Deliberate Practice — How to get better at almost anything.

January 29, 2020
5 min read
Pedestrian: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Street performer: (Wearily), “Practice.”
— Jascha Heifitz.¹

On a cold April day in Portland Oregon in 2010, Dan McLaughlin putted for two hours. Dan was a commercial photographer, who had never played 18 holes of golf in his life. Those two hours on a putting green were the start of an ambitious journey. Dan set out to test Dr. K. Anders Erickson’s 10,000-hour theory. He had 9,998 hours to go.

The 10,000-hour theory proposed by Erickson is this — it takes 10,000 hours of what Erickson called deliberate practice to excel at any skill. Erickson noted that “Elite performers engage in what we call ‘deliberate practice’ – an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance”² and required roughly 10,000 hours of ‘deliberate practice’ to become world-class.

The 10,000-hour theory has been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell³, Geoff Colvin⁴ and — can you believe it —  Justin Beiber.⁵

At 5,100 hours, four years and halfway into the ‘Dan Plan’, McLaughlin was a 3.3 handicap golfer. Then his back gave out.⁶

You can get better at anything you do, any skill, with deliberate practice. Obviously, there are limits, as Dan found out. Outside factors: age, opportunities to practice, your physicality, dexterity, ear. Perhaps the biggest limit is the muscle between your ears — do you have the passion and persistence to get better? Dan did, and went from a hacker to a 3 handicap golfer in just under four years.

If you do, with time and deliberate practice, you can get better at anything, whether it’s cooking or critical thinking, lacrosse or leadership, dancing or data visualization.

Break practice down.

Every sport or skill has a model behind it. A way of breaking it down into component parts, and then sub-components, each of which can be improved. That lays out the framework for your practice. Take for example most sports, like tennis or squash or golf or running. Broadly speaking, you can break those down into component parts: Athleticism. Technique. Strategy. Mental Game. You may be a squash player with great technique, and really look like you can play. But with no athleticism, you might be slow to the ball, have no stamina, no real strength for a particular movement. In understanding this, you have broken that broad category of athleticism down into three areas. Imagine your ‘gap’ is stamina. You are fast enough to the ball, and strong — you just don’t last in tough games. Deliberate practice for you may not even happen on court. Endurance running - three to four miles at a time, or jumping rope in half hour increments would be a way to build your stamina.

This same philosophy applies to business skills. Take leadership. The first question you should ask yourself is not, “Where am I weak or strong (in leadership?)” it’s, “How do I break leadership down? What’s my mental model of leadership?” Large companies often break this down for you and have leadership models. Let’s say those broad component parts are: Charisma, Communication, Decision-Making, Strategy and Management. It doesn’t really matter what your model of leadership is, it’s important that you have one. This allows you to do two things that will let you practice: First, to assess where you are, and second, to break down that component into sub-components that you can learn and improve.

Make feedback work for you.

Feedback is a difficult thing. Without it, you will never improve. Poor feedback leads to time and effort spent poorly. Negative feedback can be deflating and rob you of any passion to improve.

How does this work in practice? Imagine you are working on a change in your golf (or tennis, or squash) swing. Endless rote repetition helps to embed that change, but not much. Deliberate practice with feedback will get you there faster. So if you are working at the driving range, aim at a target. The feedback you get when you hit the ball wide, short, or long of target is invaluable.

Similarly with leadership skills. Immediate feedback will improve your learning. At Cisco, when an executive delivers a presentation at company meetings or delivers a customer facing presentation, the executive is immediately rated on that presentation. Customers and employees are asked to rate delivery and content on a five point scale. This immediate feedback drives improvement in that skill. John Chambers, former CEO, believes that effective communication of a brand story facilitates the execution of a company’s road map.⁷

Practice at the edge of your comfort zone.

In her book, The Leading Brain, neuroscientist Freiderike Fabritius discusses the relationship between arousal — neuroscience-speak for stimulation or stress — and performance. Simply put, we have to be slightly stressed to perform.⁸

We have to be at the edge of our comfort zone. Firmly in the middle of our comfort zone, and our performance is low. We are too comfortable, too much in our own routine, we aren’t learning. Too far outside of our comfort zone, we are too stressed, we are unable to learn, we freeze.

This is why organizations that train well work hard at practice. Infantry medics prior to deployment to Afghanistan or other war zones will work through field exercises designed to put into practice and test their skills.

A company called Strategic Operations does exactly that for corpsmen in San Diego. They focus on Hyper-Realistic training. A typical scenario might involve a large set, mad to look like a local village. Dozens of mud-brick buildings, broken down trucks, explosions and a call to prayer. On that set, awaiting the corpsmen, are medical role-players. Often amputees, these role-players are kitted out with the best that Hollywood movie magic can supply. Silicone make-up dressed as the worst kind of bleeding battlefield injuries. Pumping (fake) arterial blood, and the screams of (acting) dying men. That’s the environment in which medics hone their skills. They practice under extreme conditions to prepare them for the grim realities of war.⁹

How do you practice?

To quote Dan McGlaughlin, “The word ‘talent’ gets thrown around too much. What makes someone ‘talented’ is a single-mindedness to push through the lows and to allow themselves to change and grow.”¹⁰

If that’s true, your skill, at anything you do, is dependent on your focus, the work you put in, and how you practice. Ask yourself first what skill do you want to develop? Do you practice? And then, do you deliberately practice?

Talent isn’t genetic, or ordained. It comes from work and will.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹For a detailed history of this joke, see Carnegie Hall’s history blog. https://www.carnegiehall.org/Blog/2016/04/The-Joke
² Erickson, K. Anders, and Fast Company Staff. “The Expert on Experts.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 19 Sept. 2012, www.fastcompany.com/58002/expert-experts.
³ Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, and Company, 2013. https://www.amazon.com/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladwell/dp/0316017930
⁴ Colvin, J. Talent Is Overrated. Penguin Books, 2008. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1591842948/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i0
⁵ “Dan + Shay, Justin Bieber - 10,000 Hours (Official Music Video).” Performance by Justin Bieber, YouTube, YouTube, 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2E71oe0aSM.
⁶ Dan, together with Neighbour Chris Onstad, founded Portland Soda Works in 2012. Sample it for yourself at PortlandSyrups.com
⁷ Gallo, Carmine. “Cisco's Obsession With Presentation Skills Makes Managers Better Leaders.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Aug. 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2014/08/13/ciscos-obsession-with-presentation-skills-makes-managers-better-leaders.
⁸ “Find Your Sweet Spot.” The Leading Brain: Powerful Science-Based Strategies for Achieving Peak Performance, by Friederike Fabritius and Hans Werner Hagemann, TarcherPerigee, an Imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018, p. 6.
⁹ “Carnage under Fire.” Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach, Large Print Press, a Part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2017, pp. 106–113.
¹⁰ McGlaughlin, Dan. “‘Bouncing Back’: a Return to Australia.” The Dan Plan, 20 Sept. 2017, thedanplan.com/bouncing-back-a-return-to-australia/.

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