Jan 182012

Talent, Excellence, Success – it’s all things we want to help nurture in our children.  A while back I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (OK, I listened to it as an audiobook, but it still counts).  In it, he talks about how some people become excellent at something, superstars and experts by doing what’s called deliberate practice.  This isn’t just rote practice, but a very specific set of activities where:

  • you start with an analysis of your strengths and weaknesses and a plan working on your weaknesses
  • you meticulously and step-by-step do whatever it is you want to work on, but always just outside your comfort zone so you’re not cruising through, but not quite freaking out either
  • work on those deficiencies or goals in small and measurable ways
  • get feedback (from a coach, a teacher, a mentor, an audience, somebody) on how well you are doing so that you can course correct
  • and do it again, day after day.

It’s how everyone from Tiger Woods to Bobby Fischer to Mozart to Einstein got good at what do do and did.

I’ve spoken of the blog by Cal Newport called Studyhacks before in a previous post.  He too talked about deliberate practice – in a way that’s probably a lot more eloquent than I could.  Recently he put up a post where he talks about a Reddit thread that he discovered that he thinks excellently captures the spirit of what this is all about.  I agree.  It’s from an MIT alumn to a poster (a high school student) who seems to be mildly freaking out about whether he’ll be smart enough to succeed at MIT.  It’s really worth checking out to hear, what I think is an inspiration (in a kick-in-the-pants sort of way) speech on how whether you succeed at something is a choice, and it’s a choice that you make yourself, and nobody else.

A lot of the time, we think that talent and intelligence is inborn, that you either have it or you don’t.  But a lot of modern research is showing that this is not the case, or at least there’s very compelling evidence that this not the whole story.  Things like deliberate practice is a method that we would do well to absorb into our lives, not just for ourselves, but so that we can teach its precepts to our kids, so that when they are old enough to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue, they not offer them encouragement and support, but actual concrete techniques and methods that they can use to become great.


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