November 23, 2008

Five characteristics of deliberate practice

The book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, which I am now reading, is even more interesting than I thought it would be. Anyone interested in Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers: The Story of Success should have a look at this book, too. This book (roughly) deals with the same topic and does so in a way which is at least as interesting. The book not only debugs the talent myth, the believe that talent is a dominant factor in high achievement (which Gladwell has done too in several publications). It also operationalizes the concept of deliberate practice. This concept was introduced by Anders Ericsson, a leading researcher in the field of expertise development. Colvin explains that deliberate practice can be described by these five characteristics:

1. It's designed specifically to improve performance
2. It can be repeated a lot
3. Feedback on results is continously available
4. It's highly demanding mentally
5. It isn't much fun

Deliberate practice is hard and not particularly enjoyable because it means you are focusing on improving areas in your performance that are not satisfactory. Thus, it stretches you. If you'll be able to do deliberate practice, you'll benefit by becoming better. Especially if you'll be able to keep it up for extremely long periods of time. Much research has shown that top performance in a wide array of fields is always based on an extreme amount of deliberate practice. It is hard to find a top performer in any field that has not been working extremely hard to get there. What does 'extremely hard' mean? Well, researchers Herbert Simon and Allen Newel used to say that you need at least 10 years before reaching top performance. Now, researchers have refined their estimate, saying coming up with a figure of 10000 hours. An interesting thing about deliberate practice is that its effect is cumulative. You can compare it with a road you're traveling on. Any distance you have travelled on that road counts. So, if you have started at an early age, this will lead to an advantage over someone who started later.
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  1. Great stuff. One thing that puzzles me is how to define a domain of expertise, in the sense that they mean it here. It seems like they are doing it based on things for which people already practice and have convenient measures of ability. If you wanted to more formally define a domain, how might you do it? Where would the boundaries be drawn? The "ten years or 10,000 hours" concept implies that this is not a continuum concept but one with fairly distinct boundaries. For example, the researchers typically don't say that some things are less complex so they take less time to achieve the same level of expertise. Why? Isn't there some relationship between certain characteristics of a domain and what it takes to master it?

  2. Hi Todd, Wonderful question. I have been wondering about such issues too. And I hope to ask Anders Ericsson (don't tell anyone, but I am hoping to interview him somewhere next year)


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