Principles of Deliberate Practice [Ericsson and Pool]

In the Petriglieri post I authored a couple of months ago and just published, one line in particular deeply stuck with me.

In discussing why hard work in a professional setting rarely translates to growth, or in other words, why suffering if often mistaken for sacrifice, Petriglieri made the following observation:

We seldom seek to understand and work on our limits as seriously as athletes do

It resonated with me so much since I’ve come to believe that professional sports, and other non-work professional fields (music, entertainment, etc.) are a great source of inspiration for the future of work. In fact, I can’t even take credit for that prediction. Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline already made that observation, more than 30 years ago:

Yet, this is exactly what teams in modern organizations lack. Imagine trying to build a great theater ensemble or a great symphony orchestra without rehearsal. Imagine a championship sports team without practice. In fact, the process whereby such teams learn is through continual movement between practice and performance, practice, performance, practice again, performance again.

Curious to explore this further, I started off by checking out Endure, the book that Petriglieri referenced in his piece. But it was too physiologically-focused to be of much use. Fortunately, it did remind me that I had another book sitting in my queue, which proved out to be way more relevant: Ericsson and Pool’s

Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise

The book details the genesis, development, and application of Deliberate Practice.

Sadly, Ericsson et el.’s work first became popular when it was referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers under the catchier name that Gladwell had given it: “The 10,000 hours rule”. It’s sad because as Ericsson points out:

Unfortunately, this rule — which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice — is wrong in several ways.

The path to expertise is not simply doing something for 10,000 hours. It requires practicing in a very particular way, Deliberate Practice, which adheres to the following principles:

  1. Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or a coach who is familiar with the abilities of experts performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
  2. Deliberate practice takes place outside of one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
  3. Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement. Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performances have been improved by the training.
  4. Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires the person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal of his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice.
  5. Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of effort in response to that feedback. Early in the training process, much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience, students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly.
  6. Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and correct it.
  7. Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance. Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.

Now evaluate any professional training that you’ve ever attended, not to mention “learning-by-doing” or “on-the-job training” catchphrases, using these principles and you’re likely going to reach the same conclusion as I did:

There is a massive effectiveness gap in the way we currently build professional expertise in almost any domain.

The good news is that the deliberate practice principles not only show us the gaps, they also provide us with a roadmap towards developing more effective expertise building experiences and strategies. More on this will likely follow in some future posts.

Principles of Deliberate Practice [Ericsson and Pool]

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