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The Deliberate Creative


The Deliberate Creative

Last month, Scott Barry Kaufman posted an article titled “Creativity is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice.”

Kaufman was responding to Peak: Anders Ericsson’s recent book on expert performance.

At the core of Kaufman’s critique is the idea that deliberate practice does not work well for “almost any creative domain” [emphasis his].

As he summarizes:

Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.

This discussion caught my attention because my day job is the quintessential creative endeavor. As a theoretical computer scientist, I solve math proofs for a living. To conjure something that makes it past the brutally competitive peer review process in my field usually requires an original approach that makes progress where other really smart people have been stuck.

This reality is why I’m able to draw with some confidence from a well of personal experience when I note that I strongly disagree with Kaufman.

99% Perspiration

Where Kaufman and I diverge is in our understanding of how deliberate practice fits into the creative process. Early in his article, Kaufman reveals the spindly straw man he plans to joust:

“…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?”

Kaufman seems to propose that what it means for a creative to practice deliberately is to keep repeating the same project again and again without change.

This is a bizarre interpretation.

Kaufman, for example, cites chess players and musicians as examples where deliberate practice is useful. And yet, chess players don’t rehash the exact same strategy over and over again — they instead innovate in creative ways to counter the play of a given opponent.

Musicians, similarly, don’t play the same song their whole career — they instead continually write new songs, and the good ones keep pushing the boundaries of their genre.

Deliberate practice, in these examples, is necessary because it’s what generates the expertise on which their creativity rests. You cannot exhibit the thrilling creativity of a chess grandmaster until you’ve spent the 10,000 deliberate hours necessary to internalize the game’s intricacies.

The same holds for most creative domains.

To return to my world, the very best theoreticians are those who put in the painstaking, deliberate hours required to keep up with the cutting edge in our field. Most scientists give up in this effort long before the stars, just like most chess players practice a lot less than Magnus Carlsen.

Our breakthroughs don’t tend to arrive ex nihlo (e.g., the above image), but instead tend to follow combinatorially from the right parts of the current cutting edge. (As I discuss in detail in SO GOOD.)

Edison summarized this observation more plainly when he quipped that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. In today’s creative economy, the perspiration is likely the result of deliberate practice.

As I’ve written before, our culture loves the idea that we’re all beautiful creative flowers just one inspiring journaling exercise away from changing the word.

But on this issue, I’m siding with Ericsson. Impactful innovation is exciting — but it almost always requires a relentless, deliberate acquisition of cutting edge skills. The final insight is often the easy part.

Even for Lady Gaga.

39 thoughts on “The Deliberate Creative”

  1. VERY elegantly disproved. I honestly felt Kaufman had a point and I would be for once, in four years as a reader, start disagreeing with your disagreement, but am now laughing at the simple brilliance of how you made it all come apart. Again. Definitely a practiced move, that one, huh, Newport?

  2. See Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. She starts each day practicing the basic dance moves for hours… and THEN goes on to create genre-breaking work.

  3. I’m not so sure Magnus Carlsen practices more than other chess players. That’s where the “talent” part comes into play IMO.

    • I meant that grandmasters like Carlsen practice a lot more than players of lower levels. I agree that once you get to the top level — where everyone practices really hard — lots of other factors come into play.

  4. Great response Cal.

    Kaufman seems to think, for example, that creative writers, totally change their style and work structures from book to book. They don’t. Rather they build on their previous books and get more ambitious as they accumulate knowledge and experience and skill. And a lot of creative writers (the field I know reasonably well) indeed do show improvement over time.

    Glad you found that article and responded to it. Very helpful.

  5. I am in the middle of Peak, and one thing that Ericsson keeps emphasizing is the importance of getting out of your comfort zone. He is very clear that practicing the same thing and in the same way is *not* deliberate practice. If you are constantly getting our of your comfort zone as a result of deliberate practice, how could you not become more creative?

  6. Thanks for this article. I love hearing different perspectives. Reading this, it has me thinking that perhaps I should have been clearer about something. I didn’t mean to focus on the contrast between creative domains vs. non-creative domains. It’s definitely not binary. What I wanted to emphasize is that deliberate practice may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient for creativity. What’s more, there are definitely stages of the creative process when deliberate practice (as Ericsson defines it) are impediments to insights. There is good research showing the importance of incubation, daydreaming, play, etc. to allow the ideas to coalesce. Nevertheless, I agree that operating on a deep expertise is often essential for optimal creativity. I think you may be setting up a straw man yourself when you say “I’m siding with Ericsson”. This isn’t about sides, it’s about the truth. While I respect Ericsson’s work a lot, and like him as a person (we are friends!), he is really the only one in my field who takes such an extreme stance on the prominence of deliberate practice. I’d like to think my view is the more accepted (and quite frankly commonsense) view, that creativity is more than just deliberate practice. I’m merely saying that deliberate practice may be necessary but not sufficient for creativity. Inspiration is extremely important, by the way, and the research shows it explains much more than 1% of the variance in creativity. See my HBR piece “Why Inspiration Matters”: At any rate, unless you really do take the extreme view that creativity can arise solely through lots and lots of deliberate practice, then we really aren’t disagreeing. I highly value the importance of deep expertise. In fact, both Ericsson and I learned from the same master (Herbert Simon), whose work on expertise is truly revolutionary and creative. So I don’t think we fundamentally disagree here. However, I admit (in retrospect), that I should have been more careful about distinguishing between creative and non-creative domains. People can be creative or non-creative in any domain. Within chess and music, there are varying levels of creative performance. But I simply don’t believe that the more creative performances, even within music, can be solely explained by more hours of deliberate practice. There’s more to the story than that. Thanks for the stimulating post. Sincerely, Scott Barry Kaufman

    • Hi Scott,

      It’s great to have you here in the comments thread. We agree on the basic premise that deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient for creativity. And when it comes to the specifics of the research literature on creativity, I certainly wouldn’t argue with your interpretations given your world-class expertise in the subject.

      I was reacting more to the presentation of your article, which could give the impression to the less-informed reader that the hard, boring, deliberate work of acquiring expertise, skill, and knowledge is an impediment to true innovation or creativity.

      I know you don’t believe that. But a lot of people do.

      There’s a strain of thinking in our current popular culture that promotes a dialectic between creativity and conformity — where true progress comes mainly from courage and self-belief. The reality, however, is that in most creative economy jobs, the most creative practitioners are also some of the most practiced. (I wrote a book on this topic a few years ago.)

      How you then leverage this expertise is of course also important, and people likely have different innate capacities for making the largest of these creative leaps, but I’m still working to get more people to do the surprisingly hard (and surprisingly under-discussed) work required to make those next steps relevant.

      Anyway, interested in your thoughts. This is an interesting topic…

      – Cal

      • Hi Cal, these are fascinating topics, for sure. I often discuss this with Ericsson. To be sure, I think being able to draw on a deep knowledge base is helpful for making unexpected connections. But I also think there are times when too much deliberate practice can be detrimental to creativity. For instance, there are times when you don’t want to keep mastering what has already come before, but you intentionally try to devise new methods for doing things. Let’s call it “deliberate creation” instead of “deliberate practice” (just made this distinction up on the spot, but I kinda like it). Deep expertise is not the same thing as deliberate practice. The former is an outcome, the latter is a method. In my view, rigidly applying any single method is not a good way to reach a creative solution. Creativity requires flexibility. I’m sure you agree with that! A number of people have suggested that you be a guest on my podcast ( I think it would be a fruitful conversation. Any interest in continuing the discussion there? If so, please do drop me a line. Sincerely, Scott

        • Yes, that distinction between expertise and deliberate practice is a big help … expertise is an _outcome_ and an important _resource_ vs. what I think Anders argues is the primary path for getting there. Or maybe “Expertise” vs. “Expert learning.”

          There seems to be a reasonable argument to the effect that different conditions foster expert learning and creative cognition. Think about the conditions under which we experience an attentional state of “flow” vs. the kind of attention we apply while trying to process feedback in deliberate practice for example. There seem to be some important distinctions in cognition that suggest we don’t have a single optimal kind of focus for all learning and all tasks.

        • En fait, Mr. Kaufman! That last-minute distinction between *deliberate practice* and *deliberate creation* could be a very useful addition to the whole discussion. Though it doesn’t seem to change much of the picture you and Cal have already painted here, it does add another layer that perfectly explains your “necessary but not sufficient” ruling on deliberate practice. Wouldn’t you say deliberate creation is only possible AFTER deliberate practice? That you have to master the old rules BEFORE you can make new ones that work (perhaps after mastering the old to the extent you’re able to see where they no longer apply)?

          As I understood from what you’re saying: The only ones who can break the rules (or say, engage in ex-nihilo creativity) are the ones who can play by them (recreate well what already exists).

          Too much of the first step of practice can be detrimental to a creative outcome because you never transition to the second step of creation.

          Deep practice should necessarily be a first step, but is not enough for success in the creative domain (or the creative part/inflection point in any domain) if you stick with that method. At some point, all that deep practice has to amount to deep creation. That about right?

          Your input on Cal’s post is much appreciated. I hope you manage to pull him out of his own deep work cave to join your podcast; that would be an interesting episode.

          • Well, I think it highlights that there is a discrepancy in what “practice” means in this conversation. Kaufmann paints “practice” as repetition or recitation (I think that’s implicit when he says “mastering what has come before), while Newport has already incorporated and expanded the idea of “practice” to include creative generation.

        • I am reminded here of the Japanese principal of Shu-Ha-Ri, wherein Practice becomes Mastery through repetition of a task, and this Mastery then paves the way for Innovation (Creativity).

          I think that, given sufficient practice at a task, Creativity eventually follows naturally from practice by way of Innovative new approaches to familiar tasks. Call the Evolution of Doing, if you will.

  7. Deliberate practice develops talent, but it does not create talent. Yes, on average it takes a 10,000 hours to master a domain. Some people take more some less. But one does have to have the ability to master the domain. Not everyone can be a theoretical computer scientist no matter how much time they put in. You can’t practice what you can’t do. But lots of people interpret Ericsson as saying that anyone can do anything if they just practice. “People who achieve things work hard” is hardly a profound discovery.

    • Almost everyone in psychology agrees with the sentiment that practice isn’t the whole story. The two big insights that came from Ericsson’s work were: (1) there’s no escaping a lot of practice if you want to be world-class; and (2) there’s a specific type of practice that matters more than any others.

      This last insight was particularly important. Studies of expert performance had been hypothesizing different models of how these skills were obtained. Some researchers pushed an expert system model that was all about learning about your domain (e.g., if you studied chess in books long enough you’d be great), while others pushed repetition of the relevant activity (e.g., the longer you play chess the better you get). Ericsson and others helped cement this notion that to improve you have to participate in training activities designed to stretch you past your comfort zone, etc.

  8. I think I had a similar sort of reaction at first to Scott’s post, because I see expertise as a fairly broad sort of adaptation (that is, with cognitive, perceptual, and motor elements) and it is hard to find problems that are not in some way addressed by reorganizing our nervous system in that broad way to performance through making use of good feedback. But I do think there are problems of that sort, and one of the things that comes up in the literature of creativity is the hypothesis of a distinct sort of cognition that is adapted to ill-defined problems, which is “creative cognition.” And the conditions that foster both the development and application creative cognition seem to be somewhat different than those that foster expertise, which is more suitably defined in terms of performance against expected outcomes in relatively well-defined sorts of tasks. Would love to see you interviewed on Scott’s podcast, I admire both of guys. It’s a nice surprise to see this topic taken up here!

  9. I really appreciated this post.

    There is a lot of emphasis placed on talent and innate ability when it comes to traditionally creative types – authors, artists, etc. What people don’t focus on, however, is the insane amount of deliberate practice these creators use in order to rise to the top and stay there.

    Take Stephen King for example. The guy spent years – and I mean YEARS – of sitting at his typewriter every night and cranking out story after story. He’d finish a story, send it out for publication, and work on the next one. When he received a rejection letter, he’d take any suggestions to heart, stick it on a nail in the wall above his desk (later a railroad spike, as the rejection pile grew), make tweaks to the rejected story, send it out again, and keep working on the next one.

    This is absolutely an example of deliberate practice – not just WORKING, but working with a goal in mind, receiving feedback and taking it to heart, iterating on success while leaving behind the detriments…this is textbook deliberate practice. And whether or not you like Stephen King, it’s hard to deny that he isn’t exceptionally creative.

    This type of deliberate practice for creatives is evident in other masters such as Scott Adams and Ray Bradbury. Hours spent not only practicing, but pushing themselves towards improvement, forcing themselves to the edge of their abilities, forcing themselves to draw out new ideas when it seemed there were none to be found.

    To me, there is no difference between becoming a chess expert or an excellent fiction writer. Taking a glance at Kaufman’s body of work, there’s a lot written on creativity and creative types – however, he seems to place a much higher emphasis on innate ability rather than the actual work that creative types must do before they gain any recognition. Creativity can and is practiced – I suggest googling James Altucher’s “Idea Machine” for one specific exercise in doing so.

    Cal – thanks for this post, and thanks in general for your insights and resources on this blog.

  10. I have not read Peak not Kauffman’s argument but I can add evidence to the belief that deliberate practice is essential to creatives. I am a realist painter by trade-a painter of portraits, landscapes & still lifes etc. I spend a good portion of my work hours in the “development” aspect of my own Research and Development–I.e for me taking workshops to further develop my skill and painting 1 hour deliberate practice exercises every morning. My exercises are what the painting community calls “daily painting”. Just a quick google search will show you hundreds of artists doing the same practice. To get really good at painting, to master the craft takes many years, in fact a lifetime of intentional study. Each daily painting for me has a specific goal I am aiming to achieve.

    I have read your books “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work” and I can tell you that your message of a “craftsman’s” philosophy is alive and well in the art world. Skill does not come out of no where. It has to be earned one day at a time.

  11. “As I’ve written before, our culture loves the idea that we’re all beautiful creative flowers just one inspiring journaling exercise away from changing the word.”

    Cal, sir, did you mean to say “world” not “word?”

  12. The following three books, when digested fully and followed religiously, will change your life –

    1. Deep Work by our very own Cal Newport
    2. Mastery by Robert Greene
    3. Peak by K. Anders Ericsson

    All three come back to the same basic philosophy – avoid distractions and focus deliberately on skill acquisition and enhancement. Now whether or not one becomes a true master may depend on the starting point. Suppose 10,000 hours of Deep Work / Deliberate Practice / Dedication to Mastery moves you forward 50 units. If you started at 10 units you’ll be at 60, but someone who started at 50 units will reach 100. That is to say, I do believe IQ plays a role in how far we can advance in cognitive endeavors specifically, and I don’t know that Ericsson gave raw cognitive horsepower the credit I believe it deserves.

    Put another way, a brain with a “higher ceiling” will go further than a brain with a lower ceiling when adhering to the concepts of the three aforementioned books. I cannot prove as much from a scientific standpoint, but believe it to be true based on the human interactions I have accumulated over my short 33 years and the exhaustive work found in Charles Murray’s “The Bell Curve.”

  13. I definitely agree with your thoughts on deliberate practice and its importance on impacting innovation. However, I don’t think this advice assists those who are struggling to find a deep interest to apply deliberate practice to. In my opinion, forcing creativity through vigorous practice upon a struggling high-schooler such as myself details the process of innovation.

    • As one who A. Recruits high school student-athletes to swim at the Division I level and who B. Didn’t know what I wanted to do in high school…the good news is that you don’t need to know…yet. Even after college, if that is the route you choose, things can change. I was a history major and thought I would teach history at the high school level as a career…now I am a college swimming coach. Hang in there. Whatever you do…go deep!

    • No it doesnt. Focused intense intense study over a long period of time on ANY subject will only strengthen your skills that you will need when u finally find what u want to do. You will grow and evolve to a higher place.

  14. I like the distinction between “deliberate practice” and “deliberate creation”, but I wonder whether “deliberate creation” is not just a form of “deliberate practice” for somewhat-more-experienced people.

    Take my own profession as a programmer: often I wonder whether I could rewrite a piece of earlier written code using a new language construct, with a different algorithm, in a multi-threaded fashion, using less caching memory etc.. (this fits, I think, the definition of “deliberate creation”). Those rewrites are sometimes required to meet external requirements, but often, although not necessarily, I just perform them as a form of “practice”, “deliberate practice” if you ask me because they force me to apply a lesser known construct to an existing problem and feedback is provided by the fact that I can compare the new code with the old code in terms of test results, code length, clarity, etc. Sometimes this leads to a nice refactoring without much relevance, sometimes to a worse result, and once in a while to an unexpected result (what is then called a “creative insight”), but the point is that I actually started the process for sake of the process (“practice”) and out of curiosity (“to learn something”) and not directly towards these creative results.

    I can’t imagine that other professions (writers, academics, designers, etc) have similar ideas about “deliberate creation”. (Wasn’t Richard Feynman not aggressively seeking out new mathematical techniques for trying them on his problems ?)

  15. I don’t know how much deliberate practice it would take to think of an idea like a dress made out of meat!
    But I want to put something out there. Is it possible that one can deliberately practice creativity itself? For example, isn’t it possible that “brainstorming”, i.e. coming up with idea after idea and continuing to do so in a focused manner over a period of time, even when the result is many bad ideas, may eventually produce an “ex-nihilo ” breakthrough?

    • Exactly my thought after reading the article. The article points out a lot of stuff that you could “practice”. You could learn the methods of lateral thinking for example to learn how to question “truths” and think of a problem from a lot of different angles. For me, it’s the same. The feedback part is of course a little bit trickier.

  16. You are both two of my favorite thinkers – I relish the prospect of a dialog. Thank you for your expertise and for your inspiring books. Much work needs to be done to understand creativity and its origins.

  17. This exchange reminded me of the excellent profile of Karl Deisseroth, the optogenetics scientist, who routinely went to his lab at 4 or 5 am to work and who was inspired to discover CLARITY when changing his child’s diaper with his wife – an example of a proponent of hard, long work plus the inspiration of a prepared mind, relying upon the default mode network of his brain.

  18. I thought the entire point of deliberate practice was to “automate” enough neurons- in a “muscle memory” sort of way like Steph Curry playing basketball-so that you can use mental energy to adequately explore deep creation. To extend the common chess example, this is so many masters can play many games at once- automated patterns developed over 10k hrs.
    Deep creation may come and go like the wind, but it takes the deliberate practice mind to harness the wind into a productive turbine.

  19. GREAT discussion. The comments were just as interesting as the original blog and Kaufman/Study Hacks dialogue. Not much to add at this point except for a few quick points:

    1) Good news is that the original lit says it generally takes more like 3-4K hours of practice for basic mastery, not 10K as Gladwell popularized.
    2) Ultimately, practicing is the part more under your control than many of the other factors, so some of the other factors at times become like debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
    3) Ericsson spends a whole chapter discussing the other side of the argument from deliberate practice, so not sure why he is always painted so extremely.
    4) The second comment by Brian Penney should be looked at a gain by everyone. The Twyla Tharp book is surprisingly deep for a non-researcher and effectively and compellingly demonstrates her process, which is very much about practice.
    5) On a similar note, it is a fundamental principle of many martial arts to focus on basic moves first regardless of one’s level of advancement. The concept goes beyond martial arts to Zen (e.g., Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki).

  20. See this research for the differences between creativity based on expertise and creativity based on, well, being creative in the usual sense of the word: Mind wandering “Ahas” versus mindful reasoning: alternative routes to creative solutions.

  21. Thanks very much for the article Cal and all the work you do. You’ve changed my life for the better in many ways.

    I’ve got a question:
    What is your criteria for an activity to be classed as ‘cognitively-demanding’? I ask because I’m interested in apply the deep work method to creative arts such as drawing, painting, animation, photography, filmmaking etc.

    These kinds of activities give me more joy than say, maths, yet I don’t feel like my brain is being stretched to its limit as much as when solving a maths problem or writing code. I feel the sense of ‘flow’ and intense focus, but not the cognitive demands, and this makes me fear that I could be missing out on some of the benefits of deep work.

    Any thoughts from anyone would be very much appreciated.


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