By: Anders Ericsson



Why are some people so good at what they do? Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool say that no matter what field, improving is the direct result of “deliberate practice.”

Does Practice Make Perfect?

Deliberate practice is different than usual practice because it, as you may have guessed, is more deliberate. Usual practice goes like this: you begin with a general idea, such as how to play tennis. You get some instructions, practice until you reach an acceptable level and then let it become automatic. This is okay if you’re looking to be satisfactory, but if you want to be great, there is a huge problem: you stop improving.

The biggest misunderstanding of usual practice is that if you continue practicing something, you will get better. But if every time you try to swing at a tennis ball, you overextend by ten degrees, practicing that incorrect swing over and over again will not help you improve.

In fact, research shows that after a person reaches that “Acceptable” level, the additional years of practice don’t lead to improvement at all.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice, on the other hand, has well-defined, specific goals. These goals can be anything, such as play this piece through without making more than three mistakes or finish this puzzle in less than five minutes. With a goal in mind, the practice becomes purposeful.

Deliberate practice also requires feedback and correcting your mistakes. You need to push yourself hard to continuously improve.

Our bodies are built for adaptability. If you get on the treadmill and run a 20-minute mile, it may be hard for you at first. But eventually, your body will adapt. It will reach homeostasis, or stable equilibrium. If you want to improve, you must make a change. Try to run faster, or longer, or at a higher incline. When you challenge yourself again, your body will adapt again, and become stronger. This is how you improve.

Mental Representations

Have you ever heard of the chess masters that can play entire games, sometimes three or four at a time, without seeing a physical board? These people are proof that our brains are capable of incredible things.

How do they do it? It’s not as crazy as you may think. The chess players remember patterns; because they are familiar with the game, the patterns have meaning to them and the meaning aids memory.

Which is easier for you to remember: your mom’s birthday or the number series 97420? Probably your mom’s birthday, because it means something to you.

A lot of deliberate practice involves developing more effecient mental representations that will help you with whatever activity you are practicing. Mental representations are mental structures that correspond to an object, an idea, a collection of information or anything else.

For example, if I mention the Mona Lisa, you likely pull up an image of the painting in your mind. That image is your mental representation of the Mona Lisa.

A key factor of mental representations is that they must be specific, as there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a neurologist or a pediatrician. Mental representations can differ dramatically from field to field, so you must be specific in what mental representation you build.

Research shows that those with better mental representations perform better. This is why the best quarterback is the one that spends the most time reviewing films of games – he has the strongest mental representations of various possibilities of happenings on the field and thus he can respond quicker and more efficiently on the field.

Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life

There are many benefits of mental representation. It helps us deal with information: how we understand and interpret it, how we hold it in our memory, how we organise it, analyse it and make decisions with it.

The main purpose of deliberate practice is to develop effective mental representations. In turn, the mental representations will play a key role in deliberate practice. Mental representations will guide your performance and allow you to monitor and judge your progress and performance.

There are certain fields that are easier to develop efficient training methods to become an expert. These fields always have objective ways to measure performance, for example winning or evaluation by judges. They also tend to be highly competitive, and provide incentive for getting better. They are well established and have a subset of performers who also serve has teachers and coaches.

A great example of this is musical training, and it’s a great way to understand deliberate practice. Ericsson did a study with violin players. He divided thirty musicians into three groups, “good” “better” and “best.” After extensive research and interviews, he found that the “best” group had a much higher number of solitary hours of practice, especially in their teen and preteen years. They saw a clear correlation between hours practiced and skill level among the thirty musicians. This pattern was found among other performers, such as ballerinas or gymnasts.

Deliberate practice requires a field that is already reasonably well developed, so there is a teacher that can provide practice activities to help a student improve their performance. To engage in deliberate practice, you must make an informed plan to improve. You must constantly try things that are just beyond your current abilities. It involves well-defined, specific goals and succinct concentration. It requires feedback and modification specific to each student.

In Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, he said that you can master any skill if you practice for 10,000 hours. However, this is not true. Gladwell didn’t distinguish between practice and deliberate practice. Some people can become experts in less than 10,000 hours, and some people, even if they practice for 12,000 hours, will not be an expert performer if their practice was sloppy. Gladwell had one thing right though: it will take a lot of effort to become an expert. It is possible, but difficult.

Deliberate mindset can be beneficial in the professional world too. For this to work, you need to reject three myths that we tend to believe true. The first is the “I can’t “ mindset. Your abilities are not limited to genetically prescribed characteristics. The second is that if you do something for long enough, you will get better. And the third is that if you exert a certain amount of effort, you will improve. Effort is necessary for improvement, but you must practice specific techniques in order to maximise benefits.

Of course, businessmen don’t always have the luxury that athletes or musicians have. They can’t set aside ten hours a week to practice their skill. But they can still execute deliberate practice.

For example, if there is a company meeting, this can be used as a way to practice. The speaker can choose a particular skill to focus on, and during the presentation, the audience can take notes about how the performance is going and afterward they can give feedback. If the company makes this a regular practice in staff meetings, employees can improve on many skills.

Just like the tennis player that won’t improve if they read a hundred articles about the sport, attending lectures, mini courses or seminars won’t necessarily help you with your job. Deliberate practice requires feedback and trying something new, being able to make mistakes and correct the mistakes, and gradually developing a new skill.

You Can Do It Too!

To develop new and more efficient training methods, first you need to determine who the expert is. The next step is to figure out why that person is performing better. This can be difficult, but you can try to have people describe what they are thinking as they perform a task. You need to understand what their mental representation looks like. Once you identify the characteristics of mental representations that are associated with greater success, you can work on learning those methods.

Deliberate practice isn’t only for children learning to swing a tennis racquet. It is for anyone that wants to take control of their lives. All you need to do is find a good teacher, with skills and experience, and let them guide you and correct you, telling you what errors you have been making and how to recognise good performance. Make sure that you’re pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. Don’t let yourself settle and simply “go through the motions.” Focus and concentration are crucial. If your mind is wandering, you probably won’t improve.

If you can’t find a teacher, you can still learn if you’re willing to get creative. When Benjamin Franklin wanted to learn how to become a better writer, he found articles that he liked and wrote down short clues about the content of each sentence. From there, he tried to reproduce the content using his clues. This taught him to express ideas clearly and cogently. As he got better, he began writing harder clues or jumbling the pieces of paper – always pushing himself harder. Franklin went on to become one of the most admired writers of early America.

Luckily we live in a time where you can find almost anything you want on the Internet. But be careful, because you need to be sure that you’re engaging in purposeful practice and not mindless repetition.

If you find yourself hitting a plateau, challenge your brain or your body in a new way. Try to approach it from a different angle.

Learning a new skill is hard work. Don’t get discouraged. Try to surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Believe in yourself and you will be more likely to succeed. There is no reason not to follow your dream. With enough motivation and deliberate practice, anything is possible.

What About Natural Talent?

When it comes to experts, some people may think that some people are “just born with it.” This is not true. Expert performers develop their abilities through years and years of practice. There are no shortcuts.

People may believe that Mozart was born a child prodigy, but research shows that his father began teaching him when he was four years old. His father, a talented musician, pushed him and gave him the feedback that Wolfgang’s deliberate practice required. This is why he was able to grow up to be the talented musician that he was.

This belief applies to the reverse too. There are no such people that are born with zero talent. Everyone has the potential to achieve everything, given that they put in the work and effort necessary.

For example, one sixth of Americans believe that they cannot sing. This likely stems from some sort of authority figure telling them at some point that they cannot carry a tune. So they gave up. However, the biggest obstacle that people who believe they can’t sing must overcome is the belief itself.

Many researchers have studied this issue, and there is no evidence that shows that people are born without the ability to sing. In fact, there is no evidence that suggests that normal people are born without the innate talent to do anything. Everything is attainable if you believe.

Researchers studied the effect – if any—that IQ had on how good a chess player someone can become. The findings showed that the best chess players actually had lower IQ. When children are beginning to learn chess, the ones with the higher IQ can learn the game quicker. However, kids with the lower IQ, after the initial understanding of the game, have to work harder to keep up with the other children. If they are serious about the game, they will likely practice more frequently and more deliberately, hence coming out ahead in the long run.

Researchers came to similar conclusions when studying pianists, surgeons, and taxi drivers. The major takeaway is this: In the long run, it is the ones that practice more that will prevail. Not the ones that had some initial advantage.

If there is some sort of genetic difference, it would only affect someone’s skill level in an indirect way. For example, if a child has a gene that causes them to feel more pleasure from playing music than other children, it will lead them to seek out musical opportunities, such as music classes or playing guitar, on their own. Over time, this child will become a better musician than their peers – not because they were innately better, but because something, perhaps genes, pushed them to practice and thus develop the skills more than their peers.

If genes do play a role, it is how likely a person is to engage in deliberate practice. It is important to remember this because if you believe that people who are not innately gifted at something will never be good at it, it will discourage you from even trying. And as we have learned, trying is what will eventually lead you to expertise. The best way to avoid this is to recognise the potential in all of us, and then find ways to develop it.

The Future Is Bright

Understanding the effects of deliberate practice is only the beginning. Not only can this be used help athletes, musicians and other competitive masters, it can be applied to education. Teaching methods can be adjusted in schools across the world to help students learn faster and more effectively.

Deliberate practice can revolutionise our thinking about human potential. We need to realise that the best are not the best because they were born with some innate talent, but because they developed their abilities through years of practice.

Everyone has the ability to control their own potential. The possibilities are endless.