Vincent Zhang

Engineering, Design & Productivity

Deliberate practice: why 10,000 hours isn’t enough

You’ve heard that it takes 10,000 hours to becoming a master. But do you know how?

If you have to take away one thing – the most powerful idea – from Dr. Newport’s book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” it should be the answer to this question.

Turns out, the popular “10,000 hour rule” isn’t sufficient, because it isn’t just about the time that masters committed, it is more important to study how they spent that time, what type of work they did.

A research of world class chess players reveals that serious study, or deliberate practice, is the dominate factor of becoming a master.

Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist that coined this term, defines deliberate practice as activities that are “actively designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.”

Deliberate practice is a great concept, but it is not obvious outside of industries that have clear competitive structure and training regimes, such as professional athletics, chess and music.

That’s because in the knowledge industry – among the “office jobs” that most of the society have – the majority of work does not have a clear training philosophy behind. Therefore, if you just show up and do the work as you were told to, you’ll soon plateau, even if you work hard. As a result, most office workers are stuck with mediocracy.

The structure of deliberate practice

In contrast, deliberate practice requires a clear goal and an established structure of training. Dr. Newport’s summary of such practice is:

  1. Deliberate practice is ultimately an effort of focus and concentration. It’s stepping out of your comfort zone, designed to be uncomfortable. Dr. Newport uses the term “stretch” to describe what it feels like: it’s a type of uncomfortable sensation in the head, like a physical strain. It’s a distinct feeling, very different from applying something you’ve already mastered.
  2. Embracing honest feedback is another part of effective practice. It’s tempting to just assume what’ve you done is good enough and check it off the list, but harsh honest feedback will retrain your focus in order to make real progress.
  3. The final step for applying deliberate practice is to adopt great diligence and patience. Acquiring career capital takes time. Without the patient willingness to focus on the main pursuit and ignore distractions, you’ll derail your efforts.

Deliberate practice is a mixed bag. The bad news: it won’t be easy. There’s no shortcut. Since work is the task that occupies the largest chunk of your day, this is likely the hardest, most long-lasting thing you’ll ever do. The good news: if you can approach your work like a true performer, integrating deliberate practice into the work life, you’ll stand out amongst your peers and obtain grand career capital.

Note: this article is composed of notes I took during the reading of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” with some paraphrasing. I think the rest of the book is rather poorly written, but the idea of deliberate practice is powerfully introduced and worth sharing alone.

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