How People Get Good at What They Do

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Kristen Downey

It Takes Deliberate Practice

Ever wonder what makes some people really good at what they do?  How did Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player of all time?  What did it take for Toni Morrison to write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel?  Although Hollywood might have us believe that great teachers are great because of their innate talent (an inspired teacher stands on his desk and all students suddenly care about poetry!), in reality, it’s likely that people who are really good at things practice, practice, practice.  And then they practice some more. Just the other day I listened to an interview with artist and illustrator, Christoph Niemann, who takes some offense to this idea of talent. Neimann said, “I always feel like: No. When you listen to a pianist playing a Beethoven sonata ... you would never say: Oh, I couldn't do that [because of talent. It's] because, well, you didn't sit down for 10,000 hours and practice.”

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In fact, research indicates that frequent and mindful engagement in techniques, prompting cycles of practice – evaluation – revision, is the main factor contributing to increasing expertise.  In other words, deliberate practice may make all the difference.  

What is deliberate practice?  Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in the specific goal of improving performance.  Extended deliberate practice is a key component for attaining expert performance and is thought to be more important than the role of innate ability in development towards expertise.

An important obstacle to acknowledge for all of us trying to get better at something is that life is complicated and our jobs are complex.  So how can you strive for expert performance amidst all the noise?

According to  K. Anders Ericsson, one of the foremost scholars on expert performance, there are the four essential components of deliberate practice.

  1. You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.

  2. The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.

  3. You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.

  4. You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

It turns out, without adequate feedback about your performance during practice, efficient learning is impossible and improvement is minimal.  Simple practice (the 10,000 hour rule Neiman references in his interview) isn’t enough, and mere repetition of an activity won’t lead to improved performance.

The hard question: how do we encourage working teachers (a busy group) to keep intentionally practicing and reflecting on new techniques without loading up on tasks and busy work?  Here are some possibilities for building leaders or teaching teams:  

1.  Email prompts to encourage people to think about a problem or situation.

2.  Peer coaching, which asks participants to work with a colleague to surface and work through problems together.

3.  Messages of inspiration,  offering educators encouragement and tips.

Any other ideas? Let me know, and continue the conversation!

Co-author: Page Tompkins


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