Using Deliberate Practice to become Great

How could Tiger Woods become the world’s best golf player at the age of 21? How could William Jones master more than 10 foreign languages? How could two Polgar sisters both become world chess champions? We tend to believe that these people had more natural talent than others. They were born with special abilities, we assume. However, the reality is not as simple as that.

Recent research shows that many years of practice are necessary to achieve greatness. That practice is far more important than natural talent. We might like to believe that if we find a field that matches our natural talents, we will be great from the beginning. However, research shows that that does not happen. There is no evidence of high-level performance without years of practice. In addition, that practice needs to have special features that make it more demanding than regular practice.

Deliberate practice = careful practice

According to the psychologist, K. Anders Ericsson, we need to do a lot of careful practice in order to reach a high level of performance. Ericsson calls it ‘deliberate practice’. It was the kind of practice that Mozart, the Polgar sisters and Tiger Woods did as young children. It involves pushing yourself to improve each time you practice. It involves reflecting carefully on what is happening while you practice. As soon as you finish a practice activity, you need to get feedback. You should immediately change your behavior if the feedback shows a problem. It is best to get various kinds of feedback.

When he was a boy, Tiger Woods got feedback on his golf swing by checking where the golf ball went, by listening to his father and coach and by watching his swing on video. Another important factor is regular practice. In Ericsson’s research, he found that successful people did deliberate practice almost every day. In short, Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice requires a person to work hard each practice session, think carefully, try to improve, get feedback and practice almost every day.

Although that kind of practice is demanding, there is a positive side to Ericsson’s research. With enough practice, you can make yourself great in almost any field, even if you do not have much natural talent. You might have a terrible singing voice now, but if you do deliberate practice for long enough, you will become a highly-skilled singer. Some of you might have got poor results in English in high school. However, you will become an excellent communicator in English if you study and practice that language for long enough. Ericsson’s message is that our natural talents do not determine our destiny. Our will to continue practicing or studying determines our results.

The ten-year rule

The path to success is a long one. In a study of 20-year-old violin students at a German college of music, Ericsson and his colleagues found that the best violinists averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice up to that age; the medium level group averaged 7,500 hours; and the lower group, 5,000 hours. It is the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and almost every sport. More deliberate practice means better performance. Ten thousand hours of it equals great performance. That amount of practice tends to take about 10 years to complete, so researchers in this field call it the 10-year rule. Almost all successful people, including Mozart, the Polgar sisters, and Tiger Woods, have done at least 10 years of deliberate practice before they reach a high level.

Most of us do not have a strong desire to be great, so we will not practice carefully for 10,000 hours. However, this research still has meaning for all of us. We all want to improve at certain things, for example, tennis, English or guitar. Yet, at some stage, we will experience trouble that blocks our improvement. If we believe that talent determines our success, we might assume that we do not have talent in that area because we are experiencing trouble. Then, we might give up. On the other hand, if we understand that practice is more important than talent, we will realize that we just need to practice more to get through the block. Careful practice is the key to improvement, whether we want to be good or great.

Adapted from What it takes to be great by Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine, 2006

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