In Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, author Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and expert in the science of expertise, tells us that to become an expert people need a great deal of a specific kind of practice. His life work is studying the practice habits of chess players, doctors, musicians, and so on to determine what they do and how they do it. 

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, referred to Ericsson’s work when he noted that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. But Gladwell got it wrong. According to Ericsson, there is no hard and fast “10,000-hour rule.” Instead, his research revealed that it takes 10,000 hours of solitary practice for the world’s best violinists, but he never expected this to be taken as a “rule” for becoming an expert in everything. 

No one disputes the notion that it takes a long time—and a lot of effort—to become an expert. Ericsson’s research shows that it is “deliberate practice,” a very specific type of practice that gets us beyond just an acceptable level of performance. Here’s the kicker: Because deliberate practice is hard work, most people stay at the “acceptable” level performance and don’t achieve expert levels. That’s a shame for today’s organizations. 

What Is Deliberate Practice? 

Deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, has a number of aspects. 

Well-defined, specific goals. People who are trying to improve their level of expertise set specific goals for their practice. They aren’t practicing to practice; they are practicing to improve specific skills. 

Let’s examine the deliberate practice habits of two people to understand how goals help them improve. Adrienne, a budding screenwriter, is working on making her dialogue sound more realistic because her mentor told her it didn’t sound like real people. Jamie, a new nurse, has had occasional problems with starting a peripheral intravenous line. As a result, he has asked a very experienced nurse that he regularly works with to help him perform IV insertions and provide help and feedback until his skills are first-rate. 

Meaningful, problem-solving feedback. When you engage in practice, you need to know certain things to improve your performance: 1) what you are doing right and wrong, 2) why what you’re doing (or thinking) may be wrong, and 3) how to correct wrong performance. 

Rapid, clear, and direct feedback on what you are thinking and doing wrong is critical. In fact, most of us realize that if we continue to practice the wrong way, bad habits will become ingrained. Personal feedback from an expert who can determine where you went wrong is best because it helps pinpoint what is going wrong—in the specific situation. Feedback that just says “incorrect” is frustrating; worse, it isn’t meaningful. That sort of feedback doesn’t improve what you know and can do. 

Comfort zones? Get outside them. Getting better at something requires doing things you haven’t tried before. The process is clear: test yourself, try different things, learn, and try something else. According to Ericsson, this is where huge leaps are made. “Generally, the solution is not ‘try harder’ but ‘try differently,’” he says. 

Harness adaptability. Our minds and bodies are extremely adaptable. The more we push them, the more our bodies and mind grow. When we repeatedly exercise, our muscles grow. When we repeatedly push our body and mind, areas of our brain grow—to provide additional capacity to do more of the same. (No, this isn’t comfortable. But our mind and body adapt to improve our ability to do this very thing.) 

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Standards. In some but not all fields, there are generally accepted standards of practice and generally accepted ways to train people toward these standards. Better teaching methods turn out better practitioners. Deliberate practice works best using expert practitioners with very specific goals who are dedicated to using the best teaching methods and providing the very best feedback. 

Mistakes: Ericsson’s research revealed that one of the best ways to improve performance was to focus on areas of greatest difficulty and mistakes and then provide abundant practice in these areas so practitioners could improve their skills. He discussed a training program for residents to become better at finding difficult diagnoses in radiographs (xrays). He explained how realistic scenario training could be similarly used in all manner of high-stakes professions. 

Self-monitoring. Over time, people need to be taught how to monitor their skills, find mistakes, and adjust. There is one caveat, though. If we do this far too quickly, people are lost. 

Can We Get Deliberate Practice Through Regular Work? 

Normal work, according to Ericsson, is not deliberate practice. He explains that we don’t necessarily get better during the course of doing our regular job because many of the factors discussed above aren’t present. Rather than improve, we simply do what we usually do. We aren’t inclined to move out of our comfort zone during these times, for fear of making mistakes and looking stupid. In fact, we are likely on “autopilot” because we can’t take the time to slow down and “practice.” 

What’s more, receiving feedback while we are working is rare. Not surprisingly, deliberate practice at work also can be rare. 

So how might L&D and operational departments adopt or adapt these deliberate practice mechanisms in the workplace so people can and do improve their expertise? I have a bunch of ideas, but I’d like to hear yours first. Please share your thoughts in the Comments below. 

Further Reading 

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406. 

Ericsson, K. A.; Prietula, M. J.; Cokely, E. T. (July–August 2007). “The Making of an Expert.” Harvard Business Review

Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.