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Deliberate Practice

I’m reading a book called Quiet by Susan Cain.  This morning, while sitting out on the front porch, I came across the following eye-opening insights.  Cain tells us, according to an interview she did with a research psychologist, Anders Ericsson, that

In many fields…it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he (Ericsson) has identified as the key to exceptional achievement.  When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.  Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful – they’re counterproductive.  They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.

Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons.  It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting.  It requires deep motivation, often self-generated.  But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally.  Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you ‘go directly to the part that’s challenging to you.  If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move.  Imagine a group class – you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.’

Deliberate Practice means practicing your craft a lot.  Perhaps you know someone that began playing the piano when they were two or started drawing and painting when they were five.  There are people who discovered their skill early and deliberately pursued it.  When you dabble at something, you may improve, but you may find yourself feeling uncomfortable when you bump up against someone who is excelling at the thing you’re longing to do.  You may really have talent, but you also may be making excuses for why you’re not a master.  Perhaps you put it aside for your job or your family or financial reasons.  You might pick it up from time to time only to put it aside again.

This applies to many different fields.  Think of it in the context of being an artist.  Classes are great and definitely have their place in the education of an artist.  They introduce you to new tools and new ways to use them.  Classes can give you a glimpse into the techniques of the instructor, who is, hopefully, more advanced along the art path than yourself.  However it’s time spent in Deliberate Practice that allows us to better ourselves.  According to what we read above, if you don’t spend much time in Deliberate Practice, you can remain stuck at whatever level you’re on.  By spending time in Deliberate Practice, you’re spending a LOT of time and you see you’re weakness (in your craft), what challenges you yourself, you the individual, you the artist, and you push yourself to focus in on it and overcome it.  You can only do this by spending a lot of time working at it, practicing.

I was one of those people who discovered my talent very young.  Everyone told me I had “a gift”.  From the age of ten to eighteen I exercised Deliberate Practice, though I didn’t have that term in mind.  I drew obsessively.  I went through an untold number of sketchbooks and notebooks.  I drew on sidewalks with pieces of stone.  I drew in the yard with lines made from leaves.  I drew on cardboard boxes.  It was a special treat to have permission to draw on a chalkboard.  Though my family had little money for things outside necessities, my mother got me into classes as often as she could that would help me along.  If there was a class at the local museum, she took me there.  While in high school and later college, I studied under a woman named Barbara Bassett who took me beyond what I would have learned anywhere else.

When I let myself get caught up in the busy-ness of my life however, I end up just dabbling at art.  I’m ashamed of that and I have to tell you that I regret it deeply.  I seem to have lost my momentum and I’m struggling to get it back.  I feel like I wasted something precious and shame on me for that.  Shame on me.  After reading the book Quiet and learning about how important practice is, I look forward to seeing how far it can take me – even me.  I’d like to show me and others that practice makes perfect.

Ready.  Set. Go!


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