Anders Ericsson, the psychology professor quoted above, coined the term deliberate practice (DP) to describe this special type of work. In a nice overview he posted on his web site, he summarizes DP as:
[A]ctivities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.
Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea, surveyed the research literature, andexpanded the DP definition to include the following six traits (which I’ve condensed slightly from his original eight):
- It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
- It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
- Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
- It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
- It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
- It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
If you’re in a field that has clear rules and objective measures of success — like playing chess, golf, or the violin — you can’t escape thousands of hours of DP if you want to be a star. But what if you’re in a field without these clear structures, such as knowledge work, writing, or growing a student club?
It’s here that things start to get interesting…
Deliberate Practice for the Rest of Us
Colvin, being a business reporter, points out that this sophisticated understanding of performance is lacking in the workplace.
“At most companies,” he argues, “the fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.”
He then adds the obvious corollary: “Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.”
It’s this advantage that intrigues me. To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.
Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.
Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.