Deliberate Practice

A year ago I wrote about shooting free throws.  In that post I said,

I decided that shooting free throws was an important thing to do. It would make me a better person. It would strengthen me. It would help me accomplish something. So I set a goal of shooting 50 free throws a day.

I talked about how I made, on average, 6 of those shots across the three weeks that I  was shooting.  I realized that I was in the middle of a spiritual metaphor. I preached a sermon out of that experience and quit shooting baskets.

What I understand now is that I focuses on shooting free throws rather than on making free throws. If my focus had been on making free throws, I would have studied. I would have asked for help. I would have taken notes. I would have shot video and evaluated it. I would have taken it seriously.

Deliberate Practice for decades

Late last year, while reading Tim Walker’s website, I heard about the idea of deliberate practice. Many people have been writing about it and talking about it recently. One of them, Geoff Colvin identifies several elements of deliberate practice:

[Deliberate practice]  is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.
Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, page 66.

To give a bit more context, the research into deliberate practice grows out of research into what separates world-class performers from normal people. The historic explanation was talent or giftedness. The new explanation, supported by research, seems to be that world-class performers spend a bunch of time on the kind of work described above. And by a bunch of time, I mean 10,000 hours. I mean about 10 years.

Ten years of working piece by piece with good coaching and consistent feedback on the complex skills that make up golf or music performance or chess or maybe, other things as well.

Arguing with Seth because of Chris

Seth Godin argues with this idea of 10,000 hours. He suggests that in new areas, new disciplines, new media settings, it may take less time to be better than everyone else simply because you are ahead of everyone else. At risk of arguing, I would guess that being able to identify and take advantage of new niches still takes a bunch of time. And I wonder about how new some new niches are. I wonder whether, perhaps, even people in new niches are able to succeed because they have spent 10,000 hours on a skillset that underlies the new area.

For example, my friend Chris Brogan gets lots of attention. He has 31,000 followers on twitter. He has 15,000 people that subscribe to his blog. He is pretty world-class in his niche of “how to use social media and social networks to build relationships and deliver value.” He fits, I would argue, with the kind of people Seth is talking about. Lots of people look at Chris and want to be like him, wonder how he writes the way he does, how he networks the way he does, wonder how he is Chris.

Recently he talked about how he writes. In his post he talked about reading all the time. He talked about starting writing as a child. He talked about thinking about how to write, about the ways that he thinks about ideas, about different contexts for writing. He says,

Writing has made me a better speaker. Writing is why I’m a businessman. Writing is how I interpret the world. Others make music. Others paint. Others create code. Me? I communicate. It’s what drives everything forward for me.

In other words, Chris has been doing this communication thing that he does so well now for more than 20 years. He spends thousands of hours a year on the parts of the writing process.

In other words, Chris started deliberately practicing the skills that are propelling him into new niches before the technology are built on existed. He is not a technologist, he is a communicator. And I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that many of the people who are world-class at new things, even things like being Seth, have logged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Looking ahead in the mirror

I understand the principles when applied to sports or chess. Looking at Chris’s post and thinking about his life helps me apply the principles to writing and expression. The challenge I’m taking on for this year is to understand how this idea can apply in other areas. That’s why deliberate practice is one of my three words for the year (in addition to focus and singing) (and I know, it’s two words). My particular interest in the area of what I’m supposed to be about: spiritual formation.  I’m committed to helping people understand what it means to become more like Jesus. Eugene Peterson says of that process:

“Forming people in Christ as a slow work, so it can’t be hurried;
it is an urgent work, so it can’t be delayed.”

That sound a lot like a process that might take 10,000 hours or more. It takes coaching. It takes paying attention and having intention. It might actually involve some pain. It probably isn’t about what we often think of as church.

I mean, think about it. If it takes 10,000 hours to get world-class, to be a world-class Christ follower would take 52 weeks x 1 hour of church x 192.3 years. If you spend 3 hours a week instead of 1, you are down to 64 years.

No wonder so many people see a gap between church and Jesus.

So that’s what I’m working on this year. I’ll keep you posted.


26 responses to “Deliberate Practice

  1. One might imagine Jon, that along the way to becoming “World Class” that there are moments of brilliance. There are times along the journey when what you do, or produce, or convey, hits the mark so squarely as to bring into focus what it is we are really aiming for.

    This post is one of those moments.

    Wonderful. Absolutely, wonderful.

  2. I like this a lot. But it’s a lot harder than it might even seam. I run into a lot of people who know a lot about God but don’t’ know God as I’m sure you do as well. I think that could be the really difficult part. 10,000 hours devoted to following and learning to be Christ like not just learning about Christ. Don’t get me wrong learning about Jesus is important but the awe, wonder, and glory of Him can be lost when He is something to be studied and not Someone to love and be loved by.

  3. 10,000 hours, huh? So if I want to be great a 3 or 4 things, does this mean I need to invest 30-40,000 hours? Makes me wish I didn’t waste so much time on so many things that don’t matter.

  4. philip. You raise a significant question, the difference between knowing and
    knowing about. And I struggled as I wrote this post as I have been
    struggling for some time with how to talk about formation with any level of
    intention. How to talk about formation without identifying particular
    practices that will automatically make us spiritual. Which is what we often
    do when we equate going to church with making God want to like us more.

    But move to marriage for a bit, or any relationship. I can identify things
    to pay attention to in my marriage. I can, for example, decide that actually
    listening to Nancy is important. So I can decide to work on my listening
    skills. I can practice responding to what she says. I can say, “Each time
    she talks, I will stop looking at the screen and look at her.” I am at that
    point not risking losing any wonder or becoming too familliar. Quite the
    opposite. By choosing to pay attention I am increasing the quality of the

    The skill of listening cannot be an end in itself, otherwise we become
    communication scholars rather than husbands (Oh wait. I’m both.) But we can
    work on the skills to make the relationship deeper and stronger and

    But it can be challenging.

  5. Chris – exactly. Given how much time I have spent on avoidance, for example,
    I am clearly world-class there.


  6. “Forming people in Christ is a slow work…”

    Deep change always is. And we live in a fast food, microwave, “why isn’t this iTunes song downloaded already?!” culture. You’ve got your work cut out for you.

    Love Peterson’s stuff, BTW. Practicing the Resurrection is kind of my theme book for this year.

  7. Laurie Nichols

    Wow. Sometimes the statistics say it all, don’t they?

    I describe “deliberate practice” to my piano students as “practicing with your whole brain”…as opposed to going through the motions with eyes and fingers, while you mentally think about recess, or video games, or snack time, or the TV show you’re going to watch, or the homework you still need to do. It’s scary how many things can be done with half a brain…and how good we are at fooling ourselves into thinking that that is good enough.

  8. “deep change always is.” Thanks Kat.

  9. Laurie “practicing with your whole brain”–exactly. that engagement turns
    the practice INTO work…and makes the practice work.

  10. I totally agree that some of the things we can do will grow the relationship, we just need to be aware of what we are doing and why. Growing closer to God is different than learning about God. What makes it hard is that some of the learning will helps us draw close to God. I guess what I’m saying is that in any relationship knowing a lot about the other person is helpful but does not replace that actually work of building the relationship.

  11. so this might be a very “young” question considering that i’m turning 25 in less than two weeks, but i’m going through a quarter life crisis as they say.

    and i feel like i don’t have ten years to practice, especially if i wanted to make something of my life. is this just over-dramatic crisis mode thinking?

  12. minnow – it’s a wonderful question.

    I’m twice your age (sounds awful, doesn’t it?) and I ask the same question.
    “In the time I have left, how do I make something of my life?”

    The truth? no one starts world class, but with deliberate practice, tomorrow
    you are better than today at something. And the next day and the next.

    So what are you already good at? Within that, what can you improve at a step
    at a time? Do you have someone that can give you some coaching? Can you, in
    the course of what you are doing, do it better?

    For example, if you in sales, what would happen if you started paying
    attention to how people respond to your ask? What if you try changing it a
    bit? And then watching how people respond to the change?

    and look at the book. Get it out of the library.

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  16. Inspiring post Jon. I live in the world of trying to improve, grow, learn and ultimatly be the best i can at what i do – no matter if that is at work, marriage, sports, family life, etc…

    Deliberate practice makes complete sense and also hits home for me from all the years of playing sports.

    Thanks man!

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  20. Chesterton understood this.

    “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”

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  24. So it’s been a little over a year now and I’m wondering what your conclusion or where you are with this right now? I would love to hear from you. Thanks.

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