Deliberate Practice: A path to expertise
Malcom Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hours rule in his famous book Outliers: The Story of Success. The gist of the ten thousand hours rule is that if you want to become a world-class expert in a domain, you will need to practice for around ten thousand hours or so. When I had first read that book (almost ten years ago), I was impressed and inspired. But then I started hearing complaints about the book: that the ten thousand hour rule was over-simplified, and Gladwell may have not stuck to high standards when reporting on some examples.
Let’s take a simple example to illustrate where Gladwell went wrong: Most of us have been typing for a long time (i.e. practicing the skill of “typing”). I might have even practiced this skill for ten thousand hours by now. Am I an expert typist? Heck no. My typing speed is maxing out at 70 wpm (words per minute). The highest typing speed is above 200. So why am I not an expert despite my 10,000+ hours at typing?
The 10,000 hours rule is not entirely accurate and is misleading. First, there is no magic number of hours (“ten thousand”) that will buy you greatness and glory, and you cannot just “practice” your way to expertise.
Here is an example of a random goodreads review for Outliers that exemplifies the problem with the book:
He states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master something and that gives me comfort.
“2 hours down, only 9,998 left to go.”
The ten thousand hour rule was derived and adapted from the work by Anders Ericsson, somebody whose job has been to study experts, expert performance, and what leads to expertise. Possibly unhappy with the watered down version of expert performance analysis in Outliers, Ericsson published his own book, called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise in 2016. Naturally drawn to this subject, I took a look and I highly recommend this book — it covers a lot of ground and goes the whole nine yards about expertise.
Running the risk of over-simplification, if there is one main take-away from the book, it is that “deliberate practice” and not just the regular old “practice” that is essential for expertise.
What is deliberate practice?
You have to intensely focus on your activity of choosing with a specific goal to improve. It is methodical and effortful. It is deliberate. It hurts. You should come out of a session of deliberate practice pretty much drained out.
You can apply deliberate practice to improve your guitar skills, or to improve coding, or to improve any other activity where you want to be considered one of the few experts in the world.
Thus, deliberate practice is very different from regular practice. I have been practicing “typing” without focusing on improving the skill. It was not mindful, it was very much mindless. If I spend several more hours practicing “typing” deliberately, I could improve it drastically. This will require intense focus, and some form of feedback to fix my mistakes (e.g. using a software or a website).
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Ericsson gives similar examples like typing: Suppose you don’t know how to play tennis and you start learning it. Initially you focus as you practice, and most likely there is someone teaching you how to play and correcting your mistakes. It is deliberate practice. Eventually you don’t struggle as much, and it actually becomes a lot of fun to play. You don’t need to focus as much and you can enjoy having pleasant conversations with your opponent. You went from deliberate practice, that set you up on a path to improvement, to just practice. You have plateaued. To improve, you need to push yourself and it is hard work.
What makes deliberate practice different from practice?
Key ingredient #1: Focus
Talking about the American swimmer Natalie Coughlin, Ericsson writes:
While she was a good swimmer, she didn’t become great until she learned to focus throughout her practice.
When you practice at your current level of expertise, your brain relaxes. You are able to do it without intense focus. Imagine driving through your neighborhood — you are able to talk or listen to radio while still being able to drive.
But when you truly challenge yourself to practice above your current level of expertise, the only way to do that is with intense focus. Imagine being in tricky situations — your focus level goes up and you can’t really talk while driving.
Key ingredient #2: Feedback
You need to be able to correct the mistakes you make. In particular, it is always very helpful to have some mechanism with which you can identify the mistakes you make. This can be a coach, or a recording of yourself performing, or a software (for example when improving the skill of “typing”).
Don’t forget to rest
Since deliberate practice is extremely effortful, it is hard to sustain it for only a few hours at a time. After that you really need to rest.
The command to rest is fully as important as to work in effective learning"... Both Auer (1921), the famous violin teacher, and C. E. Seashore (1938/ 1967) recommended that practice periods be limited to less than 1 hr with ample rest in between.
How does it help: Better Mental representations
So, how exactly does deliberate practice help you become an expert? The answer lies in mental representations.
Consider reading: when you started out reading (as a child, I suppose), you would read character by character, and then read out the word. As time went by, you were able to “internalize” words and were able to read out word by word, instead of character by character. What happened here is that your mental representation of language improved. When you look at a word (e.g. elephant), you immediately know what the word is, instead of reading it out as e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t.
Similarly, experts when compared to others, have much better mental representations in their domains. For example, Chess players parse the board much differently than the rest of us. When most of us look at the board, we see the individual pieces and the grid and get a rough idea about what the pieces are doing. An absolute new beginner who hasn’t seen a chess board before will not even be able to grasp as much information as you do.
Expert chess players, on the other hand, absorb in a lot more information — they see which pieces are weakly positioned vs. which ones are strongly positioned. They probably almost see a story that is playing out on the board. If you show a valid board, and then ask them to recall, they are able to recall very well. I, on the other hand, will struggle to recall a few pieces here and there. Also, interestingly, if you show an invalid board, with the pieces placed incorrectly, they will struggle to recall the board!
The point about mental representations is that better mental representations help you think faster and clearer than others (constituting your “expertise”). And deliberate practice helps to hone the mental representations.
There are of course a number of other factors that help and influence expertise (for example, it helps a lot to have great teachers and to get immediate feedback so as to correct your mistakes), and Ericsson does a great job about explaining all of this.
If you are interested in delving deeper into this subject, I highly recommend the following books:
Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.
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