If you went to the driving range every night and hit golf balls in the dark, do you think you’d become a better golf player?
You’d be putting in a lot of hours, but unfortunately your effort wouldn’t produce a better golf score.
Because you wouldn’t receive any feedback on your performance. You wouldn’t know whether each shot was perfect or off-base.
“Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.”
-Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
Feedback comes in many forms — only some of which are verbal.
UI/UX designers receive feedback by observing how their customers use their products. Marketers receive feedback by tracking the number of leads generated by campaigns. Public speakers receive feedback by watching the nonverbal cues of their audience.
And yes, golfers get feedback by watching where their ball lands.
In every single domain of business and life, it is impossible to attain mastery without receiving and acting upon feedback. Feedback is one of the foremost key components of high achievement.
Researchers have long tried to reverse-engineer a magic formula for what separates the best from the rest.
Psychologist Anders Ericsson has been studying human performance for decades. In his research, Ericsson has consistently found that the primary predictor of mastery in any field is the number of hours spent in “deliberate practice.”
What is deliberate practice?
- Involves well-defined, specific goals (not vague overall improvement)
- Requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions
- Involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback
- Requires a coach or third-party who can provide specific practice activities
- Improves micro-aspects of a skill in a systematic way
Ericsson’s research was later bastardized (read: popularized) into the “10,000 hour rule,” which has been written about ad nauseam and even immortalized in song by musical artist Macklemore.
To ensure the public heard the truth behind his work, Ericsson teamed up with science writer Robert Pool to publish Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
The core message of Peak is that experts do things differently than non-experts. Experts subscribe to the deliberate practice formula outlined above rather than doing what comes easy.
“Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”
-Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
Translation: Top performers do the work everyone else refuses to do.
Take a minute and re-read the list of the five bullet points above that describe deliberate practice. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait.)
Does even a single one of those things sound “fun”?
Focusing your full attention upon conscious actions. Receiving and acting upon feedback. Targeting micro-aspects of skill development.
That doesn’t sound like your local neighborhood kickball game. This is serious stuff. Mastery demands diligence.
Top performers in every field recognize that everything that will make them better tomorrow involves uncomfortability today.
“Growth isn’t supposed to feel good in the moment.”
How do most of us practice?
We play the same song over and over on guitar because we know it by heart and want others to think we sound good.
We only accept the work projects we know we can accomplish.
We begin every sales cold call with the same greeting, then wonder why we didn’t close the sale.
You get the idea. We repeat the same mindless processes over and over again in our daily lives — either from habit, fear, laziness, comfort, or pride.
“It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.”
In contrast, how do top performers practice?
Golfing legend Ben Hogan practiced more than any of his contemporaries. But he didn’t just go to the course and hit balls for fun. Hogan experimented with his grip, his wrist motion, and his swing. Supposedly he even spent years thinking about his golf swing and experimenting with various theories for how to improve it.
NBA superstar Kobe Bryant’s practice routines amazed his peers. According to former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant routinely arrived at the gym at least three hours before his teammates. O’Neal describes how Bryant perfected micro-aspects of each skill: “You’d walk in there and he’d be cutting and grunting and motioning like he was dribbling and shooting — except there was no ball. I thought it was weird, but I’m pretty sure it helped him.”
Other players witnessed Bryant practicing the same shot hundreds of times, making minor adjustments to his form.
“I heard one time in a workout that he practiced a shot for an hour. The same shot. For one hour. And it wasn’t like a three-pointer, it was a little shot in the mid-range area. Do you know how tedious that is? Do you know how locked in you have to be to do one shot for an hour? To trick your mind that way? That’s unbelievable.”
-Jamal Crawford, re: Kobe Bryant
Tech icon Steve Jobs was renowned as one of the most brilliant business storytellers in history. But Jobs didn’t become an exceptional presenter by accident. He rehearsed every tiny aspect of his keynote addresses, ensuring that each spoken word, presentation slide, and nonverbal gesture conveyed the appropriate tone. He asked his executive team to attend his practice sessions and offer feedback on how to improve his delivery and word choice.
“Steve thought about what each line meant to him and what those lines could mean to an audience. He worked on pace, on using his voice, his body, and his gestures to supplement his words.”
-Ken Kocienda, Apple designer
You’ll notice a key theme in each one of these stories: intense practice conducted in a deliberate manner.
Top performers stretch themselves, pay attention to the micro-aspects of their craft, and seek feedback and coaching in order to improve.
What can you do this week to incorporate more deliberate practice into your life and work?