There are moments in life when you are in awe of someone so much that you wish to be in that person’s shoes, doing what he or she is doing.
For that matter, everybody aspires to be really good at something. It could be a sport, an art, playing a musical instrument or any other activity like reading, painting or drawing. When we see someone who displays an extraordinary talent in any of these fields, it leaves us awestruck and inspired.
So how do you become good at something? How do you improve your performance in a chosen activity?
The most popular strategy among people is to practice by mindlessly repeating an activity over and over. Many performance coaches and motivational gurus tout this idea of working incessantly for long and hard hours. Practice makes perfect – is the mantra they preach. Ten thousand hours of practice, they say, is the key to world class performance.
Have you heard of the ten thousand hour rule? It was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers. He wrote –
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin –
The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.
Notice the statement – this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do.
With our conventional education system, most of us clock “ten thousand hours of reading” by the time we graduate from college (which includes reading novels, comics etc.). Does it establish all of us as world class readers? I doubt.
Practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Gladwell missed the important distinction that ten thousand hour was a necessary condition but not sufficient for achieving mastery in any activity.
In his book Talent is Overrated, Fortune Magazine editor Geoff Colvin highlights recent studies that show that greatness can be developed by any man, in any field, through the process of what he calls Deliberate Practice. It’s the big idea from the field of science of human performance.
Let’s say I want to improve my cricket skills. If I’m like most men (and budding cricketers out there), I’ll just go to the nets and try smacking each and every delivery to the boundary without thinking much about specific ways I can improve my defence and shot-taking. 300 balls later, I wouldn’t have improved at all. In fact, my shots may have gotten worse.
Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is what a professional cricketer like Virat Kohli does every time he practices in the nets. A sports person like Kohli doesn’t focus on hitting every ball out of the park, but on strengthening his defence. He has a clear objective and goal in mind when he gets down to practice, and that is what makes him the a great cricketer.
There are people who have spend hours reading news papers every morning. I am sure they have clocked more than 10,000 hours reading but does it mean that they have become effective readers and thinkers? I don’t think so. Most people don’t have a conscious goal of improving their reading skills. They read merely for pleasure and pleasure is probably the last thing on your mind while practicing deliberately.
How To Practice Deliberately
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity with the specific goal of improving performance. It requires continuous evaluation, feedback and thinking. It’s not fun and requires lot of mental and physical effort.
Here are few key elements of deliberate practice –
- It’s repeatable – If you’re a writer, you write a lot. If you are a musician, you know the importance of repeating your notes. If you’re a website designer, you know why it is important to work on great designs again and again.
- There’s a constant feedback – Deliberate practice constantly refers back to results-based feedback. No mistakes go unnoticed. In fact, every error is a crucial piece of information for further improvement. The feedback can come from your own observation or from a coach or mentor who can notice the things which aren’t always visible to you.
- It’s hard – Deliberate practice takes significant mental effort. This factor separates deliberate practice from mindless practice. When you’re practicing deliberately, you’re focusing and concentrating so much on your performance that you’re mentally exhausted after your practice session.
- It isn’t much fun – Most people don’t enjoy doing activities that they’re not good at. It’s no fun to fail over and over again and receive criticism on how you can improve. We’d rather do stuff at which we excel because succeeding is enjoyable, and it strokes our egos. Yet deliberate practice is specifically designed to focus on things you are weak at and requires you to practice those skills over and over again until you become a master at them.
While practicing deliberately, you are at the boundary of your limits and knowledge, stretching out for a goal which is just a little out of reach. Reminds me of this famous quote from Bruce Lee
Randomly throwing your feet in the air a couple of thousand times doesn’t turn you into Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee’s philosophy was perfecting one move by practicing it and refining it before learning any other type of kick.
Deliberate practice is all about having a blue collar mindset, writes Daniel Coyle in his wonderful book The Little Book Of Talent.
From a distance, top performers seem to live charmed, cushy lives. When you look closer, however, you’ll find that they spend vast portions of their life intensively practicing their craft. Their mind-set is not entitled or arrogant; it’s 100-percent blue collar: They get up in the morning and go to work every day, whether they feel like it or not. As the artist Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”
Needless to say, Coyle’s book is a must read.
Benjamin Franklin used deliberate practice to improve his writing skills. Here’s an excerpt from the book Talent is Overrated –
First, he [Franklin] found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of. It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.”
One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original.
Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”
Key To Long Term Happiness
Why would you want to go through so much pain and discomfort of deliberate practice?
Doing an activity just for fun isn’t going to reward you with long term happiness unless there is an element of deliberate practice involved in it.
One of the key ingredients of long term happiness is the feeling of being exceptionally well at any specific task. Many recent studies in the field of psychology have found that people who are improving their performance constantly (even if the progress is slow) in some chosen activity, are happier than average people.
When you are getting better in something every day, it boosts your ego and releases a feel good hormone called serotonin in your body. This hormone is popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.
How much Deliberate Practice you need to master investing?
In the context of investing, the theory of ‘deliberate practice’ suggests that you’re not as limited by your natural talent as you often think you are.
Charlie Munger says –
We make actual decisions very rapidly, but that’s because we’ve spent so much time preparing ourselves by quietly sitting and reading and thinking.
To implement deliberate practice in investing, a constant feedback is crucial for improving the investing skills. You have to see the results of your efforts (the return on your investment) to evaluate if the way you’re doing things is working or if you need to change things up to improve.
One thing is certain, if you want to be the best investor you can be, you’ll have to commit yourself to years of deliberate practice.
But when it comes to investing, even deliberate practice has its limitations. Like if you’re 5-foot, no amount of practice will allow you to slam dunk like Michael Jordan. Or if you’re as impatient as a lover, no amount of coaching or drilling on long-term investing will make you a long-term investor.
So on one hand, you don’t need to put in 10,000 hours to become a good investor capable of earning decent returns (a bit higher than benchmark indexes) on your investments. But on the other hand, just because you spend a lot of time deliberately practicing how to pick stocks better, you won’t become a master investor like Warren Buffett. But where deliberate practice helps is in refining the skills of “Reading and Thinking”.
The cliche “practice, practice and practice” isn’t the entirely correct answer. Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills. Mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance. It’s not the quantity but the quality of practice. You are only as good as is the quality of your practice.
The idea of deliberate practice is to make a decision about the realm you want to master – like becoming a better investor – and then focus your time there.
Of course practicing too much can also become counterproductive. After you’ve finished your period of practice, it’s time for some self-care. Don’t strain yourself mentally too much. Do something that doesn’t require a lot of mental focus. Reward yourself. Go for a walk or take a nap.
I’ll leave you with this super powerful thought from Aristotle –
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
Take care and keep learning.