Are you Practising to Fail?

If you are on a mission to become great in a sporting or intellectual endeavour, you should expect plenty of failures on the way, especially during practise. But that shouldn’t put you off, in fact if you want to become a master at what you do you should have a passion for it. How is that helpful? Well, several themes regarding practice consistently come to light according to author David Shenk in his book The Genius in All of Us:

1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.

2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.

3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real-time.

4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.

5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

“Across the board, these last two variables — practice style and practice time — emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.’ First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It … does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

This approach to practise requires a mindset of constant improvement driven through self-critique and an almost pathological drive to push oneself beyond current capabilities to a new level of ability. This inevitably leads to frequent failure and disappointment but rather than being de-motivating these failures and disappointments become almost desired because they demonstrate that progress is underway. This developes a ceaseless desire to pick oneself up and try again and again until success is achieved. But how long does it take to become a true master of your sport or your art or your profession. Well Ericsson also revealed some amazing insights into this particular conundrum as Shenk reveals in his book.

“The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of elapsed time — not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day, Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark.”

I don’t know about you but I think I’d better go out and do some practise…


Book Title: The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (2010)
by David Shenk
Published by Anchor

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