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Deliberate Practice – Where Self-reflection, Work Ethic and Ambition Meet

Over at Fortune Magazine there is an extremely interesting piece on the role natural talent plays in a person’s ability to be successful. In Why Talent Is Overrated, writer Geoff Colvin insists that the “conventional wisdom about ‘natural’ talent is a myth.”

The magazine’s senior editor instead notes that “the real path to great performance is a matter of choice.”

The article is a must read because Colvin discusses many of the conventional ideas as to what is critical for future success. In addition to natural, inborn talent, Colvin looks at intellect, work ethic and a record of prior achievement.

Colvin writes:

“In studies of accomplished individuals, researchers have found few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals started intensive training. Similar findings have turned up in studies of musicians, tennis players, artists, swimmers, mathematicians, and others.”

He goes on to add the following caveat:

“Such findings do not prove that talent doesn’t exist. But they do suggest an intriguing possibility: that if it does, it may be irrelevant.”

Steve Ballmer - ehavirAccording to Colvin, many of those who eventually succeed in the business sector show few early signs of setting the business world on fire. Colvin uses Jeffrey Immelt and Steven Ballmer as examples to reinforce his major points. These two men both became CEOs of two of the world’s most valuable corporations prior to the age of 50, Immelt at General Electric and Ballmer at Microsoft. According to Colvin, neither man distinguished himself in his first position.

Deliberate Practice
Colvin goes on to note the current research of K.Anders Ericcson is providing a different rationale for success, something called ‘deliberate practice.’ However, the term is not used in a way that matches the longstanding slogan, practice-makes-perfect kind of mantra.

In addition, the concept is far more than simply referring to hard work. Colvin describes the term in the following way:

“Deliberate practice is a specific and unique kind of activity, neither work nor play. It’s characterized by several elements that together form a powerful whole.”

Colvin further notes:

“The greatest performers have consistently combined these elements, sometimes just by luck.”

Colvin highlights eight different characteristics of deliberate practice which we have summarized for our readers below. What makes Colvin’s analysis so interesting is its relationship to the world of work as well as its potential for education.

As for business, Colvin specifically analyzes the typical work environment thus:

“Most fundamentally, what we generally do…. isn’t designed by anyone to make us better at anything. Usually it isn’t designed at all: We are just given an objective that’s necessary to meeting the employer’s goals and then expected to get on with it.”

Jeffrey Immelt - WRI StaffBy the same token, educators should take careful heed of what Colvin has to say, especially his first premise, the idea of stretching one’s skills. In education, there are clearly at least two areas to stretch students, those related to academics as well as those related to the work ethic arena.

In addition, Colvin’s final three premises, his ‘before the work,’ ‘during the work’ and ‘after the work’ components, are all highly relevant to the role of a teacher in the classroom. At the same time, educators will immediately see why it is so difficult to raise standards in the school setting.

Colvin notes many key internal criteria to ensuring success, attributes that many teachers feel they simply cannot affect. That said, teachers would do well to incorporate these deliberate practice components into their lesson planning.

One specific reason is that deliberate practice represents the full shift from the term often used in the past, ‘mastery learning,’ to the newer viewpoint that talks about teaching and learning as a process. From an educational standpoint, incorporating deliberate practice into the classroom setting is all about developing the person – in fact the finished product is the person, not some test result, paper, or project.

An Understanding of Deliberate Practice
A summarization of Colvin’s eight characteristics of deliberate practice follow below. Readers will find a more in-depth explanation as well as a number of examples in Colvin’s original article.

  • “Deliberate practice is designed specifically to improve performance with the key word being ‘designed.’ The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. By contrast, deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them. The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they’re improved; then it’s on to the next aspect.”
  • “Deliberate practice can be repeated. High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts. One is the choice of a properly demanding activity just beyond our current abilities. The other is the amount of repetition.”
  • “Feedback on results is continuously available.” Though this is obvious, it is “not nearly as simple as it might seem, especially when results require interpretation. In many important situations, a teacher, coach, or mentor is vital for providing crucial feedback.”
  • “It’s highly demanding mentally. Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate.’ 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.”
  • “It’s hard. This follows inescapably from the other characteristics of deliberate practice, which could be described as a recipe for not having fun. 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.”


  • There is a definitive ‘before the work’ component. “Self-regulation begins with setting goals – not big, life-directing goals, but more immediate goals for what you’re going to be doing today. In the research, the poorest performers don’t set goals at all; they just slog through their work. Mediocre performers set goals that are general and are often focused on simply achieving a good outcome. The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”
  • There is a ‘during the work’ phase. “The most important self-regulatory skill that top performers in every field use during their work is self-observation. Even in purely mental work, the best performers observe themselves closely. They are able to monitor what is happening in their own minds and ask how it’s going. Researchers call this metacognition – knowledge about your own knowledge, thinking about your own thinking. Top performers do this much more systematically than others do; it’s an established part of their routine.”
  • There is an ‘after the work’ component as well. “Practice activities are worthless without useful feedback about the results. These must be self-evaluations” and “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.”

Next up, we examine in greater detail how these eight principles would relate to the educational setting. photos courtesy of ehavir, World Resources Institute Staff, and jagosaurus.


1 BG { 07.16.09 at 4:24 pm }

Thank you for this great summary! Really interesting topic.

2 Willie { 12.13.09 at 4:57 pm }

Great article! I will now replace “Perfect practice makes perfect” to “Deliberate practice makes you better!” Thanks.

3 Dale { 03.19.10 at 12:56 pm }

Thanks for this excellent post. But using Ballmer as some sort of exemplar is flawed. He was a buddy of Bill Gates who stayed with him as the business grew. Gates happened to retire at a very early age and put Ballmer into his spot. Ballmer seems to be just a caretaker exec and often acts very foolish in public.

4 Jack Bennett { 03.19.10 at 1:04 pm }

Great summary of the process of developing mastery of skills. Thank you for the article! It really underscores the importance of coaching and feedback, as well as focused, honest, and unflinching attention to weak points, in the creation of top performers.

5 Mike Cane { 03.19.10 at 1:34 pm }

Did you know he did an entire book and that article is an excerpt?

The book is called “Talent is Overrated.” It should be read before, and as a companion to, “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.

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