Deliberate Practice

Mahesh May 28, 2018 · 5 mins read

I read the book Outliers several years ago, and as far as I can remember, I was very impressed with the book. Then I started hearing complaints about the book: that the ten thousand hour rule that the author, Malcom Gladwell, had been preaching, was over-simplified, and Gladwell may have not stuck to high standards when reporting on some examples.

In case you have not read that book, and have no idea what I am talking about, here is the gist of ten thousand hours rule: if you want to become a world-class expert in a domain, you will need to practice for around ten thousand hours or so.

Or at least that’s the message that I remember from the book. The problem is that, this message is not accurate, if not 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.”

Ouch.

The ten thousand hour rule was derived from the work by Anders Ericsson, somebody whose job is to study experts, expert performance, and what leads to expertise. After the publication of the Outliers book, Anders started popping up on my radar and was complaining about the book (for example, I heard him talk on Freakonomics).

So when I learnt that Anders had published a book on this subject, called Peak, I was very curious to take a look. I am still reading the book, but I am glad I picked it up — this book 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. Note that shortly after finishing reading Outliers, I did come across this concept of deliberate practice and understood the subject, but this book has been useful in filling in gaps and connecting a lot of dots that I have been thinking about expertise.

Deliberate practice is very different from regular practice.

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. So what happened? I was just practicing it without focusing on improving the skill. It was not mindful, it was very much mindless.

This sort of mindful practice is what is Ericsson calls as Deliberate practice. You have to intensely focus on what you are doing with a goal to improve. In short, after you come out of a deliberate practice session, your head should hurt (of course I am exaggerating here a bit, but my point is that deliberate practice is very difficult and is not a pleasant activity).

Ericsson gives similar examples like typing: you don’t know how to play tennis, you start practicing and you slowly get better until one day you realize that you have hit a plateau and have not improved for a long time now. Most likely this is because initially you had to focus quite a bit to get to a decent shape, and then you have stopped focusing, and the games are generally fun. Mostly you are having nice conversations in the court with your opponent.

This is where focus comes in. You have to focus very carefully to learn from your mistakes.

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.

This struck a chord with me, since, unfortunately, I realized that I have spent a lot of hours in the gym without really focusing on what I was doing.

So, how exactly does deliberate practice help you become an expert? The answer lies in mental representations.

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 represenation of language improved. When you look at a word, you immediately know what the word is, instead of reading it out as i-m-m-e-d-i-a-t-e-l-y.

Similary, 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 represntations is that better mental representations help you think faster and clearer than others. 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 book!