March 31, 2009
Why Talent is Overrated Part IV by By Geoff Colvin
Do you agree? Does practice make perfect?
In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, science, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks he's outgrown the benefits of a teacher's help should at least question that view. There's a reason the world's best golfers still go to teachers.
3) Feedback on results is continuously available. Obvious, yet not nearly as simple as it might seem, especially when results require interpretation. You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn't what counts. Or you may believe you played that bar of the Brahms violin concerto perfectly, but can you really trust your own judgment? In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.
4) It's highly demanding mentally. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it "deliberate," as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in. Continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one's hardest to make them better places enormous strains on anyone's mental abilities.
The work is so great that it seems no one can sustain it for very long. Nathan Milstein, one of the 20th century's greatest violinists, was a student of the famous teacher Leopold Auer. As the story goes, Milstein asked Auer if he was practicing enough. Auer responded, "Practice with your fingers, and you need all day. Practice with your mind, and you will do as much in 1-1/2 hours." What Auer didn't add is that it's a good thing 1-1/2 hours are enough, because if you're truly practicing with your mind, you couldn't possibly keep it up all day.
5) It's hard. This follows inescapably from the other characteristics of deliberate practice, which could be described as a recipe for not having fun. Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands. Instead of doing what we're good at, 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.
If it seems a bit depressing that the most important thing you can do to improve performance is no fun, take consolation in this fact: It must be so. If the activities that lead to greatness were easy and fun, then everyone would do them and no one could distinguish the best from the rest.
The reality that deliberate practice is hard can even be seen as good news. It means that most people won't do it. So your willingness to do it will distinguish you all the more.
If you work in the careers where the concept of deliberate practice is most deeply entrenched - sports and music - you're probably thinking that the researchers have explained and elaborated on ideas that many people in your world have understood for a long time.
But if you're among the far more numerous people who make a living in business-related fields, you're probably thinking, This is absolutely nothing like work! In fact, life at most companies seems ingeniously designed to defeat all the principles of deliberate practice.
Check back next week for the continuation of this great article.