Becoming a Grandmaster
How do great chess players become great? If you read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, you probably have an answer: the 10,000 hour rule. This concept, which was first introduced in academic circles in the early 1970s, was popularized by Gladwell in his 2008 book.
Here’s how he summarized it in a recent interview:
When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.
There seems to be no escape from this work. As Flordia State University Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson reminds us: “even the chess prodigy Bobby Fisher needed a preparation period of nine years.”
The full story, however, is more complex. Gladwell is right when he notes that the 10,000 hour rule keeps appearing as a necessary condition for exceptional performance in many fields. But it’s not sufficient. As Ericsson, along with his colleague Andreas Lehmann, noted in an exceptional overview of this topic, “the mere number of years of experience with relevant activities in a domain is typically only weakly related to performance.”
Put another way, you need to put in a lot of hours to become exceptional, but raw hours alone doesn’t cut it.
To understand what else is necessary, I’ll turn your attention to a fascinating 2005 study on chess players, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. After interviewing two large samples of chess players of varied skill, the paper’s authors found that “serious study” — the arduous task of reviewing past games of better players, trying to predict each move in advance — was the strongest predictor of chess skill.
In more detail:
…chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play — nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.
Similar findings have been replicated in a variety of fields. To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.
I’m summarizing this research here because I want to make a provocative claim: understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life…
Anders Ericsson, the psychology professor quoted above, coined the term deliberate practice (DP) to describe this special type of work. In a nice overview he posted on his web site, he summarizes DP as:
[A]ctivities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.
Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea, surveyed the research literature, and expanded the DP definition to include the following six traits (which I’ve condensed slightly from his original eight):
- It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
- It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
- Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
- It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
- It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
- It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
If you’re in a field that has clear rules and objective measures of success — like playing chess, golf, or the violin — you can’t escape thousands of hours of DP if you want to be a star. But what if you’re in a field without these clear structures, such as knowledge work, writing, or growing a student club?
It’s here that things start to get interesting…
Deliberate Practice for the Rest of Us
Colvin, being a business reporter, points out that this sophisticated understanding of performance is lacking in the workplace.
“At most companies,” he argues, “the fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.”
He then adds the obvious corollary: “Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.”
It’s this advantage that intrigues me. To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.
Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.
Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.
But as with the intermediate-level chess players, this elbow-grease method can only get you so far.
As Ericsson describes it, most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”
It seems, then, that if you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable (which, as I’ve argued, is the key to building a remarkable life).
This motivates a crucial question: What does DP look like for fields that don’t have a tradition of performance-optimization, such as knowledge work, freelance writing, entrepreneurship, or, of course, college?
Let me use myself, in my role as a theoretical computer scientist, as an example. There are certain mathematical techniques that are increasingly seen as useful for the types of proofs I typically work on. What if I put aside one hour a day to systematically stretch my ability with these techniques? Taking a page out of the chess world, I might identify a series of relevant papers of increasing complexity, and try to replicate the steps of their key theorem proofs without reading them in advance. When stuck, I might peek ahead for just enough hints to keep making progress (e.g., reading an induction hypothesis, but not the details of their inductive step).
The DP research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise. After a year of such deliberate study, I might even evolve into one of the experts on the topic in my community — a position that could yield tremendous benefits.
Why am I not doing this?
What would such strategies look like in other aspects of my life, like non-fiction writing or blogging?
What about for other similar fields?
These are the type of questions I want to explore this winter here on Study Hacks.
The answers aren’t obvious. But that’s what makes this endeavor exciting. By piecing together a systematic approach to building a DP strategy for unconventional fields, I hope to identify an efficient path to the type of excellence that can be cashed in for remarkable rewards. Or, perhaps I’ll discover that such a quest is quixotic.
Either way, it should be fun…
(Photo by World Economic Forum)
247 thoughts on “The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life”
Wow, one of my january goals was to get through a chapter in a chess book that has been gathering dust. Right before I clicked my Reader, I decided to google “chess advice” in hopes of finding a good chess blog. Then study hacks came up I think I got the advice I was looking for. Thanks!
This was a great post. It reminds me a lot of a book I recently finished called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. It goes into some theories about why deep practice and 10,000 hours are necessary for mastery of a skill. It was very fascinating and I recommend it if you have time. Thanks.
Above all the grit and deliberate practice, would be great if you looked at innovation. As Henry Ford said, ”If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. I learned from your ”Zen Valedictorian” methodology the value of innovation. To look at the whole picture and know what needs to be accomplished and then to apply innovate strategies to accomplish the goal requires a higher level of thinking and it is what I want to be able to do.
I strongly recommend “How to Solve It: a new aspect of mathematical method” by G. Polya. It attempts to convey what Ph.D. programs try to instill in us :o).
I have been a reader for a while without posting…very interesting metaphor I am also a master class chess player (about two standard deviations below grandmaster). I reached this level as a kid when DP was forced on me by coaches and peers. I think it is so important to abandon bad ways of practice and bad ways of doing things. I used to always laugh at adults who made the same mistakes over and over again b/c of the limited success they had with their current techniques. Perhaps as an adult I have become too much like the adults I use to laugh at. When was the last time I practiced a skill with the sole intent of getting better at something. very eye opening.
Chess ELO isn’t a normal distribution. How do you use Standard deviation?
Cal, I can’t wait to see your take on DP, Talent is Overrated is one of my favorite books. Although…. I don’t really buy Colvin’s Blank Slate argument.
It is well recognized that to become an expert in ANY field requires an average of 14-15 years of sustained effort, at the very least. Your views on DP are very relevant in this regard and as per my understanding hinges on two basic tenets:
1.Work smarter and not harder
2.Continually push against your comfort level , not too much at a time but gradually.
Most people once they reach about 4-5 years into their chosen field stop trying to push boundaries , due to various reasons – the most important being lack of time from current occupation. It is precisely these people who need to understand DP more as its most relevant to them and they will reap the maximum benefits.
An excellent article from you…
Deliberate practice seems like a method I’ve been using for years. I remember even at a young age not just practicing sports mindlessly but asking coaches exactly what the inner workings of a jump or spin were (I was a figure skater). I would break down the technique and replicate the moves in various combination’s in order to completely understand what I was doing.
I also remember in graduate school as a sociologist, sitting around with my compatriots in the graduate bar and going up to random people (they were usually cute women) to ask them where they were from and what they did. We would each do a psychological makeup and bet each other the next round that we could get their profile down.
The result from both these experiments in DP?
An eastern Canadian championship in 2001 and the ability to get under anyone’s ‘psychological skin.’ I’m excited about seeing more posts on DP.
LOL, no, the “fundamentals” aren’t ignored it is just it’s another kind of game!
Likely because, as with any other creative type of work, there is some “chicken and egg” problem: you cannot spot the truly valuable activities unless you are already knowledgeable in the field.
Well, this certainly makes me think.
“Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.” So you have to keep challenging yourself. Making papers better, break others papers down to see what they are doing good and keep improving yourself.
This is really a motivation for me, I sometimes think I have found the right way with studying, or just experiment with other ways, but I should look at successful students and study what they are doing, how and why.
With writing, I think you can practice by trying to be featured on big blogs, you will need excellence writing for that. So you have to keep improving your writing. How? Break down what others do into little pieces and learn from them.
I’m looking forward to other articles on DP, you’ve definitly arouse my attention!
Fantastic Cal. The posts keep getting better and better at Study Hacks.
Not sure if it was in the research you took, but you should look to the example of the difference between surgeons and GPs in improving their skills. GPs didn’t improve much over time because the feedback wasn’t timely. Important when crafting your DP strategy.
Just wanted to add my own general excitement to your plans. Deliberative practise is clearly a great strategy, but it can be tricky to work out ways of applying it to academic work, particularly, I think, the less measurable & objective fields. This is also undoubtedly where good advisors and a good fellow student community can be great help.
I very much look forward to you continuing to think and write about this area.
Take care, Cal.
I agree with the rough 10,000 hour to mastery rule. I really didn’t like the book Outliers though. So many limiting beliefs. Great example of Chess Masters. They’re the type of people everyone can look up too.
I agree. Whether or not the ideas in his book are true (which other research shows that it’s not), being told that since I wasn’t born in the first half of the year or that since I wasn’t born rich that I probably won’t be successful is unhelpful.
I’m so glad to see you take on some of the ideas raised in _Outliers_. The idea of 10,000 hours made a lot of sense to me. I have put in well over 10,000 hours of reading in my life, so it made sense that I would end up as a PhD candidate in English. But the idea of deliberate practice takes it much further. I am definitely not at the top in my department, but deliberate practice might put me closer. 10,000 hours of reading (which includes both close analytical reading of _Wuthering Heights_ and self-indulgent binge-reading of _Harry Potter_) might be enough to provide some skills needed in graduate level literature work, but deliberate practice could make my work exceptional. For me, I think this might mean tackling and deliberately picking apart the more difficult theorists I need to use for my dissertation and doing post-mortems on my drafts using the feedback from my committee.
I am eagerly anticipating your future posts on this topic. Thanks so much.
Fantastic post, Cal.
I like the research you have done. The “DP” or Deliberate Practice is in Daniel Coyle’s term what one would call Deep Practice, and essentially the same. It’s that crafting of extra myelin sheaths that makes all the difference, between being just really good at something and being excellent.
Thanks for this amazing article. Good work!
Looking forward to see the future posts!
Cal, I particularly like your point that many fields don’t require 10,000 hours to dramatically outperform your competition when your competition tends to plateau. It’s also possible to achieve mastery in less than 10,000 hours in subject area that are so new that nobody has had time to invest that amount of DP yet. That was the case for building an audience through blogging a few years back.
I have a question that I hope you’ll address. Do you think that it’s better to separate or integrate DP from your ongoing daily work? I don’t think that there’s a one size fits all answer to this, but it’s worth exploring. Your example of studying cutting edge math techniques would indicate a separate effort from your ongoing work, which would then improve the quality of that work in the future. In contrast, a blogger who systematically invests DP into his writing would be integrating practice into his ongoing work of developing content.
This is a topic of great interest to me. Thank you for taking it on. I’m eagerly looking forward to see where you take the discussion.
Just recently discovered this sight. Best article I’ve heard thus far. Keep up the great work.
sight=site…need some coffee.
Has teaching come up in the literature in DP at all?
I tutored students in writing for 3 years and I know I learned more about writing through teaching than I ever did through any class. Teaching requires you to focus on the task and be aware of both your actions and the student’s actions, as well as increasing the amount of material that you have to processes critically.
I have chosen to pursue teaching French (at the university level) partly as a means of continually practicing my French skills, without having to permanently live abroad. I know that teaching will force me to speak and interact and will thus improve the fluidity of my speech, but as my students will be at a lower level than me, I do fear that once I achieve comfort with speaking, I won’t truly progress.
I’ve skimmed it, but it’s on my list to read more deeply.
I find it convincing. I don’t think he’s arguing that there are no natural differences between people, just that they don’t end up mattering much. The effects of DP swamp broad inborn differences.
I think this is one of the most challenging obstacles to successfully integrating DP into an unconventional field: identifying where to put your energy. Sometimes it might be obvious (i.e., just doing the main task of you job description — say, sales — at a degree significantly higher than your coworkers), other times it will require innovation.
I think when I start tackling specific examples — which I hope to do soon — some of these distinctions will become clearer.
Excellent self-reflection. I would be fascinated to hear any conclusions you come up with about how your chess-playing mentality might apply to your current situation. (You can either post here or e-mail me if you’re interested in sharing.)
Another explanation is that DP isn’t natural, and it can feel uncomfortable. Even without DP, you’ll make progress over those first 4 – 5 years (as Ericsson points out), but moving beyond that point requires the more focused attention of DP. Put another way, it’s not that people get too busy to keep improving, it’s that they never worked in the style that could keep them moving even beyond the “acceptable level.”
Did the latter help you in your role as a grad student? I’m interested in collecting stories of DP in unconventional fields.
I’ve been thinking about this. I think you’re absolutely right. But DP accounts for this adaption. If you read Colvin’s take, for example, it’s clear that a big piece of DP is adapting where you apply it as you make progress. A golf player would start on improving basic skills, and work up from there. The same, I guess, would hold for grad students or any other field.
Another great example.
This is the hypothesis that fascinates me. Please keep me updated if you actually put some DP plans into action.
Great point. I agree, in a field where people are still just dabbling, any amount of expert knowledge can make you stand out.
As we explore specific examples, an answer to this question might become clearer. My working hypothesis is that it’s probably usually possible to integrate DP into your regular work, with some modifications to how you organize and attack it.
I haven’t seen it yet. But then again, I keep turning up new studies, so it might be out there.
Josh Waitzken’s story/book has a lot of this type of information. He took the principles of learning that he acquired mastering chess and adapted them to becoming a world champion in Tai Chi. See: https://bit.ly/8aXGxA
a problem with using papers as study material is that they often state the theorem and say “Proof: By induction”. This doesn’t really give you an opportunity to peek at the solution if you get stuck in your exercises, and at your level you already had a good idea about what proof technique to use. Is this something you have already spent time thinking about?
Benjamin Pierce had an interesting talk about using a theorem prover in an undergraduate course on programming languages. The idea is to have one TA (the theorem prover) per student, which gives instant feedback on what you are doing wrong in your proofs. Full video here.
Please follow up with a blog post about how well your approach works for you. Blogs often talk about how to learn things from books but they rarely talk about how to ask the right questions or modify your approach to the research problem at hand by using what you have learnt.
Laura: some big shot that I can’t recall the name of right now (Feynman? Hamming?) used to make lecture series about the subject he was learning right now. Even if he didn’t make any progress on the research problems he would at least have something to show for it. This made it easier to start working on the problems since he was successful by just having held the lectures.
Cal, this is very interesting. I primarily think of myself as a Physicist, however in graduate school my interests may diverge. Eric Mazur at Harvard talks a lot about ‘peer instruction’, and how this can help the learning process. Perhaps the feedback aspect of ‘peer instruction’ is what makes it so beneficial. After all lectures rarely give you any feedback. David Hestenes has a webpage where he talks about modelling theory in Physics. Modelling means the cognitive models you need to understand a topic, and this is perhaps very close to your ideas of deliberate practice. Rather than merely try to do the calculations, an understanding of the landscape of ideas is terribly important. For instance a Chess champion may know many different types of chess player, different styles. A Mathematical Physicist may know several different ways to compute certain integrals. https://modeling.asu.edu/R&E/research.html
This post came with a great timing. I am studying computer engineering/science and programming is a big player for me. Just two days ago I began to code a game just because I did not know if I was enough skilled to do it. Now I feel great because I have realized that there really are ways to become great.
Obviously writing games will not make me a great hacker (in the best sense of the word) but the feeling of understanding there is a path is encouraging.
This is going to be fun!
I’m a violinist myself, and have often thought about the applications of “practicing well” with an instrument (SLOW DOWN, always have a goal for practice sessions, observe, takes a thousand tries to break a bad habit, must be vigilant about said bad habit at all times (ie. don’t ignore it to “work on something else”)) and how those same guidelines apply to my studies.
Er, and I can also attest that 10,000 hours do not make you an expert. I’ve been playing for 10 years… and really am only a tad better than mediocre. Effort for these things must be internal vs. external.
Keep up the good work! 🙂
I reread my post and would like to clarify that, according my personal experience, 10,000 hrs do not NECESSARILY make you an expert (if you’re not focused, don’t really care, etc.)
Wow. One of my favorite articles from study hacks.
I’m looking forward to what you have to say about knowledge workers and this concept in future posts.
Excellent blog, and my experience of seeing a number of top quality people in different fields is proof.
However, there are some peculiar fields in which all the right practice in the world won’t help, like software development in big companies.
It doesn’t matter if you only need to do a little to differentiate yourself from peers that do nothing if nobody notices; apart from personal satisfaction but then frustration will win the day. Not only do you need to put in the right practice, you need to be somewhere where your skills are appreciated.
I know at least two top theoreticians who do the same thing. When working on a big problem, one of the first things they do is schedule to give a talk on the problem.
There’s actually good research on how professional physicists see problems as compared to amateurs. To summarize it (poorly), they found that through practice, physicists build up much more complex (and abstract) ways of conceptualizing a problem, while newer
Right. That’s exactly what my article says. Though you do need to put in time, that’s not enough — it has to be the right type of time.
Also, you’re smart to point out the importance of “internal” motivation. There’s research that says intrinsic motivation is key for surviving the difficult DP needed to get good.
Sounds awesome. Look fwd to hearing more and more, especially in this dissertation year. I’m trying to work during the day, so I can be human at night. Thanks for everything.
@ study hacks
I think my accomplishment in the sports realm didn’t necessarily help me become a better graduate student or tutor. What my sporting career did teach me was how to analyze a particular issue or problem and them implement use strong discipline to become incredibly good at X.
I think the general theory of how to become good at anything can be learned, replicated in other realms and taught to others.
Great article. I was thinking about how this applied to my study habits in Law School as well as in other aspects of my life and saw a lot of correlation. I look forward to reading more from this blog.
This is one of the Best Articles on acheiving Excellence! Cleared up many hazy ideas in my mind. Good work!!
Like the article mentioned, it would be interesting to find a DP that works for college students. First of all, who is willing to take up the challenge and construct a viable DP for college graduates? Or do we be our own teacher in this case and form our on DP?
In this context, I’d recommend “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin, a former ‘child star’ chess player. The process of deliberate practise in chess and sports is discussed at length with some great ideas.
I feel like this might not be nearly as effective in research as in chess. In part, while it might be an extremely effective way to learn certain techniques and methods, it’s no more helpful in giving you deep insight than the standard method of just studiously reading papers.
As far as writing and blogging, it can’t hurt, but you have to be wary of making your goals superficial. Improving your prose to Hemmingwayesque-levels won’t, as far as I see, do a lot to boost your traffic or book sales.
But I eagerly look forward to seeing how this works out. I hope you manage to figure out some great strategies!
I think the problem with most things that aren’t sport/music/chess is that it’s really hard to get good feedback. As a music student, I can buy a tuner and metronome for US$20. I have years of aural training so I can diagnose my own problems. I get a private lesson, several group rehearsals with peer and conductor feedback, and a performance workshop each week. On average, I get a feedback session every day of the working week except Wednesday. Many of the necessary elements of success have clear, reasonably objective standards (like being in tune and in time) that ensures that most feedback is helpful. You belong to a long tradition that gives you an idea of what the top you’re aiming for looks like.
Most other activities don’t look like this. If you start a nonprofit, you can tell by the lack of donations that it’s not working, but it’s a mystery why people won’t donate to it – you might think it’s because of a bad cause, bad marketing, poor luck, etc, but no one is going to go up to you on a regular basis and say ‘I abstain from donating because you fail to update me on the state of my microfinance loan via Twitter’, the way a crotchety old singing teacher might say ‘You will never amount to anything until you stop fudging your fioratura and tighten up your Italian diction’ every week. There might be obvious things for a nonprofit like bad writing in a grant application, but these are generally only game breakers if you’re really terrible at them. Very few people out there spend their time regularly evaluating non-profit leaders, and there is much more heterogeneity in what a successful nonprofit looks like.
It seems to me that central to deliberate practice is immediate/timely expert feedback. Otherwise it is the chicken and egg problem mentioned before, you learn through experience which techniques are best in your case, but this is a timewise costly road, and not really efficient.
Going back to applying DP to college students. I study engineering and grades are 100% end of semester exams in all classes (huge mass of information to be all tested during 2 weeks). There are no tests during the semester either, we only have to give in weekly problem sets which are corrected but not graded. So my feedback if my studying strategies worked are at the end of the semester. If they were not the right strategies, then a semester was lost.
If anyone has any ideas about how to apply DP to this situation, would be very helpful.
…is the question that keeps me up at night.
I’m reminded of the story of a gentleman who was disappointed that he was passed over for a promotion that was given to someone who had far less time in the field. When he approached his supervisor about it the supervisor said, “There’s a difference between having 20 years of experience and having the same experience for 20 years.”
I know it’s a good blog when I print a section out and post it on my wall. Great food for thought!
I just Like This Blog So Much
Thanks alot For Publishing these posts it’s very useful …
Would you please tell me how many hours should be maximally slept per day , specially that we are having our final examsnow and have really alot of stuff to be done
Great Post and a very interesting “winter program” on the blog 😉
Could you please name a good paper on this or a researcher involved in this kind of research. I googled a variety of words and phrases, but unfortunately could not find anything coming close to this subject. Thank you.
I’m also interested in developing a workable model for:
1. Selecting which activities to pursue for DP
2. How to est. a balance between challenge and interest to keep DP up
3. How to find a mentor or model of practice or feedback loop in obscure areas (maybe an objective self-evaluation method?)
Some books on the subject
Practice Made Perfect: How Anyone Can Master Anything Quicker, Easier and Better Than Ever
The Inner Game of Tennis
Talent is Overrated
The Talent Code
A synthesis or process of finding a most effective practice technique would be an amazing project to tackle. I hope to read the results of your research soon and can contribute on the reading load if you can share your current sources.
Dynamite Post! I have found much of what you teach applicable to my fields of interest. I’ll be sure to check out the book and see how it collaborates with what I’ve learned reading “the Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. He calls it “Deep Practice” and uses different examples.
What is so encouraging about this post is that it reminds us we don’t need to put in 5000 hours to do something great. We can put in a few hours, try to do something great, and increment those hours upward until we are doing something magnificent well before hour 5000.
I think the biggest barrier to DP (at least for me) in computer science and research is getting immediate and expert feedback. There are paper peer reviews, conference presentations, and possibly internal seminars, but these are not immediate (by several months at least!) I do have a weekly meeting with my fellowship supervisor. Taking your examples of Steve Martin and your rapper friend, I’ve taken to seeing that as my performance time, and preparing for that. After all, if he doesn’t understand what I am doing and doesn’t like it, none of the peer reviewers, who are basically guys like him, will like the paper I write.
I am also reminded of the method of pair programming in the practice of Extreme Programming. Two programmers, sitting together, agreeing on every single line of code they write. Good idea, BUT I have possibly never met a programmer who could tolerate someone looking at the screen while he typed. It brings out all sorts of Asberger-like behaviour in an otherwise well-adjusted person, including myself. But … DP is supposed to be hard too.
In the absence of a willing victim (er… programming partner) your Benjamin Franklin-like idea of working through paper proofs seems like a good start, but lacking the expert direction which would make it extremely effective. Textbooks have perhaps more educational organization, but I expect you already know all the ones you need to by heart (not me!). I also like the idea of making lecture notes, and am putting all my stuff in a wiki as we speak. I look forward to the next instalment in your blog on this subject.
“I have possibly never met a programmer who could tolerate someone looking at the screen while he typed. It brings out all sorts of Asberger-like behaviour in an otherwise well-adjusted person, including myself….”
When I was at U.C. Berkeley studying CS back in the late 70s and early 80s, there was this grad student who positively delighted in having people watch him hack. He often kept up a constant patter — slightly tongue-in-cheek, dimwitted, self-deprecating — the whole time.
He never took himself too seriously. And he always pushing on to the next kind of thing he’d never worked on before, instead of specializing and milking his accumulated expertise for publications. It was as if he actually liked being a perpetual amateur or something.
Who? Bill Joy.
Cal, what a fascinating concept! I can see many ways this could apply to law school. For example, one could deliberately make an effort to become an expert in a very specialized field of law. If it is specialized enough and you are expert enough, people would be willing to compensate you highly and be willing to provide you with autonomy in exchange for your expertise.
How does this help with jobs that solely measure your worth by your output? Honed skills doesn’t necessarily mean more output. Or does it?
I’m not sure. Can you give me an example of what type of job you mean?
If possible, whatever you need to be rested.
If you look in the “Advice in Action” category of my archives, I think I have a case study of a law student who did exactly that.
That’s really cool that you knew Bill Joy. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, however, Bill was one of a small number of people born at the perfect age to get immersion in the computer revolution just as it was gaining steam. In other words, his purposeful exploration was exactly the practice needed to go invent one of the first non-mainframe computer companies.
I’ve read some of your blog posts, I’m inspired! Last semester in college and I’m trying out some of your study hacks suggestions. Particularly challenged by the idea of being so good such that others can’t ignore you. Yet, it somehow eludes me how I can achieve it in my life as a teacher-to-be. What might DP look like for me? I’m going to practice “teaching” for at least the next 5 years? Any advice?
@Rajiv: unfortunately, it doesn’t work that well in law. If you specialize in a narrow field of law, you can be out of a job very quickly if that area of law tanks, either through market conditions or changes in the law. I’ve already seen some of my colleagues have to change practice areas because the work in their specialty dried up.
Is Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” right that genius is all about hard work?
Short Answer…Not when it comes to chess
This is a very compelling post. And so true. Practice, practice, practice! And do it with PASSION. In my experience, deliberate practice cannot be fostered without the fire and heat of passion, whatever generates it.
Now I have not read the preceding comments, and my statement may have already been observed. And if so, I guess I not far from the truth.
I have been reading the auto biography of Benjamin Franklin. In it he discusses how he became an excellent prose writer. After reading this blog, I realize that he used the principles of DP to become a great writer. He would read another writer’s work that he respected, then rewrite it over and over himself until he could match the elegance and skill of the author’s original work.
A Great read,
Id be intrested if anyone has an insight as to how this DP is or could be applied within subjects such as physiotherapy/ sports therapy / medical type subjects as DP would need to include aspects of both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. Would the combining of the two aspects be DP in practice? The example of the chess players requires only ‘thinking’ so if a subject area requires both does it change the way DP is undertaken?
To bring about DP is there a requirement of thought, personality, motivation, determination or the likes to succeed with it? As Real expertise at the mastery level sees beyond biased perspective and simple categories of “either/or” Real mastery entertains options which may not even be present. So while the optimist and the pessimist argue over whether the glass is half-full or half-empty- the ‘realist’ is able to point out the fact ‘the glass’ is just too damn big – which makes both biased perspectives moot and insignificant. so is it the ‘deliberate’ of the subject bias or the bias of the subject that pertains DP?
The question—is “Why don’t I do this?” Because everyone, has always, wanted to get better at what they’re doing. And while papers on this have perhaps only been published in the last few decades, it’s not like practice, hard work, or close concentration, are recent inventions.
So—why? First reason, and step, is that it’s hard. It’s unpleasant in the short term, maybe even the long—do you want a family, a relationship, or a reputation as the best? Within some reasonable bounds, that’s a real question. More time with math means less with your kids. So that leads to—do you have a reason to put yourself through constant unpleasantness? Well, it’s got to be a constant pressure. So either you’ve got an exceptional thorn, deep down in your head, some experience or need or I don’t know what that drives you beyond normal human limits. Something that’s probably, actually, painful itself.
Or, you have lots and lots of small reminders that what you’re doing is important. Reminders of the reason that you have to have. As an academic, you collaborate, you see other people working hard who keep you to a standard or excellence as part of a community of it. Or you keep in constant contact with the driving reason you’re doing your work at all, the people you’re trying to help, the situation you’re trying to improve, whatever it is.
The problem is that so much of this thread, theory, and literature, makes the implicit assumption that mastery happens in a vacuum, that people have no better things in life to do than get good at an arbitrary task, and that pure will-power is enough to control your life.
I should know. I’ve tried anyway. But I’m pretty sure it’s not the way to do it. (Disclosure/credentials: PhD student, CS, social networks, CMU.)
Discovered your blog for the first time about 15 minutes ago, following a link from one of the CopyBlogger posts. Just wanted to say a big Thank You for your effort. Outstanding writing, advice, and insights.
Why is being “elite”, having an “advantage”, etc., promoted as so critically important? Such relative and competitive values represent a zero-sum game, where only a fixed percentage of individuals can be happy. If one gains, another loses. This is warfare by other means. We should question an entire system which defines success in such destructive terms.
Critical to this is that someone is watching and helping you correct your efforts to achieve your goals. It is important to have an expert vision of your goal for reference. In my short experience with singing lessons, having a professional signer listen to me was very tough. For those of you who coach kids basketball, I bet your kids loft the ball towards the basket over and over without really adjusting so that the next shot is closer to the mark.
Fred Borchelt, several time Olympic Oarsmen, presently high school physics teacher and rowing coach coined the phrase “practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent”. Perfect practice, deep practice, deliberate practice or practice with a purpose all reflect the idea of doing repetitions at the highest level you can attain at that time and constantly pushing the window of your abilities.
From a college student perspective, I have really benefited from Deliberate Practice. This has mostly happened in my math classes where you must work homework problems everyday, they get progressively harder as you go along, and you get immediate feedback the next day in class when your homework is graded. It was difficult because math has never been a strong subject for me, but it was very fulfilling as a student to have learned something difficult.
great post, add to the spirit as well as very useful for me who are still learning to play chess.. 🙂
I am not in the academic field, but was intrigued by DP and how it can be applied in the work place. We are a programming shop but interact with different disciplines. We have been encouraging our employees to stretch their thinking and apply an “analyst mindset” to their work — creating valued & fit for purpose deliverables vs just heads down programming/producing what has been requested; fully understanding the project so they can contribute in innovative or effort/time-saving ways, etc.
I am thinking that if we break down a skill that is required to be an ‘analyst’ into smaller, specific parts (say, communication -> language used to negoiate, get information, convey a contrasting view, etc.) we can use DP to help our folks stretch & gain confidence in this specific area. In the short run we won’t build experts but I still think there is benenfit that is gained from intentionally practicing a skill before putting out in the “real world.”
his was a great post. It reminds me a lot of a book I recently finished called “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. It goes into some theories about why deep practice and 10,000 hours are necessary for mastery of a skill. It was very fascinating and I recommend it if you have time. Thanks.
I’ve been struggling to try and turn these ideas into a programme for learning to write well. And i think it means breaking down the skill into different components. The first part of that perhaps is compiling list of things to work on. For me as a writer it means developing the different aspects of ‘genius’ fluency, orginality, and creativity. fluency i teach myself by pushing myself to write a lot in a time constrained way. It is equivlanet to the working out in the gym part of being a sports person. You aren’t practicing skills per se but it enables you to be flexible and relaxed when you try to write at your best. I do this for about 4 hours a day. then I spend another large chunk of time learning about writing techniques from creative writing books and doing exercises in a slower more focused way, wordsmithing my sentences more. I have long lists of aspects to attend to. That takes another few hours a day. Then I also need to spend several hour a day in active (i.e. not leisure) reading of good literature.
I’m combining the idea of deliberate practice with an examination of successful people in my field (writing) to create an “Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Writing.” I have a list of aspects to master: plot, scenes, characterization, etc. As I study works of extraordinary writers, I look at how they are successful in these aspects. Then I practice doing what they do. I hope that, as I master more and more, my writing will also become extraordinary.
First of all I would like to say awesome blog! I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
I was interested to find out how you center yourself and
clear your mind prior to writing. I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting
my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first
10 to 15 minutes are usually lost simply just trying to figure out
how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!
These principles can be applied to any endeavor.
For example, I notice that many people in my Muay Thai class, once they’ve become accustomed to kicking the soft “easy” pads, never move towards the harder pads. The hard pads really hurt when kicked, but how else can you develop shins of steel than through regimented punishment? I always make an effort to try to kick harder and to push through my regular pain threshold. I am currently at the point where the hardest pads in the gym do not hurt at all no matter how hard I kick them… But I don’t think that is enough. The ultimate goal is for me to be able to kick somebody in the hip or elbow without it hurting. And of course I would like to be able to increase my flexibility so that I can kick higher as well.
Basically not many people at the gym seem to be challenging themselves in a conscious and systematic manner. Ergo, this is a domain that is just waiting to get dominated by me… 🙂
Hi Cal –
DP is a fascinating idea, and actually has lots of historical precedence. For instance, Ben Franklin in his Autobiography said that he learned how to write by re-writing the “Spectator.” Judo experts and fighter pilots also spend twice as much time “off the mat” going over their efforts than “on the mat” practicing (non-DP).
Thanks for the piece!
Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.
What does it take to become a geologist expert in this science field?
hii i am student of math .How can I apply the concept of dp in my studies ?
I’m a big fan of Garry Kasparov and I always watch his games vs the other known players just to try to learn from them the best moves and tricks to be great in Chess and that’s not easy at all but I read your article and I realised that I can improve myself easily using the tricks that you mentioned that’s why I would like to thank you warmly.
I am a huge fan of Garry Kasparov and I always watch his games vs the other players just to try to learn from them the best moves and tricks to be good in Chess and that is not easy at all but I read your article and I realised that I can improve myself easily using the tipps that you mentioned that’s why I would like to thank you warmly!
Hey Cal thanks for the post.
I’m a classical/jazz musician and have been diving into lots of books/articles about deliberate practice.
Being a musician, you would think most of my colleagues and peers are well acquainted with the research on deliberate practice and I’ve found this is often not the case.
There are staggering amounts of ineffective practicing philosophies out there among musicians and it’s wild.
I noticed two really interesting things in my analysis of musicians applying the ideas of deliberate practice:
1) Simply learning to play a piece composed by someone else can be fine tuned with deliberate practice philosophies and practice strategies. This can be game changing for people not well acquainted with ideas of deliberate practice, deep work, goals, amount of reps needed, having the right perspective of effort etc.
2) A lot of musicians hit the point where they have mastered skill set 1) but lack the ability to move forward with that strategy on an unexplored area of musical development. In my analysis of musicians and composers that stand out with meaningful careers and contributions, they almost always have mastered some kind of intricate system that they discovered themselves and pushed the boundaries of. Because of the complexity involved in mastering different elements of music, it isn’t reasonable for one person to have a truly exceptional skill set across multiple domains. Time after time, I’ve found that the best jazz composers, classical composers, pianists, guitarist etc almost always explored a new boundary, and then are able to apply deliberate practice into an area of uncharted waters. This ability to apply deliberate practice into a new territory that no one else has mastered produces great musical careers.
Another interesting finding is how many highly trained classical musicians are completely unable to compose their own music or improvise even simple melodies. My observation is the path of mastering how to play music/an instrument requires deliberate practice but it is relatively straightforward and coaches/training programs are wildly available.
Learning to compose/improvise does not have the same well paved path. Not as many people have this skill set to learn from, the training is very hard for most people to do without a coach and it can be hard to get feedback on your progress.
In this example the excuses of talent/innate ability show up, especially in the cliched Mozart composer-at-birth myth (as they always do in any domain) but the reality is that there are plenty of deliberate practice activities that produce benefits, but people don’t like doing them – again because they are hard.
Another odd finding, is how many ”musicians” and/or “artists” resist any kind of systematic thinking or structured practicing and say that it is “killing the art”. This idea shows up a lot and seems like an analogue to the Passion Mindset you’ve uncovered and it’s strongly tucked within the musical/art domain. Unfortunately, its an easy phrase to rationalize the temporary difficulty involved in deliberate practice and I bet has ruined many potentially fruitful music/art careers.
Amazing post, Cal! (My team and I have stumbled upon it in search for the all-time greatest articles on improving oneself that we feature at One Daily Nugget. We featured this article in yesterday’s issue.)
When reading the post we had one question. How much of a delta is there between the number of hours of DP for the fields with the tradition of performance optimization and without that tradition if one wants to become a world-class professional in the chosen field?
You mentioned a really great point that integrating any amount of DP into our regular schedule will enable us to “punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers”. But will it enable us to become world-class in a field without the tradition of performance optimization?
Let’s say, I am a budding diplomat. Every day, I set aside one hour for DP in my field for a serious study of the most successful diplomats in history. It is absolutely true that in some time, I will likely be better at my field than, say, 90% of my peers. However, it is unlikely that I will be the next Kissinger. To become one, wouldn’t I need to spend the same 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in diplomacy as grandmasters do in chess? In that sense, if we want to become better than 90% of people in diplomacy, it requires fewer hours in DP than becoming better than 90% of chess players. But to become better than 99% of other people will require roughly the same amount of deliberate practice both for diplomats and the chess players (in both cases, we would be competing only against the best of the best, who are likely spending a lot of time on deliberate practice themselves).
The implications would be that if we want to become experts in our communities (local experts), it is much easier to do so if we choose a field where there is no tradition of performance optimization. However, if our ambition is to become the absolute master of the field, it does not matter that much what field we choose.
This distinction may be especially helpful for people who are in search of their life path. It would be great to hear your opinion!
Thank you very much!