Be intentional about improving your skills—that’s the point I want to communicate in todays article.
I learned this lesson after reading Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin—a book about achieving excellence through something he calls ‘deliberate practice’.
Unfortunately, many creative people don’t practice deliberately.
They just ‘practice’. They just do their work.
They go through the motions, put in the hours—without sweating. And they think that by passively pounding on their craft over and over, they’re improving.
Who knows—maybe they are. But they’re likely not getting much better.
Practicing your craft for ten years, as the 10,000 hour cliché suggests, doesn’t guarantee success. Deliberately practicing on your craft, however, is a different story. It’s practice on steroids—it can really supercharge your abilities.
What exactly is deliberate practice, you ask?
Colvin argues that it’s composed of five things.
1. Designed to improve performance
Deliberate practice isn’t just practice. Nor is it just work. The activities are supposed to target an area of weakness and improve it.
Writers are told that to get better, write often. But that’s not the total truth.
Yes, writing often and every day will help you find your voice. But it’s meaningless to simply write essay after essay if you’re not thoughtfully addressing and correcting your faults.
2. It can be repeated a lot
Deliberate practice takes time to see progress. Sheer repetition is your best friend.
Patience, endurance, persistence—all these things are needed.
The logic is that if you train yourself in a single, focused area—over and over again—gradually you’ll strengthen that area.
3. Feedback is available
Improving your weaknesses can only be done with a mentor, or through a feedback-generating system, that gives you feedback on your results.
Many artists are earnest in their desire to improve. But they practice in solitude, hiding their work from the world. They believe it’s not ready to be seen or judged, so they show it to nobody. By not getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t, they smother the relevance out of their work, tainting it with their own subjectivity.
Feedback is key.
4. It’s mentally taxing
Deliberate practice is supposed to stretch your capacities. It’s supposed to drain you mentally.
The tasks you design shouldn’t be too easy, or too hard. They should be hard enough to stretch your current abilities, but easy enough not to overwhelm you.
This means you practice an activity that makes you slightly uncomfortable—a sure-fire sign you’re learning and growing.
5. It’s not fun
When you hear about the value of practice, you may be delighted—you love to play the piano, write essays, paint portraits. You love practice. 😉
Deliberate practice isn’t fun, though. You’re isolating a specific weakness, and exercising that frail muscle through pure repetition. How can that be fun?
Usually most people cop-out and do things that emphasize their strengths. They do activities that are semi-easy and that make them feel good. They stay in their comfort zone, but that’s why they don’t seem to improve year after year.
The person who practices deliberately, who intensely exercises her weak muscles, will improve drastically. But doing things that are designed to shore up your faults over and over again can be pretty depressing. Many artists hate receiving criticism, let alone facing it square on and working relentlessly to better themselves.
It’s about quality of practice
You might think this contradicts the quantity over quality theory, a productivity rule that says its better to churn out lots of work than to spend time perfecting one piece. But we’re talking about quality of practice. The ultimate combination, then, for high productivity and sharp quality of work, would be to make lots and lots of stuff, but during your down time, do activities (different from the actual work) that specifically perfects your skills.
So beware of people harping on the importance of doing your 10,000 hours. Yes, put in your hours, but do it mindfully. Artists don’t become great by simply doing their work—they have to deliberately practice. How you practice matters, not just how often you do it.
“Be intentional about improving your skills.”
Click here to learn an incredible technique used by the great 18th Century writer Benjamin Franklin. He combined all five of these components of deliberate practice into an extraordinary routine.