Deliberate practice: applying the abstract theory to careers

On our recent trip to Morocco my Kindle tragically broke. It was a Kindle Keyboard 3G, and I’d had it since 2011. It featured a full sized keyboard and a 3G connection anywhere in the world, free! Unsurprisingly those features rarely came in useful, but it served me well. Sadly when I put the Kindle down when I sat down on the flight the screen broke. We were just taking off! The worst time to break a Kindle!


I had changed my mind about bringing any physical books at the last minute, so when we arrived at our Riad (hotel) one of the first things I did was download the Kindle app for my phone and find something to read. I settled on Peak by Anders Ericsson, a Professor at Florida State University.

The subtitle is Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, and the book is about Ericsson’s work in researching “deliberate practice”, a theory of skill development which argues the most efficient way of learning is solo practice on specifically honing a part of your skill. Racking up the hours in general (the “10,000 hour rule”) is rubbished; instead it’s racking up the hours focused on specifically improving your skill.

This got me thinking, a lot: deliberate practice is most easily applied to “traditional” skill areas like music or dance or chess. What would a program of deliberate practice for my field of marketing – and indeed my career – look like? This post explores the parameters and options.

The key tenets of deliberate practice

Ericsson’s arguments for deliberate practice are persuasive, and he powerfully shows much of the “talent” or “natural skill” we take for granted is in fact just hard work and deliberate practice. The likes of Mozart had intense musical training from age three!

Indeed, Ericsson makes both egalitarian arguments and has hopeful messages! He’s pretty clear that a lot of the pursuit of excellence through deliberate practice is mindset:

With deliberate practice, however, the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis — getting out of your comfort zone — and forcing your brain or your body to adapt. But once you do this, learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose.

He then describes the key tenets of deliberate practice. You need:

  • An area where effective training techniques have been established
  • A teacher or coach to provide rapid feedback
  • To be constantly pushed just beyond your limits
  • Well-defined, specific goals involving imrpoving some aspect of performance
  • Full, Deep Work-style, attention on the practice
  • Effective mental representations of what you’re trying to achieve

You can see how these requirements lend themselves well to traditional skills like playing the violin, rather than something as rapidly changing as knowledge work or digital marketing. So how do we proceed?

Deliberate practice in knowledge work

The focus on “traditional” skill areas leaves space to better and more deeply understand deliberate practice in the knowledge work space.

It’s clear that deliberate practice in knowledge work should be able to deliver exceptional benefits, in large part because the lack of focus on this reflects a tendency to accept a “good enough” skill level and leave it there. Cal Newport, one of my favourite productivity writers, cites a paper from Ericsson which predates his book, in a blog post on a similar topic:

As Ericsson describes it, most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”

We assume that more experience and time on the job will eventually equate with a higher skill level, but if the day to day is always doing a “good enough” job across projects, where will this improvement come from?

Experience is an incomplete answer

Experience is widely taken as the best proxy for skill improvement, but as discussed above it offers an insufficient answer. Yet, it clearly does have value: practical experience is central to deliberate practice. We thus come closer to bringing the two strands of argument together!

Robert Greene’s Mastery has a significant section on getting experience, and argues optimising your work for learning is one of the most valuable things to seek early-on in your career:

You must choose places of work and positions that offer the greatest possibilities for learning. Practical knowledge is the ultimate commodity, and is what will pay you dividends for decades to come—far more than the paltry increase in pay you might receive at some seemingly lucrative position that offers fewer learning opportunities. This means that you move toward challenges that will toughen and improve you, where you will get the most objective feedback on your performance and progress. You do not choose apprenticeships that seem easy and comfortable.

This focus on “objective feedback on your performance and progress” does fit with deliberate practice: as Ericsson repeatedly says, in order to improve you must get constant feedback.

We thus don’t dispute that experience is important quite so strongly. Instead, a more nuanced picture appears where not all experience is the same and thus experience should only be valued if it is deliberate practice-compatible experience. This final qualifier touches on the other side of deliberate practice, which is one of reasons it hasn’t caught on so well in knowledge work: you need to know objectively what constitutes “the best”.

Creating an objective measure of the best

Getting deliberate practice-compatible experience is part of the puzzle, but so is identifying top performers. Ericsson ideally wants a field where “the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who are just entering the field”. Further, you want objective – bias-free – measures for these.

In knowledge work this is much harder to do! This may well be why the idea hasn’t caught on more in these fields.

There are ways of creating your own objective measures: Peak cites the famous United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (its more famous name is “Top Gun”), where the level of top-of-game expertise was created during the program. Benchmarking existing skill levels through competitive situations is certainly one way of creating these objective measures, but it’s difficult to do the same in, say, marketing. It’d be fun but extremely difficult to get a sufficient quantity of marketers to take part in a competition for long enough to get good results!

Ericsson, to his credit, does offer a fairly lengthy section on working through this (formatting mine):

For anyone in the business or professional world looking for an effective approach to improvement, my basic advice is to look for one that follows the principles of deliberate practice:

  1. Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them?
  2. Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it?
  3. Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else?
  4. Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess?

A yes answer to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.

His solution, then, is a training program which aims to fulfil the tenets of deliberate practice. As Ericsson says, this will make it more likely the training program is successful. Yet this is framed as a corporate exercise which would presumably be time-bound and – as the book says – only probably successful. This isn’t actually a plan for succeeding with deliberate practice in the long term.

Ericsson later restates the above advice for fields like knowledge work:

First, identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.

We thus see for deliberate practice to work in knowledge work, we need to be much more intentional about mastery over the long term. This is the area we don’t know about or focus on.

“At most companies the fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.”

There are clear and obvious spaces for deliberate practice to push us forwards in the arena of knowledge work, yet we haven’t figured out what those are and we don’t spend any time trying. As Cal says at the end of the post linked above:

The deliberate practice research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise… Why am I not doing this?

And indeed, as Cal gets at in his post why are businesses not focusing on creating the space for improving through deliberate practice? Given the lack of focus, it probably wouldn’t take a huge effort to fairly quickly move to the top of your field. Yet, we don’t do this.

The answer as to why is probably a simple one of priorities: it’s easy to recognise this is important in the long term, but prioritising the long term is hard when there’s urgent short term work to do. The lack of clear answers across disciplines – you need to know specifically what constitutues “the best” in the area you’re focused on – also makes this harder to implement.

Cal ends his post saying he’s going to spend some time working through what deliberate practice in practice means for him. The benefits are obvious; I’m certainly going to do the same.

Addendum: a schedule for deliberate practice in marketing

How does one come up with a plan for deliberate practice in a field like marketing? Well, we can use Ericsson’s recommendations above:

  1. Identify the expert performers in the field
  2. Figure out what makes them so good
  3. Come up with training techniques to replicate the experts

Starting with a reading list of expert marketing performers seems reasonable, and then collating and remixing notes to identify what makes them so good – and then finding ways to put that into practice in focused ways throughout the course of my general work (ideally with some sort of feedback mechanism) seems like a good enough place to start.

I’m planning on making a more systematic effort to plan out my deliberate practice; I’ll do a follow-up post to report my findings. I thoroughly enjoyed Peak, and can recommend you start by giving it a read too.