I would like to be a better swimmer, a better runner, a better guitarist, a better singer, a better lecturer, a better writer, a better organiser, a better partner, and generally a better person. But how can I achieve all these things? I have no method. I approach things haphazardly, hoping that sheer repetition will lead to betterment. This hope is probably forlorn.
Here’s an example. Years ago, I decided I wanted to improve my swimming. I joined a swimming club. I took a few lessons. And I participated in some rigorous training sessions. Eventually I felt pretty good about myself. I was able to swim for long periods without getting tired. I swam a lot. Maybe 2.5 − 3km, three to four days a week. By the end of it, being able to stay in a swimming pool for a couple of hours on end was all I achieved. I never really improved my speed or the quality of my strokes. Indeed, I often didn’t bother to check if I’d improved. My feeling good about myself was enough. So after an initial ascent up the learning curve, I plateaued.
I have repeated the same pattern throughout my life. I have initial bursts of enthusiasm in which I try to develop some skillset, and once I achieve reasonable proficiency (or what seems like reasonable proficiency to me), I just repeat myself ad nauseum. According to Anders Ericsson’s new book Peak I’m not alone. I, like many others, have the wrong approach to improving my abilities. If I want to get really good at something, I need to move away from the naive belief that sheer repetition leads to improvement. I need to embrace what he calls deliberate practice.
I’m fascinated by Ericsson’s ideas for several reasons. Peak is a pop-science book. It exposes and distills the results of Ericsson’s empirical research with expert performers. Some of those results have already leaked into the popular consciousness, most infamously through Malcolm Gladwell’s formulation of the 10,000 hour rule (though both Ericsson and Gladwell claim that this has been misinterpreted). Cutting through this popular noise and hearing from the original source is a useful corrective. Also, I’m interested in how Ericsson’s ideas can be applied not just to the sports interests and hobbies that I happen to have, but also to my day-to-day work as an academic. Cal Newport — who I’ve written about before — thinks that academics have much to learn by incorporating the principles of deliberate practice into their work lives. I’m not entirely convinced, but I want to experiment with the idea over the coming months.
But to do that I need to have a clear sense of what deliberate practice entails. Strangely enough, this is something that is quite ‘hidden’ in Ericsson’s book. You have to wade through more than a hundred pages to get a summary of the key principles and even then Ericsson adds complications by highlighting forms of practice that are not quite deliberate but would be beneficial. Indeed, by my count, Ericsson identifies four different kinds of practice in the book. My goal in this post is to offer a useful one-stop summary of all four.
I’ll start with a synoptic view. The image below depicts the four kinds of practice. They are arranged along a spectrum. At the extreme left you have the weakest form of practice — i.e. the one that is least likely to improve your skillset — and at the extreme right you have the strongest form of practice — i.e. the one that is most likely to improve your skillset. Arranging the forms of practice in this manner gives us a useful starting principle: if you want to get better at something, try to move your practice style along the spectrum so you get as close as possible to the extreme right (deliberate practice). The principle is useful because, as we will see in a moment, deliberate practice is a very particular thing. It is not possible in every domain. So you can’t adopt the principle of engaging in deliberate practice all the time. But when it is not possible, you want to get as close to it as possible.
So much for the synoptic view. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the individual practice styles. We’ll start with ’Naive Practice’. That can be defined in the following manner:
Naive Practice: You start off with a general sense of what you want to achieve. You get some kind of instruction (either through independent research or from an actual coach). You practice until you reach a satisfactory level of performance — one that is more or less automatic. And then you plateau, i.e. you stay in a comfort zone.
This is obviously the kind of practice I engaged in when I wanted to improve my swimming. It is the kind of practice that most people engage in. Ericsson cites some interesting research suggesting that many forms of professional education result in this plateau-ing effect. For example, doctors have been found not to improve significantly in their abilities despite years of experience. They reach a plateau of performance.
’Purposeful practice’ is an improvement on this. It can be defined in the following manner:
Purposeful Practice: A concerted effort to improve some skillset by doing four things:
(a) Practicing with some well-defined, specific goals in mind, i.e. targets for improvement. In the case of swimming the specific targets might be daily/weekly/monthly improvements in time. It is important that these goals are not vague and wooly, e.g. I want to get faster; they need to be specific, e.g. I want to improve my 100m freestyle by .05 of a second. As Ericsson puts it, ‘purposeful practice is about putting together a bunch of baby-steps to reach a longer-term goal’ (2016, 15).(b) Being focused, i.e. giving the task your full attention while you are trying to reach your specific goal. This is important because you want to avoid the automaticity that is common in naive practice. Sticking with the swimming example, you want to make sure you are not just going through the motions. You are concentrating on your stroke and technique during your practice sessions.c) Using feedback to improve your performance, i.e. testing your performance to see whether or not you are getting better. So in the swimming example, this would mean actually recording your times, tracking how many strokes you take to get from one end of the pool to another, using a coach to give guidance on your technique and so on. The idea is that you can’t really improve unless you know whether your efforts have been successful.(d) Getting out of your comfort zone, i.e. pushing yourself to improve. This is one of the main things that separates purposeful practice from naive practice. The plateau-ing effect results from people staying in a comfort zone. If you want to get off the plateau you need to move outside the comfort zone. In the case of swimming this would mean constantly trying to improve your times and your stroke rate — aiming to beat your personal best and so on.
In most cases of purposeful practice (and indeed the other forms of practice that we are about to discuss) it helps if you break the task you are trying to master down into a number of sub-tasks. You then try to master your technique at each of those subtasks. In the case of swimming this might mean working on breathing technique and legwork separately, honing those skills, and then knitting them back together into the overall performance. This ability to hone the essential, but oftentimes boring, sub-skills is one of the key attributes of expert performers.
The next step along the spectrum is ‘proto-deliberate practice’, but you can’t understand what that means until you know what deliberate practice is. So we’ll skip ahead to that. ‘Deliberate practice’ is the gold standard (according to Ericsson). It is the kind of practice you find among elite performers in fields like sport and music. It is similar to purposeful practice insofar as it involves focus, specific goals, moving outside your comfort zone and feedback. Where it differs is in the body of knowledge upon which it is based. It is possible in fields where there are clear objective (or semi-objective) standards of success and a well-developed knowledge base about effective training routines and methods. There are also usually expert coaches who can provide assistance to practicers. In essence, deliberate practice is informed purposeful practice.
Ericsson argues that deliberate practice has seven key elements to it:
Deliberate Practice: Informed purposeful practice. It includes:
(a) Developing skills that others have figured out, i.e. relying on an established knowledge base about what training techniques and methods work.(b) Practicing with well-defined, specific goals in mind (same as for purposeful practice)c) Consistently moving outside your comfort zone (same as for purposeful practice)(d) Using full attention and conscious actions, i.e. similar to the ‘focus’ element of purposeful practice. Involves being fully present and engaged in your training.(e) Using feedback and modification to reach your goals (same as for purposeful practice)(f) Developing effective mental representations, i.e. developing new cognitive frameworks that allow you to master the skillset. It has been found in study after study of expert performers that they have developed advanced mental representations that allow them to overcome limitations faced by other performers. The classic example of this comes from the study of chess players and how they represent the pieces on the chessboard. Unlike novice chess players, they do not ‘see’ individual pieces on the board; instead, they see classic game sequences and patterns. This allows them to ‘chunk’ information into higher order representations and overcome limitations of working memory.(g) Building upon your preexisting skillset, i.e. building newly acquired skills on top of previously acquired skills. This is the way that most learning is done and highlights the importance of mastering ‘foundational’ skills.
Skills like violin-playing and swimming lend themselves to deliberate practice. And it is these kinds of skills that Ericsson has focused on in his research. In both cases, there is a highly developed body of knowledge and reasonably clear objective standards of success or failure (opinions of experts in the case of music and times in the case of swimming). The problem is that not every domain is like that. Sometimes we are trying to develop skills in a relatively novel domain, where we lack well-developed pathways to success. In other cases, we may lack obvious objective standards of success. Indeed, many aspects of professional life are like this. I’d be hard pushed to come up with clear objective standards of success in academia (there are some metrics like number of papers published/cited, funding awards won and so on — whether they actually delineate what it means to be successful is another question).
Still, in cases like this, Ericsson thinks that we can approximate the gold standard of deliberate practice. I call these cases of ‘proto-deliberate practice’:
Proto-deliberate Practice: An attempt to approximate deliberate practice by adopting the purposeful approach and doing three things:
(a) Finding an expert (or experts) whose performance clearly outstrips that of others in that domain. Bear in mind that this will be difficult when there are no obvious objective standards of success and that your selection of the ‘best’ may be biased in various ways.(b) Figuring out what they do differently. Again, this can be difficult. You need to know what other people are doing and how the expert performers differ from those norms. Trying to get them to unpack their mental representations can be a useful technique but bear in mind they may not even know what they do differently.c) Try to develop training routines that allow you to follow their lead. This will involve some trial and error as you try to figure out how you can change your performance to approximate what they are doing. Again, copious use of feedback and modification is desirable at this stage.
So there you have it. A quick overview of the four main types of practice. It’s worth closing with two observations. First, by identifying the difference between deliberate practice and other less successful forms of practice, Ericsson is not suggesting that we should all try to approximate deliberate practice all the time. Far from it. There are many cases where naive practice is sufficient. In my case, this might be true of swimming. I doubt I’ll ever be a competitive swimmer (even at an amateur level). I don’t really need to hone my technique. I just need to be able to enjoy the experience. I’ve probably achieved that. You should save deliberate practice for the things you really want to get better at.
Second, there is an interesting relationship between deliberate practice and creativity. As described, you might think that deliberate practice is the antithesis of creativity. After all, it seems to be about copying the training techniques of others. It’s not about creating new styles of performance or developing wholly novel domains for human enjoyment. But this is probably wrong. Expert musicians and sports-stars are often quite creative. They simply build the creativity upon a strong foundational skillset. This argument requires elaboration, but I think it is right. To take an example that is close to my own heart, I think having good foundational knowledge of Standard English is useful if you want to adopt creative writing styles. In a sense, it’s only if you have mastered the conventional that you able to appreciate the opportunities for creativity.