Overview of what "Deliberate Practice" is

About 9 years ago I read the book called Talent is Overrated - by Geoff Colvin. The author makes a strong point that innate talent isn’t the main reason why people become successful. Instead, he argues that a process called “Deliberate Practice” is what makes top performers.
I recently revisited the book and wrote this post to give you a quick overview of how the book defines “Deliberate Practice” and what it entails.

This post is essentially a list of quotes with some of my own ideas and comments sprinkled in here and there.

The book’s main premises

The author spends quite some time to show examples to prove his points. However, in the end the book boils down to these main premises it tries to proof:

  • Hardwork > genetic talent
  • Genetic advantages are certainly real. However, it’s only one of many variables needed for top performance.
  • Emphasis on teachers. Mostly because a teacher or mentor can provide invaluable feedback. He also makes many examples of supportive parents (e.g. Tiger Woods, Mozart, Chess players, etc.)
  • Recognizes that there are biological boundaries we can’t cross. However, he argues that top performers find ways to circumvent those boundaries and thereby go beyond their limit.
  • States that top performers are on another level compared to the average person. He argues that the bodies of top performers have changed due to years of deliberate practice.
  • Acknowledges that luck plays an important role. While it has often been observed that those who work the hardest seem to be the luckiest, the fact remains that if a bridge collapses while you’re driving over it, nothing else matters.
  • Definition of the term “Deliberate Practice”

Top performers

In order to compare average performers with top performers we first need to determine what distinguishes them. In the book the author defines “top performers” as:

  • Perceiving more
    • They understand the significance of indicators that average performers don’t even notice.
    • They look further ahead.
    • They know more from seeing less.
    • They make finer discriminations than average performers.
  • Knowing more
    • Not just general knowledge but deep knowledge in their specific field
  • Remembering more
    • Domain knowledge is how top performers increase their memory
    • Chunk theory - Top level chess players see groups of chess pieces much like we see words instead of individual letters. Then it’s no surprise that they can remember far more pieces on the board. Same for memory artists (but they use a retrieval structure).
    • Therefore great memory is based on domain knowledge, concepts and relations between different concepts.

Avoid Automaticity - Always get better

When we learn something:

  1. We need to pay a lot of attention as we try out different things, learn the rules, etc.
  2. We begin to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and combine our actions with our knowledge of the situation and the rules
  3. We do the action we learned almost automatic, without giving a thought - e.g. driving a car

Top performers never reach stage 3! The performance always has to stay conscious and controlled, not automatic. Avoiding automaticity is another way of saying that great performers are always getting better.

Break your limits

The most important effect of practice in great performers is that it takes them beyond - or more precisely, around - the limitations that most of us think of as critical.

We’re all bound by the 80-20 rule. E.g. it takes a tennis player 20% of the effort to reach 80% of humanly possible reaction speed.

Top tennis pros have all pushed themselves to the point where it’s tough to achieve any more reaction speed. The very best, however, have found a way to get around that limitation - they had found a way to react faster without improving their reaction time (-> early prediction of players pose).

Deliberate Practice

For starters it’s not what most of us do when we’re “practicing”

The Elements

1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance

  • It’s designed - Teachers or mentors are essential because they have much more experience in the field and also how to practice it.
  • Meant to stretch the individual beyond his or her current abilities
  • The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they are improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.
  • Choosing these aspects of performance is itself an important skill.
  • Identifying the learning zone which is not simple, and then forcing oneself to stay continually in it as it changes, which is even harder - these are the first and most important characteristics of deliberate practice.
  • Deliberate practice demands that we push ourselves to the point where we break down and then develop a solution.

2. It can be repeated a lot

  • High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.
  • Top performers repeat their practice activities to stultifying extent.
  • More generally, the most effective deliberate practice activities are those that can be repeated at high volume.

3. Feedback on results is continuously available

  • Practice without feedback = bowling through a curtain that hangs down to knee level. You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring
  • A teacher, coach or mentor can be of great value.

4. It’s highly demanding mentally

  • Deliberate = an effort of focus and concentration
  • Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one’s hardest to make them better places enormous strain on anyone’s mental abilities.
  • 4-5 hours is usually the upper limit of deliberate practice. Frequently accomplished in sessions lasting between 1h - 1.5h
  • If you can keep it up longer then you’re not practicing “deliberate” enough

5. It isn’t much fun

  • We insistently seek out what we’re not good at. Then we identify the painful, difficult activities that will make us better and do those things over and over.
  • After each repetition, we force ourselves to see - or get others to tell us - exactly what still isn’t right so we can repeat the most painful and difficult parts of what we’ve just done.
  • We continue that process until we’re mentally exhausted.

Applying the principles in our lives

Note: Very interesting “The Benjamin Franklin Method” (page 106)

Practicing directly

Opportunities to practice directly, apart from the actual use of the skill or ability, the way a musician practices a piece before performing it.

The music model

In the classical tradition, a musician knows what he or she is going to play; the music is written down. What separates the greats from the rest is how well they perform that music.

Or another example: Watch a presentation that you consider especially well done and make notes of its various points; later, after you’ve forgotten most of it, use your notes to create a talk making the same points; deliver the talk and record it; then compare your video with the original.

The chess model

Excellent chess players practice by studying positions from real games between top-level players, organized by various themes - openings, end games, attacks, defenses, and many other categories that are far more refined.

The practice routine is to study a particular position and choose the move you would make, then compare it with the move chosen by the master; if they’re different, figure out why and which is better.

In business there is the case method. You’re presented with a problem, and your job is to figure out a solution.

More generally, consciousness of the chess model changes the way you read the news or observe what happens in your own industry or the company where you work. The essence of the chess model is the question: What would you do? Each news event that you read about, each new development in your company or industry, is an opportunity for you to answer that question. Then write down your answer and keep it until later to compare your answer to what actually happened.

The sports model

The practice of top athletes falls into two large categories.

  1. Conditioning, building the strengths and capacities that are most useful in the given sport (e.g. leg muscles or stamina)

  2. Working on a specific critical skill (e.g. batting a baseball, throwing a football or hitting a golf ball out of the sand)

    A characteristic that many of these skills share is that they must be performed differently every time because the situations in which they’re encountered are never the same. That’s why this is different from the music model. For a pianist, the notes in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata never change, but for a quarter-back, no two passing situations are ever alike.

1 In business

Apart from sports, conditioning means getting stronger with the underlying cognitive skills that you probably already have - basic math and accounting in financial jobs, basic science in engineering jobs, basic language skills in editorial jobs. In many cases this is stuff you have learned in high school or college, and it’s tempting to think you couldn’t possibly benefit from revisiting it. But the truth is that these strengths, like physical strengths, decay if they aren’t maintained. Every linebacker from high school up to the NFL does leg presses, while surprisingly few people in business practice the basic conditioning that supports all they do.

2 In business

The second type of practice in the sports model, specific skill development, is based on focused simulation. Doing it by oneself may be a challenge. E.g. also simulation games which simulate marketing, stock trading, negotiation, corporate strategizing, css game, etc.

Practicing in the Work

Opportunities to practice as part of the work itself. This requires effective self-regulation. Self-regulation must be done before, during and after the work activity.

This isn’t exactly the same as when you’re designing a dedicated deliberate practice activity, but rather you’re doing whatever the requirements of work may demand of you that day. But within that activity, the best performers are focused on how they can get better at some specific element of the work.

Before the work

Self-regulation begins with setting goals. The best performers set goals that are not only about the outcome but about the process of reaching the outcome.

With a goal set, the next pre-work step is planning how to reach the goal. Again the best performers make the most specific technique oriented plans.

During the work

The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers use during their work is self-observation. The best performers observe themselves closely. They are in effect able to step outside themselves, monitor what is happening in their own minds, and ask how it’s going (metacognition).

For example, when a customer raises a completely unexpected problem in a deal negotiation, an excellent businessperson can pause mentally and observe his or her own mental processes as if from outside: Have I fully understood what’s really behind this objection? Am I angry? Am I being hijacked by my emotions? Do I need a different stragety here?

By observing their own thinking they can ask themselves during the performance:

  • What abilities are being taxed in this situation?
  • Can I try another skill here?
  • Could I be pushing myself a little further?
  • How is it working?

Through their ability to observe themselves, they can simultaneously do what they’re doing and practice what they’re doing.

After the work

Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results. These evaluations must be self-evaluations.

Excellent performers are more specific when they judge themselves. The judge themselves against a standard that’s revelant for what they’re trying to achieve. Key in all deliberate practice is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.

Deepening your Knowledge

Deep domain knowledge is fundamental to top-level performance. You don’t have to wait for that knowledge to come your way in the course of your work. You must pursue it.

As you add to your knowledge of your domain, keep in mind that your objective is not just to amass information. You are building a mental model - a picture of how your domain functions as a system. This is one of hte defining traits of great performers: They all possess large, highly developed, intricate mental models of their domains.

A mental model is never finished - it needs to be continually expanded. It isn’t possible to do the whole job through study alone, much of the work also needs to be done through deliberate practice and metacognitive processes in the work itself.

  • A mental model forms the framework on which you can hang your growing knowledge of your domain.
    The organization of top performer’s voluminous knowledge in a mental model is what makes their memory so much more superior compared to ordinary performers.
  • A mental model helps you distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information.
    Frees up mental resources to work on what’s really important.
  • A mental model enables you to project what will happen next.
    Since your mental model is an understanding of how your domain functions as a system, you know how changes in the system’s inputs will affect the outputs. Example with top and ordinary firefighters. Ordinary firefighter reported details about the intensity and color of the flames. Top firefighters saw a story of what must have led to the current state of the fire and predict what was likeliest to happen next.


This post gave you a quick and effective overview of what distinguishes top performers from average performers. It also gave you an idea of what Deliberate Practice is and how you could apply it in your daily life.

I have to say so far I’ve never done Deliberate Practice the way it’s defined by the author. I find it difficult to apply the clear cut examples from sports and music to fields such as career, programming, startup, etc. Somehow the less defined the boundaries and rules of a field are the harder it seems to create a Deliberate Practice routine.