The Problems with Deliberate Practice


Notes on The Problems with Deliberate Practice by Cedric Chin.

Research on deliberate practice claims that anyone can become good at a skill with enough high-quality practice.

Specifically, it says that innate talent or affinity for a task is not important, and the effect size of practice overwhelms other factors.

It also says that practice must be difficult to be useful. Performing tasks at a non-challenging level doesn’t help you get better.

Applicability of Deliberate Practice 🔗

Some claim that deliberate practice can be used to improve any skill, but the more rigorous coverage of deliberate practice points to a need for structured training with standardized methods.

Many fields don’t have these sorts of training, and the knowledge to create them is difficult to develop.

Tacit knowledge makes deliberate practice difficult.

Talent vs. Practice 🔗

There is tremendous variability in progress gained from practicing.

In one example, a study done on chess players found a player who took 26 years to reach master level, and another who needed only 2 years. Some players estimated they had performed more than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice yet still struggled to grow their rating.

Genetics is not only known to have a large effect on ability, but it also leads to self-selection, so that those who are success stories for deliberate practice are also the ones who were more likely to be good at the field in the first place.

A study on athletes bears this out, in which top-rated sprinters recall being faster than their peers as children, while top-rated throwers recall being stronger in their youth.

Deliberate Practice vs. Normal Practice 🔗

In general, yes it does work, but if someone else hasn’t already developed a program of deliberate practice then you’re probably going to have a difficult time of doing that yourself.

In Peak, Ericsson differentiates “purposeful practice” from deliberate practice.

Purposeful practice:

  • Is focused on the task without distractions
  • Is difficult and pushes your boundaries
  • Provides feedback on well-defined goals.

For practice to be “deliberate”:

  • It must be in a field with known methods of structured training
  • The practice must be peformed with a coach (at ifrst, at least)
  • It must focus on improving specific facets of the skill in a session, rather than only focusing on the skill as a whole. Think of training specifically on chess endgames rather than just playing a lot of chess.

So this precludes deliberate practice from even being possible in many fields.

But in some fields, you may still be able to perform deliberate practice on subsets of the skill, even if not every facet can be trained in that way.

Challenges of Deliberate Practice 🔗

  • Breaking down a skill into sub-skills. These aren’t always well-defined.
  • Lack of feedback – Coaches or mentors are great, but not always available. Virtual mentors can be a substitute if you have to, emulating the work of masters through their writings, records, etc.
  • Lack of practice opportunities
  • Frustration with lack of progress. This often results from trying to train on too much at once. Narrowing the scope of the practice, lowering the difficulty of the practice, or getting feedback from an expert can help here.

Designing a Deliberate Practice Program 🔗

In Badass: Making Users Awesome, author Kathy Sierra lays out a method for developing your own practice methods.

You want to create exercises that focus on a particular goal in a small subset of the skill.

Within three sessions of 45-90 minutes each, you should be able to achieve that goal 95% of the time.

If you can’t accomplish this, then either split the task into multiple subtasks and just train them one at a time, or make the goal easier so that you can reach the 95% level on that goal. Then you can move back up to the harder goal.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, please send me a note on Twitter.