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Shane Parrish on Deliberate Practice

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Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin

In my introductory macroeconomics class, I recommend that my students read Daniel Coyle’s book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. (Daniel Coyle also has a website called The Talent Code”)There are two key messages of that book, important both for gaining skill in economics and for thinking about the economics of education and economic growth

  1. Effort can bring skill to almost anyone.
  2. The kind of effort required is the difficult regimen of deliberate practice.

Talent is Overrated. Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated has the same two messages. Shane Parrish, in his Farnam Street blog post "What is Delieberate Practice?" ably pulls from Talent is Overrated a description of deliberate practice.

Shane begins with these two quotations from Talent is Overrated indicating the difference between deliberate practice and what most people think of when they think of practice:  

  • In field after field, when it comes to centrally important skills…parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with less experience. 
  • Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance and tons of it equals great performance.

Shane clarifies:

Most of what we consider practice is really just playing around — we’re in our comfort zone.

When you venture off to the golf range to hit a bucket of balls what you’re really doing is having fun. You’re not getting better. Understanding the difference between fun and deliberate practice unlocks the key to improving performance.

Shane then structures the rest of his post by this that Geoff Colvin says of deliberate practice:

  1. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help;
  2. it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available;
  3. it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; it isn’t much fun.

1. Deliberate practice is designed to improve performance. Teachers can help in that design. As Geoff Colvin writes: 

  • In some fields, especially intellectual ones such as the arts, sciences, and business, people may eventually become skilled enough to design their own practice. But anyone who thinks they’ve outgrown the benefits of a teacher’s help should at least question that view. There’s a reason why the world’s best golfers still go to teachers.
  • A chess teacher is looking at the same boards as the student but can see that the student is consistently overlooking an important threat. A business coach is looking at the same situations as a manager but can see, for example, that the manager systematically fails to communicate his intentions clearly.”

Shane comments:

Teachers, or coaches, see what you miss and make you aware of where you’re falling short.

With or without a teacher, great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next.

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

2. Deliberate practice can be repeated a lot, with appropriate feedback.

Shane gives these two quotations from Talent is Overrated:

  • Let us briefly illustrate the difference between work and deliberate practice. During a three hour baseball game, a batter may only get 5-15 pitches (perhaps one or two relevant to a particular weakness), whereas during optimal practice of the same duration, a batter working with a dedicated pitcher has several hundred batting opportunities, where this weakness can be systematically exploited. 
  • You can work on technique all you like, but if you can’t see the effects, two things will happen: You won’t get any better, and you’ll stop caring.

Shane points out that if results must be subjectively interpreted, it is valuable not to have to rely entirely on one’s own opinion to judge the results. A coach can provide such a second opinion. But sometimes all it takes is a friend with good judgment. 

3. Deliberate practice is highly demanding mentally and isn’t much fun. 

Shane writes

Doing things we know how to do is fun and does not require a lot of effort. Deliberate practice, however, is not fun. Breaking down a task you wish to master into its constituent parts and then working on those areas systematically requires a lot of effort.

Indeed, Geoff Colvin claims that it is hard to do deliberate practice for more than four or five hours a day, or for more than ninety minutes at a stretch. 

Deliberate practice can also be embarrassing. Shane quotes from Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking this claim:

  • Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you’re alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging to you. If you want to improve what you’re doing, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class—you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time.”

Presumably, a tutorial by a good coach is even better than doing deliberate practice alone.  But some people do manage deliberate practice alone. A wonderful example is Ben Franklin.

A detailed example of deliberate practice: Ben Franklin. I remember vividly from my own reading of Talent is Overrated this passage Shane quotes about Ben’s program for improving his writing:

  • First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would have ever thought of.
  • It began with his reading a Spectator article and marking brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, “discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
  • One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. …
  • Franklin realized also that a key element of a good essay is its organization, so he developed a method to work on that. He would again make short notes on each sentence in an essay, but would write each note on a separate slip of paper. He would then mix up the notes and set them aside for weeks, until he had forgotten the essay. At that point he would try to put the notes in their correct order, attempt to write the essay, and then compare it with the original; again, he “discovered many faults and amended them.”

Other Readings. Shane recommends this New Yorker article by Dr. Atul Gawande.Many others have written online about deliberate practice, as googling the words “deliberate practice” indicates. One I stumbled across in my googling was Justin Musk’s excellent post "the secret to becoming a successful published writer: putting the deliberate in deliberate practice."

A Plea: I would love to see more in the economics blogosphere about what deliberate practice looks like for gaining skill in economics.

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