Joshua Foer on Deliberate Practice

The idea of deliberate practice is one that I have been very eager to get my students to understand. I found a nice passage in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, explaining deliberate practice. Here it is, from pages 169-175:

When people first learn to use a keyboard, they improve very quickly from sloppy single-finger pecking to careful two-handed typing, until eventually the fingers move so effortlessly across the keys that the whole process becomes unconscious and the fingers seem to take on a mind of their own. At this point, most people’s typing skills stop progressing. They reach a plateau. If you think about it, it’s a strange phenomenon. After all, we’ve always been told that practice makes perfect, and many people sit behind a keyboard for at least several hours a day in essence practicing their typing. Why don’t they just keep getting better and better. 

In the 1960’s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner attempted to answer this question by describing the three stages that anyone goes through when acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the “cognitive stage,” you’re intellectualizing the task and discovering new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, “associative stage,” you’re concentrating less, making fewer major errors, and generally becoming more efficient. Finally you reach what Fitts called the “autonomous stage,” when you figure that you’ve gotten as good as you need to get at the task and you’re basically running on autopilot….

What separates the experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericsson has labeled “deliberate practice.” Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development. They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things: focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance. 

Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces. The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered. Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard….

The best way to get out of the autonomous stage and off the OK plateau, Ericsson has found, is to actually practice failing. One way to do that is to put yourself in the mind of someone far more competent at the task that you’re trying to master, and try to figure out how that person works through problems. Benjamin Franklin was apparently an early practitioner  of this technique. In his autobiography, he describes how he used to read essays by the great thinkers and try to reconstruct the the author’s arguments according to Franklin’s own logic. He’d then open up the essay and compare his reconstruction to the original words to see how his own chain of thinking stacked up against the master’s. The best chess players follow a similar strategy. They will often spend several hours a day replaying the games of grand masters one move at a time, tryhing to understand the expert’s thinking at each step. Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he’s played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he’s spent sitting alone working through old games.

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing–to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. With typing, it’s relatively easy to get past the OK plateau. Psychologists have discovered that the most efficient method is to force yourself to type faster than feels comfortable, and to allow yourself to make mistakes. In one noted experiment, typists were repeatedly flashed words 10 to 15 percent faster than their fingers were able to translate them onto the keyboard. At first they weren’t able to keep up, but over a period of days they figured out the obstacles that were slowing them down, and overcame them, and then continued to type at the faster speed. By bringing typing out of the autonomous stage and back under their conscious control, they had conquered the OK plateau….

This, more than anything, is what differentiates the top memorizers from the second tier: they approach memorization like a science. They develop hypotheses about their limitations; they conduct experiments and track data. “It’s like you’re developing a piece of technology, or working on a scientific theory,” the two-time world champ Andi Bell once told me. “You have to analyze what you’re doing." 

Also see my post ”Joshua Foer on Memory.