Just beyond your current limits

Excellent performers judge themselves differently than most people do. They're more specific, just as they are when they set goals and strategies. Average performers are content to tell themselves that they did great or poorly or okay.

By contrast, the best performers judge themselves against a standard that's relevant for what they're trying to achieve. Sometimes they compare their performance with their own personal best; sometimes they compare it with the performance of competitors they're facing or expect to face; sometimes they compare it with the best known performance by anyone in the field.

Any of those can make sense; the key, as in all deliberate practice, is to choose a comparison that stretches you just beyond your current limits. Research confirms what common sense tells us, that too high a standard is discouraging and not very instructive, while too low a standard produces no advancement.

Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated

the secret power of deliberate practice

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.

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.

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.

Geoff Colvin, Why Talent is Overrated

Just the Right Amount of Practice

Practice too little and you never become world-class. Practice too much, though, and you increase the odds of being struck down by injury, draining yourself mentally, or burning out. To succeed, students must “avoid exhaustion” and “limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

How do students marked for greatness make the most of limited practice time? The rhythm of their practice follows a distinctive pattern. They put in more hours per week in the practice room or playing field, but they don’t do it by making each practice longer. Instead, they have more frequent, shorter sessions, each lasting about 80 to 90 minutes, with half-hour breaks in between.

Add these several practices up, and what do you get? About four hours a day. About the same amount of time Darwin spent every day doing his hardest work, Hardy (G.H. Hardy was one of Britain’s leading mathematicians in the first half of the 20th century) and Littlewood (Hardy’s longtime collaborator John Littlewood) spent doing math, Charles Dickens and Stephen King spent writing. Even ambitious young students in one of the world’s best schools, preparing for an notoriously competitive field, could handle only four hours of really focused, serious effort per day.

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writing in Nautilus

The superstar's weakest spot

What's the simplest way to diminish the skills of a superstar talent (short of inflicting an injury)? What would be the surest method of ensuring that LeBron James started clinking jump shots, or that Yo-Yo Ma started fudging chords? The answer: don't let them practice for a month. Causing skill to evaporate doesn’t require chromosomal rejiggering or black-ops psychological maneuvers.

It only requires that you stop a skilled person from systematically firing his or her circuit for a mere 30 days. Their muscles won't have changed; their much vaunted genes and character will remain unaltered; but you will have touched their talent at the weakest spot in its armor.

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

A simple strategy of the talent hotbeds: chunking

Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit further each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly intuitively. the instinct to slow down and break skills into their components is universal.

We heard it a billion times while we were growing up, from parents and coaches who echoed the old refrain “Just take it one step at a time.”  But what I didn't understand until I visited the talent hotbeds was just how effective that simple, intuitive strategy could be.

In the talent hotbeds I visited, the chunking takes place in three dimensions. First, the participants look at the task as a whole-- as one big chunk, the megacircuit.  Second, they divide it into its smallest possible chucks. Third, they play with time, slowing the action down, then speeding it up, to learn its inner architecture.

People in the hotbeds deep-practice the same way a good movie director approaches a scene--one instant panning back to show the landscape, The next zooming in to examine a bug crawling on a leaf in slo-mo.

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

Babies learning to walk can teach you something

A few years ago a group of American and Norwegian researchers did a study to see what made babies improve at walking. They discovered that the key factor wasn't height or weight or age or brain development or any other innate trait but rather (surprise!) the amount of time they spend firing during their circuit, trying to walk. These staggering babies embody the deepest truth about deep practice: to get good, it's helpful to be willing, or even enthusiastic, about being bad. Baby steps are the royal road to skill.

Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code