Ruby Rogues podcast recently had an interesting discussion about how to learn . At the center of the discussion was a wrongly, but commonly held notion that talent is genetic. They discussed research about the role of deliberate practice in making of an elite performer. I think this knowledge broadly applies to a number of domains, including to people who work in the knowledge industry. The main source of that information is from a research paper by Ericsson et. al. , which is also considered to be one of the main sources of information for Malcom Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours narrative in his book Outliers. The material presented below is from that research paper by Ericsson et. al., and is paraphrased and summarized for my own understanding. The research matters to me for two reasons: one, I have children who are 7 and 4, and are of age when expert performers are first introduced to the domain that they become experts in their later life; and second, though I am well past that tender age, I am eager to learn anything that applies to individuals of any age. I want to acquire new skills and get better at the ones that I already possess.
Not hereditary; but acquired
What are the possibilities and limits of change in cognitive capacities and bodily functions of an individual? Only few abilities are arguably direct reflection of genetic factors, for e.g. height, which may be detrimental to an individual’s success at sport like basketball and volleyball. But in most cases, an expert’s superior performance implies that acquired knowledge and skill are important to attainment of expert performance. The only plausible role for hereditary factors is in the developmental history of an individual. Superior performance by very young children without prior instruction may suggest exceptional promise, leading to an early onset of training. Unique environmental conditions and parental support, rather than talent, are the important factors determining the initial onset of training and ultimate performance. Training can also compensate for disabilities and has a greater impact than often believed possible. What distinguishes expert performers is also more and better organized knowledge, which is an acquired asset.
Following are the phases of development that lead to elite performance. During the first three phases, you need support from external sources, such as parents (for children), teachers or mentors:
- Phase 1: Starts with introduction to activities in the domain and ends with the start of instruction and deliberate practice.
- Phase 2: Consists of an extended period of preparation and ends with the individual’s commitment to pursue activities in the domain on a full-time basis.
- Phase 3: Consists of full-time commitment to improving performance and ends when you either can make a living as a professional performer in the domain, or you quit.
- Phase 4: You go beyond the knowledge of your teachers or mentors, to make a unique innovative contribution to your domain.
A common theme that flows through the four phases above is of deliberate practice.
What is deliberate practice
The maximum level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically due to extended experience. People hit plateaus in skill acquisition, when for long periods they seem unable to attain further improvements. The level of their performance can be increased by making deliberate efforts to improve. This is done by actively searching for methods to improve performance and when they make changes in methods it often leads to clear improvements. The activity one does in order to see improvement is called deliberate practice. The goal of deliberate practice is not doing “more of the same.” Rather, it involves engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve your performance. Here are the definitions of broad activities that we perform on a daily basis:
- Work: Public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards
- Play: Activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable
- Deliberate practice: Activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance
In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. Its practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Without the goal of improving performance, the motivation to engage in practice vanishes. Individuals are motivated to practice only because practice improves their performance. It does not generate immediate monetary rewards, but rather generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments. The long-term consequences of deliberate practice is important because of the cost involved.
Deliberate practice should not be confused with the enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity. Flow is a state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity. This state of diffused attention is almost in contrast with focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action. Hence, flow produces a state which allows an individual to enjoy the activity performed, but does not necessarily improve the level of their expertise as a result of performing that activity.
How much is enough
You must maximize the amount of time you spend on deliberate practice to improve performance. International level performers often receive their first exposure to their domain between the ages of 3 and 8, but it is never too late to start. People in their advanced age have seen their performance improve as a result of deliberate practice.
The level of performance an individual attains is directly related to the amount of deliberate practice. Hence, to maximize your performance, you should maximize the amount of deliberate practice. But before you go full throttle, you should also know that this time period extends over months and years. The duration of effective daily practice that can be sustained over such long periods is limited and it is necessary to maintain full attention during the entire period of deliberate practice. Hence, you should start slow and slowly increase the amount of deliberate practice over extended periods of time. You will need to device your own strategy to make it sustainable. Look at examples of successful people in order to come up with your solution. For example, successful authors who can control their work habits and are motivated to optimize their productivity, limit their most important intellectual activity to a fixed daily amount when working on projects that require long periods of time to complete. Too rapid increase in the intensity of practice lead to “overuse and overtraining”, which occur frequently in sports and even in music. Experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout.
In summary, disregard of the effort constraint on deliberate practice leads to injury and even failure. Start slow, and increase the amount of time you spend on a daily basis on deliberate practice. Some of the best performers engage in practice for up to 4 hours per day including weekend. However, you should be aware that they achieved 4 hours practice after a number of years in that domain, so you want to start with 45 minutes or 1 hour a day, and gradually increase the duration over time. The amount of weekly practice for individuals maintaining regular practice increases with age, accumulated practice, and performance. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity — practice, thinking, or writing — requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 hours a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.
More about experts
Individuals who practice more, also sleep longer. They also spend less time for leisure even though they admit that it is the most enjoyable of all activities. Experts are also able to estimate quite accurately the time they allocated to leisure, whereas others underestimate their leisure time.
They also seek out the very best teachers in their domain. Over the years, they have taken formal instruction from more teachers than the non experts.
The organization and accessibility of knowledge has also been shown to distinguish individuals at different levels of expertise in physics, medicine, and social science. Unlike the rapid decay of acquired knowledge seen in laboratory studies, repeated application and use of knowledge over extended periods leads to remarkably good retention of the knowledge even after years or decades of disuse.
Once an individual has acquired a reasonably high level of skill, it is possible for that individual to attain an above average performance or even regain the original performance after a brief period of retraining.
Elite performers maximize the effectiveness of their deliberate activities by engaging in them at a certain time of day, which differs across domains. Scientists and authors consistently choose to use mornings for demanding writing, and athletes prefer afternoons for their most strenuous practice sessions. Research on the effects of the time of day shows that simple perceptual-motor performance is enhanced in the afternoon and early evening, whereas intellectually demanding activities are enhanced in the morning. So pick a fixed time in the day that works for you, and use that time for deliberate practice.
Research shows that the past amount of deliberate practice is directly related to the individual’s current performance. Deliberate practice starts at a low level and increases over time. Even the adult elite performance, with individuals with more than 10 years of practice, is related to the amount of deliberate practice. Domain-specific mechanisms, rather than more general cognitive-motor abilities, are responsible for expert’s superior performance.
Elite performance is a product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain, through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice.
 Ericsson et. al. (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance