The Mystery of Deliberate Practice

What is deliberate practice, and what can it do for us?

A recent Dilbert cartoon has the following verbal exchange between Dogbert and the obtuse company CEO.

Dogbert: What is the key to success?
CEO: Hire the right employees!
Dogbert: How do you know you hired the right ones?
CEO: You know because the business is successful.
Dogbert: So the key to success is circular reasoning?
CEO: Yes, because circular reasoning is the key.

To me, the whole conversation has a slight echo of the old Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?” The last two lines recall the Thomson and Thompson (sic) characters in Hergé’s Tintin books, two blundering and indistinguishable English detectives in matching black mustaches, suits, and bowler hats, who specialize in spoonerisms like this one:

Thomson (or possibly Thompson): It all looks very fishy to me.
Thompson (or possibly Thomson): To be precise: the whole thing looks like me, very fishy.

In yesterday’s blog post, Grandmaster Nigel Davies suggests that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice,” as popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers, may not be enough to achieve “excellence,” if one “‘deliberately practices’ the wrong thing.”

I think I see what he is getting at, and certainly it is possible to practice the wrong thing as part of one’s campaign to get better at chess. However—I apologize for getting into semantics here—I think it is not possible to “‘deliberately practice’ the wrong thing.” Why is this? As I understand the term—and perhaps I don’t—“deliberate practice” is a method which (and here we glimpse the problem of circularity) by definition consists of effort applied in the right way to the right things.

K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of Psychology at Florida State University, has been a pioneer in researching deliberate practice and what it means. Ericsson has written, “we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” An expert performer breaks down the skills that are required to be expert and focuses on improving those skill chunks daily. Key elements of the process include immediate feedback from a skilled coach, and continually striving to practice the skills at more challenging levels with the goal of mastering them.

In fact, “deliberate practice,” if it has any meaning more precise than “what experts do to become expert,” sounds to me rather like the approach to learning chess that GM Davies espouses himself. It is always better to let people speak for themselves, but as I recall from my reading, GM Davies urges the chess student to “focus on the how, not the what.” In my lame layman’s interpretation, I think he is saying, “Chess is not a body of knowledge so much as a skill set.” Of course, these are my words and he might put it rather differently. But if that is what he is saying, I agree!

GM Davies would also say, I believe, that good coaching is part of the solution to improvement; and I know for a fact that he recommends gradually practicing chess skill at more challenging levels: in a recent private email, when I bragged that I had scored 7.5 of my last 8, he replied, “Time to play better opposition!” or words to that effect. In short, everything I know, or think I know, about GM Davies, indicates to me that he actually does espouse the concept of “deliberate practice” as I understand it.

But even if we all agree on what “deliberate practice” is, and I’m not sure I even agree with myself, the real question remains: Is deliberate practice sufficient to master a complex skill? GM Davies says no, and refers to a recent study of musicians and chessplayers cited at sciencedaily.com, with the provocative headline, “Practice Makes Perfect? Not So Much, New Research Finds”. The problem with the study, in my opinion, is that (as far as I can tell) it merely looks at total practice hours, and not the quality of the practice. The “10,000 hours” crowd does not argue that practice hours alone will lead to the desired result—it has to be the right kind of practice. So the researchers seem to have set up a straw man, and then—no surprise—knocked him down. We don’t know if the students who failed to achieve elite performance were challenging themselves appropriately; we also don’t know if they were getting appropriate feedback. The study data seems to have been limited to arid sums of hours spent practicing.

Here’s one more thing we don’t know about the students in the study: their state of mind. Were they practicing their skills “with the goal of mastering them” as Ericsson, the doyen of deliberate practice, would say was necessary? The element of ambition is a necessary catalyst to the process, and an element of confidence may be implied. Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Ford was a practical man, and he believed a can-do attitude was crucial to success.

State of mind, of course, is an elusive and changeable thing, hard to measure in studies. In fact, there is a great deal about this concept of “deliberate practice” that is hard to pin down. In our Dilbert cartoon at the start of this article, Dogbert exposes circular reasoning in the idea that the key to business success is hiring the right employees. I am afraid there may be a similar problem with the claim that “deliberate practice” is the key to mastering a complex skill. There is a danger that we will look at individuals who succeeded, and decide they must, ipso facto, have done things “the right way,” while their less-successful colleagues evidently went about things “the wrong way.”

In the words of the old saw, we may decide “the proof is in the pudding.” If the pudding was tasty, the cook must have studied cooking the right way; a failed pudding is proof the cook did not study the right way. In fact, both cooks may have gone to the same cooking school and spent the same number of hours in the same classes, but one was ambitious to master cooking and one was not; one had self-confidence and one did not; one had a teacher who gave good feedback and one did not; and finally, dare we admit, perhaps one simply had a knack for cooking and one did not.

After struggling to define and understand the nature of deliberate practice, I conclude that the concept is elusive, and its role in mastering complex skills is also elusive.

Also I conclude, as other wiser people have before me, that the road to success is winding and hard to follow. But if you have certain personal qualities and use certain methods, your odds of success increase. The “deliberate practice” crowd and the collective wisdom of those who came before us, would seem to agree on the following list:

Optimism.
Preparation.
Hard Work.
Persistence.
Getting Help from Others.
Learning from Experience.
Breaking Down a Problem into Its Parts.
Seeking Advice from Those Who Have Gone Before You.

If you read Gladwell’s book Outliers with any attention, you will also include the tremendously important factor of being in the right place at the right time, which we may summarize in one word:

Luck.

In conclusion, here is a link to a classic 1913 poster, “The Road to Success.” (When the page loads, click on the poster to view it even larger.)

Tim Hanke