Category Archives: deliberate practice

On Reg the percussionist and making choices right

Reg Klopfenstein and Bethel College JazzI met Reg Klopfenstein in 1976. He stood behind me in band in college.

He was in band because he was a musician. He stood because he was a percussionist. He was behind me because I played tuba.

I was not a musician. I started playing tuba in 8th grade because I wanted to learn standup bass and the director talked me into tuba. I played all four years in high school because there was a shortage of tuba players. I played in college because I wanted to.  Fourth chair.

Reg, on the other hand, was a musician. He played every percussion instrument with precision and practice. Before band, while on tour, after band, he was practicing.  Reg practiced everything, including the triangle. He would shine on the tuned percussion instruments like marimba and chimes.

Reg was serious. I wasn’t.

After my sophomore year, I dropped out of band. I realized that if I wanted to stay, if I wanted to actually be part of the music of the band, I would need to start practicing. And I wasn’t ready to do that. I was a communication major. I wouldn’t make my living in music, I knew. I was more likely to do something with broadcasting, with production.

We didn’t stay in touch after we stopped seeing each other a few times a week. Turns out, he spent part of that time with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. His practicing made him a performer. A few years ago I started hearing about him again from his aunt. He was a professor at Bethel College, I discovered, teaching music. I remember thinking, “He’s doing what he always did. And what I quit.”

Reg Klopfenstein smilingA couple years ago, I came to Grabill Missionary. I discovered that his parents are here. I discovered that he grew up here. Long before I met him at Wheaton, Reg had been practicing and performing as a percussionist.

A couple weeks ago, Reg brought his college jazz band to play for a coffeehouse. I got to watch him lead, heard the band that he was leading. He looked a bit like Art Katterjohn, the director that we both had in college, a guy who cared about people and music.

And as I watched and thought, I realized that both Reg and I made the right choices back in college. Reg chose music. He chose to practice, to study, to play.

My choice has always felt more complicated. I have felt at times like I chose against music, that somehow I gave up something significant. I understand the significance of what I get to do, working with lives. But that sense of quitting has lingered. What I realized that night, however, is that I didn’t choose against music, I chose for the story. I have spent the years since we last met learning how to help people understand.

To feel bad about giving up what I wasn’t willing to work for is a waste of energy.To put that energy into what I chose makes all the sense in the world.

And what about you? Are you spending your time wondering if you made the right choice? Or are you spending your energy making the choice right?


An old look at building communication skills

I’ve been talking about deliberate practice. I decided to start getting practical. As I thought about this decision today, I remembered a really old example that illustrates the framework of a practice model.

Socrates was talking with a student named Phaedrus. They were talking about how to become an effective speaker. Socrates lays out a plan of learning which, if pursued, will make a person an effective speaker.

from Phaedrus, by Plato (written c 360 B.C. Section numberings added by me).

Socrates: Oratory is the art of enchanting the soul, and therefore he who would be an orator

1) has to learn the differences of human souls-they are so many and of such a nature, and from them come the differences between man and man.

2) Having proceeded thus far in his analysis, he will next divide speeches into their different classes:-“Such and such persons,” he will say, are affected by this or that kind of speech in this or that way,” and he will tell you why.

3) The pupil must have a good theoretical notion of them first,

4) and then he must have experience of them in actual life, and be able to follow them with all his senses about him, or he will never get beyond the precepts of his masters.

5) But when he understands what persons are persuaded by what arguments, and sees the person about whom he was speaking in the abstract actually before him, and knows that it is he, and can say to himself, “This is the man or this is the character who ought to have a certain argument applied to him in order to convince him of a certain opinion”; -he who knows all this,

6) and knows also when he should speak and when he should refrain,

7) and when he should use pithy sayings, pathetic appeals, sensational effects, and all the other modes of speech which he has learned;-

when, I say, he knows the times and seasons of all these things, then, and not till then, he is a perfect master of his art;

Each section is a subject for study. In each area, a person could study and practice. The whole process, put together, is opportunity for experimentation and practice and coaching.

Here’s the outline:

1. learn about people (how do they think? How do they decide? How do they reason? How do they feel?)

2. learn about your subject matter (marketing, medicine, theology, writing, public relations, sales, management)

3. understand people and subjects in the classroom, in an ideal setting

4. understand people and subjects in real life

5. understand how to apply the one to the other in theory and in real life (practice the application, the diagnosis, the writing. Take notes. Make observations. Have a teacher watch you. Have a mentor guide you)

6. understand when to apply the one to the other (Timing. You have to learn timing, or as Plato called it, kairos.)

7. understand the fine points of applying the one to the other.

This progressive pursuit of understanding, done deliberately, will consume you. This progressive pursuit, done deliberately, will work.

Working under the street

A friend asked today if I had written here today.

I told him no, that I’m down to two or three post a week here because of the challenge of writing every day at I also told him about a couple writing projects I’m working on for here.

I don’t know about you, however, but the phrase “working on” can mean “thinking about.” So I’m going to tell you what’s coming as a way of helping me think.

1. The Shack

As of this week, The Shack has been on the trade paperback bestsellers list for 52 weeks. Over fifty-two weeks it’s average position on this list is  1.94. At Amazon right now, it is number 7 among books.

If you want to find controversy within the Christian community (a vague phrase, I know), search for this book. You will find people who love it and people who hate it. It is the best book ever and it is the worst heresy ever. Of course, there are many people who wonder what the fuss is. They read it and think, “So?” Others read it and say “that’s really bad writing” or “I don’t understand.”  Still others aren’t interested because they don’t read fiction or they’ve heard it’s religious or someone told them not to read it.

So a friend and I decided to do a discussion group about the book at our church. We didn’t take sides at the outset and finished the study last week still not taking sides but wanting to provide context for any recommendation we made about the book (The fact that she’s the senior pastor’s wife and I’m the executive pastor responsible for spiritual formation made us particularly unwilling to jump to any particular position, I think.)

I want to spend some time writing about how we approached the book. I think that it will provide some insight into how to approach any book that evokes strong emotional responses.

But it will take some time to sort out. I’ll get to it soon.

2. Deliberate Practice

If you have been reading here this year, you know that one of my phrases for the year is “deliberate practice“. A couple months ago, I decided to find out what other people are saying about that phrase so I set up a google alert for “deliberate practice.” Every day I get an email listing the blog posts mentioning that phrase. There are 2-3 every day.

Some are reviews of two recent books talking about it: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin (here’s my review). Some are summaries of the concepts. Some are application of the idea to various disciplines (culinary arts, public speaking, kickboxing, film, and free throws.) (To see a list of the posts, I’m working on tagging them at

What I want to do is a better review of what people are saying and not saying. I have a feeling, for example, that most of us are just skimming, quoting Colvin or Gladwell or Ericsson. I have a sense that we aren’t taking the time to dig deeper and say, “here is what that looks like day after day for 10,000 hours.”

But that may be because I’m not taking the time.

Which is what this second writing project is about.

3. Passion

This actually isn’t a writing project at all. It’s a thinking project that is related to deliberate practice.

One of the posts I came across is called “Passion – the crucial ingredient that precedes ‘getting really good’ at something.” Randy writes

So — here is the question that we each need to ask: What do I care deeply enough about that I am willing to put in significant time, over the long haul, to get better at it? Even if the time I put in is not necessarily fun.

So: What are you passionate about?

That is a huge question. It comes before deliberate practice. It is related to focus. It is a question that I’m reviewing and rethinking and renewing.

But that takes time, too.


There you have it. I’ll be working on these projects in the background and bringing out pieces from time to time. I’ll be asking for your feedback. I think it will be fun.

Sound good?

outliers and talent and hope and deliberate practice

Last fall, when I started learning about deliberate practice,  I wanted to read Outliers. I wanted to read Talent is Overrated. I went to Borders, armed with a coupon to buy one of them.

I looked first for Outliers, having heard more about Malcolm Gladwell than Geoff Colvin. If I was going to read one, that was it.  It was supposed to be on the shelf. It wasn’t. So I picked up Talent is Overrated. It has transformed my thinking about learning and goals and spiritual formation and organizational development.

So I reserved Outliers from the library.  It finally arrived on Saturday. I finished reading it on Monday, several weeks after reading the other book. I finished it thinking, “That was a great read, but it won’t change my life.”

Just think what would have happened if I had read them in the other order and not followed through to read both?


That story illustrates a central point of Gladwell’s book, that a significant function of success is timing rather than great talent. And that point is why I find Colvin’s book to be transforming.

Both books set out to consider success. Both take issue with our cultural assumption that the reason some people are so successful is that they are gifted or talented. Both go behind the curtain surrounding people we see as talented and provide a richer explanation.

Outliers: The (real) story of success

Gladwell is the better storyteller. He identified individuals, helps us see them, and then explains how they got to where they are. His ability to use anecdotes to see patterns seems an incredible talent…until we remember that he has been writing for years, telling stories.

  • He talks about opportunities which open because of unique timings in culture (The Beatles get invited to Hamburg, Bill Gates gets access to a time-share computer while still in high school).
  • People take the opportunity and work hard, 10,000 hours of working hard. “Hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning. Once it does, it becomes the kind of thing that makes you grab your wife around the waist and dance a jig.” 150
  • Some of the capacity for hard work comes from patterns in the cultures of origin. (This is a major theme of the book. However, to offer specific examples without the way Gladwell would sound almost racist. So I’ll send you to the book.)

The stories–why professional hockey players are born in the first three months of the year, of why top professionals come from certain cultural backgrounds–are incredibly compelling.

And in the end, Gladwell argues, the best thing we can do to help anyone is to provide opportunities.

But I end up thinking, “how?” To explain patterns and then to say, “imagine if there had been more people offered the same opportunity” feels flat.

Talent is Over-rated: How to be more successful (however you define it)

Colvin, on the other hand, chooses to work with just one part of success. He focuses on the hard work part and spends his book exploring ways that the right kind of hard work, what Colvin and others call “deliberate practice” can help anyone.

[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.

Colvin spends time, like Gladwell, showing the ways that success isn’t just about being talented. But then, after outlining deliberate practice, Colvin talks about how it works, how it can be applied as an individual, how it can be applied in organizations. He spends a chapter talking about where passion comes from.

The book reads more slowly, but that’s because you are jotting notes in the margin about what you can do, how you can help someone else.

Read them both, own just one

I’m glad for both of these books. I was afraid that they were redundant. Having read both, it’s clear that they overlap in concept but differ completely in application.

To be delighted in how a story is told, read Outliers. Gladwell will give you stories to tell to friends (as happened twice today)

To change how you live however, to identify the weakest parts of what you are best at and to improve them, Colvin will challenge and teach you.


Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Geoff Colvin, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else


If you haven’t been part of my word of mouth project to help my son, go here.

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.