Deliberate practice is also important for creative achievement

Scott Barry Kaufman wrote an article in which he asserted that deliberate practice may be important in achievement domains such as chess and playing a musical instrument but that it does not work as well for almost any creative domain. His argument is: deliberate practice works well for activities which rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again but this is not what creative performance relies on. In a response to Kaufman's article, The deliberate creative, Cal Newport refutes Kaufman's assertion convincingly.

He explains that Kaufman has a bizarre interpretation of creativity and of deliberate practice. I agree. Have a look at what he says: “…scientists can’t keep publishing the same paper over and over again, and writers can’t keep writing the same critically acclaimed novel over and over again and expect the same acclaim…How many times would Lady Gaga have to consistently wear her meat dress without people getting bored?”

If Kaufman's interpretation would be correct chess players do nothing more than endlessly repeating the same things in the same manner and instrumentalists would play the same thing over and over again in the same way. This is obviously not true. Newport is right in saying that Kaufman uses a straw man argument. First he makes a caricature of deliberate practice and then he criticizes this caricature as if it were an accurate description.

Deliberate practice enables us to develop our skills and achieve high competence. This high level of competence enables us to be creative at a high level. Not matter how creative my mindset is, if I am not truly skilled and knowledgeable in music I will not be able to compose a fantastic symphony.

Competences enables creative performance; incompetence constrains it. Creativity at the highest level requires knowledge and skills at an expert level.


Coert Visser said…
Here are some additional thoughts:

I do think Scott makes some good points in the article. I think it is right to say that deliberate practice is most relevant to well developed fields and that newcomers may create things which can be interesting and unconventional and which create new ways of doing which may later become a norm and slowly turn into a well developed field/practice. At first deliberate practice was not as relevant as it will later become.

I suggested that competence enables creativity. One with little competence could never write a Beethoven-level sonata. Scott says Too much expertise can be detrimenal to creative greatness and refers to an inverted u-shape curve. Intuitively, this sounds true but I am not fully convinced. Beethoven is an example of someone whose competence level and creativity seemed to grown concurrently.

Newcomers and less skilled people may have a special role in creating new field. I can imagine that high level skills within a well-defined field enable creativity within the rules of the field but diminish one’s ability or at least the liklihood to create new field by going outside the rules of the field. I wonder if there is evidence for such ideas.

I am not convinced by the Galileo example by Scott. While mainstream thinking did not precurse his breakthrough, it was in fact precursed by other thinkers and it was actually Galileo’s knowledge which enabled him to build on their work (see Steven Weinberg’s book on the history of Science).

Another example which I think may be more interesting is the example of The Beatles. They broke new ground musically while lacking expert knowledge and skills. They thus seemed to illustrate the newcomer’s or outsider’s advantage. Yet I think in breaking new ground they depended on their collaboration with George Martin, who was musically highly trained. So outsiders may help insiders create new paths (or insiders may help outsiders create new paths as seemed to be the case with The Beatles).

I do think Scott is right that additional factors to deliberate practice explain variance in creative performance such as openness to experience and non-conformity. I think these factors may be seperate from deliberate practive but they don’t have to be antithetical to it. As a recent biography of Johann Sebastian Bach suggests he was extremely competent and retained his non-conformity throughout his life.

I remember a conceptualization of creativity by Douglas Hofstadter which said that the essence of creativity is variations on a theme. I think this a credible view. If it is true, deliberate practice generally may enable creativity. Top performers are not only able to repeat the same patterns over and over again but also variations on those patterns (this is I think the key objection I made against Scott’s view).