I’ve written about the Feynman Technique, which is one of the fastest ways to study and learn new material, but there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to do something. You can know a cake recipe and still fail miserably when you try to bake the cake. You can know how to read music but still struggle at strumming a guitar.
This disconnect between knowledge and ability is a big hurdle, and one that most people either don’t realize exists or aren’t willing to jump over. That’s why taking the time to not only learn a skill but to master the performance of it is so rare and valuable.
In this article I’m going to cover Deliberate Practice, which is a strategy you can use for rapid skill acquisition.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate Practice is the best way to rapidly develop a new skill or improve on a skill that you already have. It is a repeatable process that helps you pinpoint your weaknesses and turn them into strengths, avoid plateaus, and eventually become a world-class performer of whatever skill you’re working on.
Obviously, there are limits. Your physical ability to do something plays a role in your success at physical activities. For example, I couldn’t win the Tour de France no matter how much time I spent deliberately practicing cycling. I could, however, become an excellent cyclist for my age. Deliberate Practice helps you reach your own personal peak performance.
How do you apply Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate Practice differs from regular practice in a few ways. In order to get the most from your practice sessions, apply the rules below:
- You must have a specific, measurable, and achievable goal that is just outside your current comfort zone. Progress is made when you actively push your limits.
- Deliberate Practice requires your full attention. It is impossible to improve by simply repeating a task mindlessly. Repetition does not equal practice. At best, mindless repetition will let you maintain a skill. At worst, you could be ingraining bad habits and hampering improvement — turning practice into your enemy!
- Deliberate Practice requires some sort of feedback loop. If you’re practicing your golf swing and you keep slicing it, having a coach who can tell you that (a) you’re slicing it and (b) how to correct it is an invaluable tool. If you don’t have a coach on hand, you need to find some way of giving yourself immediate, honest, and helpful feedback on your practice so that you can make tweaks and improve.
As a general rule, Deliberate Practice should be difficult. You should always be focused and “in the moment” when practicing — and you should always be working on something that is outside of your current skill set. If you aren’t uncomfortable then you probably aren’t doing it right.
Deliberate Practice Examples
Let’s look at some practical ways to try your hand at Deliberate Practice.
For something as subjective writing it can be difficult to set specific, measurable, and achievable goals. Making a goal such as “write at least 200 words every day” is a good starting point, especially if you need to build the habit of writing, but it won’t help you improve your craft much (if at all). A better idea would be to try to recreate a passage from an author you admire every day. Here’s what that would look like:
- Decide that you want to practice writing better transitions.
- Choose a passage from an author who is known for writing great transitions. Read it a few times and then put it aside.
- Try to recreate the passage in your own words. Pay attention to the transitions that you use. Try to use the same transitions as the author. Then recreate the passage again and try to use different transitions.
- Review your work and compare it to the original. Repeat.
Another way to apply Deliberate Practice to your writing is to give yourself difficult limitations. Create a “banned words” list and then try to rewrite a famous speech without using any of them. This will force you to write outside of your comfort zone and stretch your creative muscles in a meaningful way.
The art of photography is another subjective medium and as a result it can be difficult to know what to practice and how to practice it effectively. The key here is to do some initial research and come up with a style, or even a basic principle of photography, that you want to master. Let’s say you want to learn how to take better portraits and right now you don’t even understand your camera’s manual mode. Here’s one way to apply Deliberate Practice:
- Find a portrait that you want to replicate and try your hand at it. Compare your initial photograph to the one that you’re trying to replicate. Even if you are using the same composition and are a similar distance from your subject, there are probably a ton of ways that your photograph differs from the original. Find as many differences as you can and make guesses as to how to correct them.
- Your photo might have been poorly lit and and as a result the shadows look weird. This would alert you that you need to practice lighting your portraits. Some research would reveal various lighting techniques you could try. Try them.
- Each time you try a new lighting technique, compare your photo to the original. Once you’ve figured out how to manipulate light the way you want, move on to the next difference. Maybe your subject and the background are all in focus but in the original, only the subject is. Soon you’ll be knee-deep in explanations about ISO, f-stops, lenses, depth-of-field, and more. Practice trying new things until you figure out how to get your subject in focus while the background is blurred. Move on to the next thing.
You can see how Deliberate Practice is an ongoing process. Once you’re comfortable with one thing, that means it’s time to move on to the next. In the beginning, it’s easy to make dramatic improvements relatively quickly. The challenging part is overcoming plateaus.
One key takeaway from Deliberate Practice is that you should always be outside of your comfort zone. You need to toe the line between comfort and incompetence, because if you drift too much to either side then you’ll either stop improving or stop trying.
Make your goals specific, measurable, and achievable — but also make sure that they’re difficult and uncomfortable. Stretch your abilities as far as they’ll reach, and then keep stretching. With consistency over time, Deliberate Practice yields exponential returns.