March 12, 2009

Must deliberate practice be unpleasant?

Some time ago I wrote quite a bit about deliberate practice. Now there is one thing I keep thinking about with respect to deliberate practice. In Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, Geoff Calvin says that deliberate practice is hard and not particularly enjoyable. He seems to rather stress how unenjoyable it is. But should it really be so unenjoyable?
While I can imagine that there may be some unenjoyable aspects about continued deliberate practice, it might also be so that that those who manage to do it get some kind of instant reward from doing it too, if only from their awareness of doing something which will build their strength and which will distinguish them in the long term. Also it seems possible that while deliberate practice may be unenjoyable in the starting phase it may become less aversive and more enjoyable after some time (analoguous to setting a flying wheel in motion versus keeping it going; the first is hard and unpleasant, the latter becomes easier). People who manage to keep it up for 10 years or so may have found a way to make it bearable (or even fun). In addition to this, there is an interesting quote (taken from this book, p15) which may also shed some useful light on the (un)enjoyability of deliberate practice:

"Elliot [Aronson] predicted that if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that "something" than if it came to them easily. For behaviorists this was a preposterous prediction. Why would people like anything associated with pain?"

More ideas on this are welcome. Is deliberate practice really so unpleasant?


  1. Interesting question, Coert.
    I think that after reaching a reasonable level of performance, fluency and "flow" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) can kick in, making the activity enjoyable and self-sustainable.
    Just a thought.

  2. Hey Paolo,
    Thanks. That could be right. Btw, I spoke to Anders Ericsson about this and he finds this an interesting issue too. I think he is doing some research related to this topic. I hope he'll write a book about deliberate practice. I think that would be awesome because he's probably the most qualified person to write about this issue.

  3. Very interesting question. It reminds me of quotes from Carol Dweck's Mindset book, where some people are energised by challenges and difficulties, so it may be that these people think about practice differently.
    Some of my experience with deliberate practice comes through sport and I know that with running I have done it so long that if I can get past the first ten minutes of discomfort - by normalising the discomfort - then my mind and body settle into a rhythm (flow) which is comfortable and my mind comes up with some really creative ideas while my body is occupied.
    When I do run squad, which stretches me beyond my comfort zone and doesn't allow me to find flow, I find the best solution is to focus on the goal (usually an event I'm training for) and on the feedback from the coach (and I much prefer one of our coaches who gives positive feedback over the other one who hardly says anything).

  4. Hi Sharon and Paolo, I wonder what Anders Ericsson would have to say about the relationship between deliberate practice and flow.

  5. I think on some level deliberate practice needs to be unpleasant, given how few people are able to do it on a consistent basis. However, I do think there can be some enjoyment from the process, but not in the traditional "fun" sort of way.

  6. Hi Zataod, thanks for your comment. Good point. Really, we should ask one of those topperformers, don't you think? I agree with you that there has to be some unpleasantness. I imagine there is a secret enjoyability of it too. But maybe this kick's in only after some time. Like with the metaphor Jim Collins used in his book Good to Great of the flying wheel. When you start to turn this wheel it goes heavily and moves slowly. But by continuously keeping on turning the wheel, it starts to build momentum and then, just suddenly, a point is reached at which the wheel turns at great speed without you having to turn it any harder than at first.

    All the best,


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