibre wrapped in several layers of Myelin. Source: Wikipedia

Cross-section of a nerve fibre wrapped in several layers of Myelin. Source: Wikipedia

When a neural pattern “lights” up, it is strengthened. That’s why deliberate practice works; and that’s why there are no shortcuts.

Understanding deliberate practice is important and rewarding. Coyle’s The Talent Code is one of several recent popular books on the phenomenon (others include Gladwell’s Outliers which I haven’t read since Gladwell rambles and Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated which is good but not better than Coyle). Coyle’s exploration is lucid and engaging; with concrete examples from a variety of fields – tennis, football, writing, and music – he gives a basic intuition and argues convincingly for the generality of deliberate practice. The book covers the foundations (Deep Practice), how people come to do it (Ignition), and what makes teaching effective (Master Coaching). It is an excellent introduction to the topic (and would have been superb had it been one-third shorter).

  1. Gladwell’s Outliers played a key role in popularising deliberate practice and the 10,000 hours “rule”. Personally, I think Gladwell waffles and rants far too much and could only bear a few pages of that book.