If you are not yet familiar with deliberate practice, or if you simply want a refresher course, this short series of questions and answers is for you. The goal is simple: to give you enough information that you can wander around the rest of this site and make sense of what you find.
If you wish to learn about deliberate practice in more detail, the best place to start is our book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (the U.S. edition), or one of the many versions of Peak published in other countries and other languages. (For a complete list of the countries and languages in which Peak has appeared, go here.
What is deliberate practice?
Put quite simply, it is the most effective form of practice that we know of. It can be applied in any area, and while the specific details vary from one area to another, the same general principles characterize deliberate practice in any field. In that sense it is a universal approach to improving performance in the fastest, most efficient way possible.
But what is it? I mean, how does it work?
The precise details of deliberate practice vary from field to field. This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, the sort of practice you need to become a good singer is going to be very different from the sort of practice you need to master brain surgery. But the basic principles remain the same from field to field, and if you understand those principles, it’s just a matter of applying them in the particular area you wish to improve in.
So what are those general principles?
First, you must practice with the specific purpose of improving. Just going to work every day and doing your job the same way you learned it years ago does not count as practice. You can spend 10,000 hours going through the same motions and never get much better. Same thing with sitting down at the piano a couple of hours each week and playing the same songs you’ve been performing since high school. You’re not going to get any closer to playing like Liberace or Jerry Lee Lewis. More generally, if your focus is on performing — playing a game of soccer, conducting a sales presentation, designing a bit of software — then you are not really practicing, and it’s not going to help you get significantly better. To truly improve, you have to set aside time specifically devoted to improving. It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many people fail to understand this basic rule of getting better.
Next, get outside your comfort zone. Whatever you are practicing should be something that you cannot do easily. Deliberate practice is hard work. If you’re having fun, you’re probably not doing it right.
Also, you need to be focused on a specific goal. You must identify one particular detail that you wish to improve, and work on that. A goal like “I want to improve my tennis game” is basically useless. You need a goal like “I want to put more spin on my second serve.”
Once you have a goal, you must use practice techniques specifically designed to give you the sort of improvement you seek. The best place to get these practice techniques is from a teacher who has been trained in this particular area and knows which techniques are most effective in a given situation. If, for whatever reason, you don’t have a teacher, look for other resources to provide practice techniques — books, YouTube videos, talking with other people, your own imagination . . . anything that works.
As you are practicing, you need to get feedback that points to weaknesses and specific areas that require improvement. The best feedback comes from outside observers — ideally, a teacher or coach — who know what you’re trying to accomplish. If you have no one to provide feedback, it’s useful to have a record of your performance that you can review — videos, audio recordings, whatever. If none of that is available, it can be very useful just to mentally review your performance — how you interacted with coworkers during a meeting, say, or how that surgical procedure went — and identify things you would like to work on.
After figuring out what needs improvement, you use this feedback to guide the next steps in your practice. You are going through a continuous cycle: determine the improvements you need to make, settle on a practice technique, carry out the practice, use feedback to identify what you need to work on, and repeat.
Keep in mind that overall improvement is the result of a long series of small adjustments. While progress can be observed day to day, it is only after weeks or months that you see the truly dramatic improvements that are possible with deliberate practice.
Finally, the right sort of practice results in the development of effective mental representations that you will use to guide your performance. More than anything else, the best performers in an area are differentiated from everyone else by the quality of their mental representations. (See below.)
How do I find a good teacher?
This isn’t particularly easy. People often assume that people who are good at something can be effective teachers, but teaching is a separate skill from performing, and some great performers are not good teachers.
Your best bet is to find a teacher with a good track record of helping students improve. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily the same thing as a teacher who has had successful students. Sometimes a mediocre teacher who has a compelling personality or who talks a good game ends up attracting some very good students whose ultimate success has little to do with that teacher’s methods. In short, don’t believe the hype. Look for a teacher who has consistently taken students from one level to the next. Talk to a teacher’s students and former students to determine if they were helped by that teacher and, if not, why not. Look for recommendations and information on a potential teacher wherever you can find it.
If possible, get a teacher who has experience with students like you. A piano teacher who works mainly with elementary school children will have different skills than a piano teacher who works mainly with adults. A tennis coach who teaches mainly beginners will have different skills than a tennis coach who teaches advanced students.
And, of course, you want a teacher who relies on deliberate practice principles. A teacher may not use the term “deliberate practice,” but he or she should understand the importance of focused practice, training techniques that are designed to work on specific skills, and the use of feedback.
What if I don’t have a teacher or coach? Can I still improve?
There are many areas today where you will have a hard time finding a skilled teacher who can direct your practice and assign appropriate practice techniques. In some cases it’s because there is no tradition of people being employed as teachers or coaches in that field — think of riding a unicycle, for instance, or working in sales. Or perhaps there are teachers but none of them are located close enough that you can conveniently work with them, or maybe you can’t afford a teacher. Lessons can be very expensive.
Fortunately, it is possible to engage in practice that has all of the characteristics of deliberate practice except for the participation of a skilled teacher. In Peak Anders and I called this sort of practice “purposeful practice,” and it can, when done right, be nearly as effective as deliberate practice.
If you don’t have a teacher, you’ll still need to come up with effective practice techniques that are targeted at whatever you are trying to improve. Depending on the skill you’re interested in, you can often find training videos online, or you may find books with useful practice techniques. You can talk to skilled people in that area and ask them what sort of practice techniques they used, or you can develop your own practice techniques, preferably informed by research into what other people have found useful. Then follow the basic pattern of deliberate practice as outline above.
By the way, although Anders and I were careful in Peak to make the distinction between “deliberate practice” and “purposeful practice,” that distinction is mainly important for academic researchers, who must define their terms carefully. Outside of academia people are not so careful with the terminology, and on this website I will generally use “deliberate practice” to refer to either deliberate practice or purposeful practice. The reason is that many people are not familiar with the term “purposeful practice,” and using it sometimes and “deliberate practice” other times would just be confusing. So if I talk about “deliberate practice” but there is no teacher involved, you can think “purposeful practice.” Or you can just not worry about it.
Is deliberate practice useful in every area?
As far as we know, yes. No one has yet identified an area where deliberate practice is not a powerful approach to improving, and there are good theoretical reasons to believe that no such area will ever be identified. There are, however, practical problems that can limit the effectiveness of deliberate practice in a particular area. For example, it can sometimes be difficult to develop objective measures of performance (without which it is impossible to know what to strive for), and without good measures of performance, it is hard to know how much — or even if — you are improving.
But whatever limitations might exist in a particular area, deliberate practice is by far the most effective approach to improvement that you will find, period.
THE ADAPTABLE BRAIN
Why does deliberate practice work? What is it doing to cause improvement?
The human body and brain are amazingly adaptable. Consider the physical adaptations that must take place in a marathon runner’s legs and lungs to make it possible to run 26.2 miles in little more than two hours, or the adaptations in the muscles of a body builder or in the vocal system of an opera singer.
The human brain is even more adaptable, although the adaptations require specialized equipment to observe. If, for example, you use an MRI to examine the brain of a classically trained violinist, you will find that the part of the brain devoted to controlling the fingers of the left hand — the fingers that press down on the instrument’s strings — is much larger than in non-musicians. Similarly, the brains of professional mathematicians are larger in the areas devoted to mathematical reasoning.
Deliberate practice works by driving adaptations in the brain and (in skills with a physical component) the body. No one is born with a body builder’s outsized muscles or a classical violinist’s outsized finger-control areas in the brain. These are things that are developed through years of deliberate practice. More generally, if you wish to improve in any area, you will need to practice in ways that create the necessary changes in your brain or your body, or both.
The most effective training techniques are those that challenge the brain or body to do something that is just outside its comfort zone, triggering neurons or muscle fibers or other cell types to adapt in ways that make it possible to carry out the desired activity. These are the sorts of techniques used in deliberate practice. Individually, the resulting adaptations in the brain or body are small, but over time they can add up to major changes.
What are mental representations, and what role do they play in performance?
Mental representations can be thought of as mental tools that are developed through practice and that make it easier — or possible — to perform certain tasks.
A classic example is how chess grandmasters can, after being given just a few seconds to study a chess game in progress, reproduce the position of every piece on the board from memory. It is not that they have a particularly good memory but rather that they have developed, through years of studying the game, a familiarity with the various patterns that appear in chess games. The patterns consist of arrangements of pieces and how the pieces are interacting with one another — which pieces are attacking and defending other pieces, for instance — and a chess grandmaster relies on these patterns when analyzing a chess board. But this familiarity with the patterns also makes it possible to glance at a chessboard and see what is going on and how the various pieces are interacting with one another, which in turn makes it possible to reproduce the positions of the pieces with just a few seconds of studying the board.
In every area the development of skill is accompanied by — and, indeed, made possible by — the development of highly detailed mental representations. These representations are very specific to the particular skill and vary greatly from field to field. Some of them encode muscle movements, such as the mental representations that violinists develop for moving their fingers along the fingerboard or that gymnasts have for moving their bodies during their jumps, flips, and twists. Others are mostly mental, such as the methods that software developers use to think effectively about vast, complex computer programs.
The common thread uniting these various types of mental representations is that they make it possible to perform a skill better, more quickly, more accurately, and more effectively, whether than skill is playing the piano, driving a racecar, managing a company, or performing surgery.
In explaining deliberate practice and expert performance, I have found mental representations to be the most difficult concept for people to grasp, partly because they are so abstract but also, I think, because they differ so much from skill to skill. Given that mental representations are so critical to skilled performance but also so difficult to understand, I will be regularly featuring them in the blog portion of this website. A blog article describing the mental representations involved in driving a race car can be found here, for example. More generally, you can search this site using “mental representations” as the search phrase.
THE ROLE OF TALENT
What about talent? Aren’t there some people who are just naturally good at sports or math or music or whatever?
Psychological researchers have long been looking for solid evidence of such talent, and it has been hard to find. Height and body size are two genetically linked traits that we know are correlated with success in certain sports, but other than those two we know of no genetically linked characteristics that influence one’s ultimate success in any area. No one has ever found genes for musical talent or engineering talent or business talent or any other kind of talent. Now, that doesn’t mean that such genes will never be found, of course, but here is what we know for sure right now:
Anyone who excels in an area with objectively measurable performance (that is, areas where people are judged by what they are really able to do and not by how likable they are or how convincing they can be) has reached that level of excellence through practice. Lots of practice. There is no such thing as a person with so much talent that he or she does not need to practice harder than everyone else to reach a field. There are no “naturals” who have such great genes that they don’t need to put in the work.
Furthermore, anyone can improve at practically anything with the right sort of practice. This doesn’t mean that anyone who works really hard at it can be an international chess champion or the world’s best banjo player. There are a variety of factors influencing exactly how far you can go, including how early in life you start practicing. But it does mean that if you work really hard at it and put in the right kind of practice, you can be really, really good at whatever skill you choose — and probably far, far better than you dream you can be.
Exactly what role “talent” plays in becoming really good and something is a complex issue, and the complexity starts with the question of what “talent” even means. I deal with this in more detail in a blog post here. But the main thing you need to know is that whenever you see someone who is really good at something — an athlete, a musician, a writer, an engineer, whatever — you can be certain that that person did not get to that level because of some innate gift. He or she worked hard and practiced in the right way for years to develop that “natural talent.”
But aren’t there people born with no talent in a particular area who can never become good at that thing, no matter how much they practice? Like people who are tone deaf or who naturally are no good at math?
Just like the idea of people with “natural talent,” this is a myth. If you run across someone with “no talent” for something like singing or math, you can be sure that this is someone who never practiced in the right way, either because of a lack of interest or, often, because of a conviction that he or she just didn’t have what it takes.
Research has shown that adults who swear they are “tone deaf” can be taught to sing quite well. It just takes the right sort of practice, done consistently for a long enough time — and it doesn’t really take that long. Students who are convinced they are no good at math can indeed be taught to do math and even to really enjoy it. Again, it just takes the right sort of training.
THE 10,000-HOUR RULE
The 10,000-hour rule states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. Is that true?
As Anders and I explain in Peak, when Malcolm Gladwell coined the 10,000-hour rule for his book Outliers, it was based on a misunderstanding of research that Anders had done on violin students at a music academy in Berlin. There is nothing magic about 10,000 hours. You can become really good at some things with far fewer than 10,000 hours of practice. On the other hand, if you want to become a world-class classical violinist, it will probably take more like 20,000 hours.
Furthermore, Gladwell missed the most important aspect of Anders’ research — that it is a particular sort of practice that creates a top performer. He wrote, for example, about how the Beatles had gotten about 10,000 hours of practice playing daily hours-long gigs in clubs in Hamburg, but performing music is not deliberate practice. The Beatles were good musicians, but that was because of the intense practice they put into their craft outside of their performances.
But Gladwell got one very important thing right: It does take a whole lot of practice to become really good at something. Maybe not 10,000 hours. The number will vary according to the skill and the individuals. But many, many hours. No one gets to be an expert performer without that sort of commitment. No one gets to the top without that kind of work.
AGE AND PRACTICE
Is it important to start early — when you’re still a young child — if you want to be really good at something?
There are certainly areas where you are highly unlikely to become one of the best in the world if you don’t start young. Women’s gymnastics is the ultimate example because it takes a decade or so of steady practice to reach world-class level, and because of the changes in a woman’s body as she matures, there are few world-class women’s gymnasts much older than the early twenties. Do the math. If you don’t start until you’re ten or twelve, it’s probably already too late to have much of a shot at Olympic gold.
Similarly, nearly all of the world’s top classical musicians, ballerinas, or chess players started out as young children. Even in some areas where you wouldn’t necessarily expect it, starting young has a definite advantage. As I discovered when talking to a guy who coaches motorcycle racers, the very best riders in the world all started young—in their early teens or before.
In the physical sports, part of the reason is that the body of a child is much more malleable than the body of an adult, and training in childhood allows for some adaptations that aren’t possible later. In ballet, for example, the only ballerinas who are have perfect turnout are those who started training early before the bones of the hip joints finished growing. A similar thing is true for baseball pitchers. If you start pitching early, you can develop the classic pitching motion where the arm swings in a perfect circle high above the shoulder; if you start too late, the shoulder joint has matured to the point where cannot get that full range of motion.
Less is known about the brain, but research indicates that the young brain is more flexible and can respond to training in ways that the adult brain cannot. For example, studies have found differences between the brains of musicians who started studying music as a child and those who started later, even when the total hours of practice were the same.
So the bottom line is that, yes, there are clear advantages to starting training as a child. There are some ways that a child’s body and brain can adapt and change in response to training that just aren’t possible if you start as an older teenager or an adult.
I’m an adult. Is it too late for me to become good at (playing the piano, playing golf, writing, drawing, etc.)?
No! The human brain and body remain adaptable throughout life. Depending on the skill you’re talking about, you may find that your “ceiling” — the ultimate level you can rise to — gets lower as you age. But let’s be real. How many people actually reach that ceiling anyway?
If you were a Wimbleton-winning tennis player in your twenties, no, you aren’t going to be as good now that you’re in your mid forties. But if you were just an okay player in your twenties, it’s quite possible that with the right sort of practice and focus, you could elevate your game to the point that you’re playing better tennis in your mid forties than you did 20 years earlier.
In Peak we talk about Dan MClaughlin, who at the age of 30 quit his job as a photographer to pursue his goal of becoming a professional golfer. He had never played golf before, but after five years of practice he had brought his handicap down to a 2.6 — an excellent achievement, although not quite enough to go pro. Unfortunately, a persistent back injury forced him to give up on his plan after another year, and he never got any closer to his goal. But he did prove that is possible, with enough of the right sort of practice, to become a very good golfer even if you start late in life.
In the case of other skills, particularly those with little or no physical component, the evidence indicates that there are few limitations to how good you can become. Indeed, the main limitation may be finding enough time to practice, as most adults have jobs, families, and other commitments that leave relatively little time to devote to developing a skill.
As far as I know, there have been no rigorous scientific studies of adults developing various skills, so we have to rely mostly on anecdotal evidence, and that suggests that there is little to prevent adults — even much older adults — from becoming quite good at whatever skill they choose. My favorite example is former president George W. Bush, who took up painting when he left office at the age of 62. He spends much of his time painting and hired a teacher to help with technique, and he has become surprisingly good, painting very compelling portraits of such people as Angela Merkel, Vladamir Putin, and the Dalai Lama as well as very lifelike paintings of dogs and cats.
I figure that if George W. Bush can discover his inner Rembrandt well into his sixties, then no one should use age as an excuse for not pursuing a dream.
You say that deliberate practice is hard work. Are there ways to maintain motivation so that I can keep practicing?
Beyond the question of which sorts of practice are most effective, motivation is probably the most important issue for anyone wanting to use deliberate practice to improve. It’s very easy to get excited about working on some skill and to embark on a training program. It’s much harder to keep it going after the initial excitement has worn off.
People who talk about “grit” tend to assume that this is a personality characteristic — that some people have grit, and other don’t, and that those who do are able to keep going at whatever they set out to do. Anders and I see it somewhat differently. There is no evidence that “grit” is a general characteristic and that people who can maintain motivation in one area will be able to keep going in others as well.
Instead, motivation seems to be very context dependent, and you will find it easier to maintain motivation in some areas than others. In particular, you will find it easier to remain motivated when doing something you find interesting or rewarding in one way or another. If you hate what you’re doing and see no point in it, you’re not likely to keep going, and even if you manage to keep going, your heart won’t be in it, and your practice will not be particularly effective.
But the key thing to keep in mind about motivation is that it is shaped by a lot of different external factors, and these are generally things that you can control. So if you’re looking to remain motivated, find these external factors and work with them.
For example, you’re a lot more likely to keep going at something if you’re doing it with one or more other people. It’s easy to quit on a daily work-out regimen if it’s just you. But if you and a friend are meeting at the gym three days a week to work out, you’re much less like to stop going. That’s one of the advantages of working with a teacher, coach, or trainer — you have someone you don’t want to let down.
One variation on this is to set a goal, announce it to a lot of people — on a website, for instance — and then post updates. This was the strategy of Max Deutsch, a young man in California who set out to “master” twelve different skills over the course of a year, giving himself a month to do each. As I described here, he was amazingly successful in his quest, and one of things that kept him motivated was knowing that a number of people were following him and seeing how he did.
More generally, to maintain motivation you need to remove as many impediments as possible and find ways to reward yourself for continuing. For instance, set aside a particular time each day for your practice and don’t schedule anything else for that time; if you are constantly trying to figure out when to practice, it becomes too easy to start skipping practices and eventually quitting altogether. Set yourself a series of small goals so that as you meet each one, it provides positive feedback and a sense of accomplishment. Keeping a diary or videos or some other record of your performance can help you see you far you’ve come. Find ways of rewarding yourself for reaching milestones.
The best ways of maintaining motivation — and of removing motivation-sapping factors — will vary from person to person, but one things remains true: Few of us can maintain motivation indefinitely without some help. You are most likely to succeed if you create an environment for yourself that helps you keep going.