Tag 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?


Just yesterday stories

line drawing of a coffee cupJust yesterday, someone told me that I tell stories well. She said, “you have a gift.”

She’s right. There’s a gift. Two of them, really.

An academic dean was looking for a speech teacher. He found me, in Texas, finishing the first half of my doctorate. He invited me to interview and then, when some people weren’t completely comfortable with me (imagine!), flew down to Texas to meet Nancy and to see me teaching at UT.

That was twenty-four years ago this month.

I started teaching at Fort Wayne Bible College in September, 1985. I taught three sections of public speaking and two courses in broadcasting. For the next five years, I taught two or three sections of public speaking every semester as well as courses in study skills, critical thinking and Christian worldview.

Richard gave me the gift of incredible amounts of time in front of people helping those people figure out how to be thoughtfully effective in front of people.

One of the things that I started very early in my teaching was telling stories to illustrate points. Richard labeled one type of those stories. He called them “just yesterday” stories.

You know them. A person will be making a point about the value of a product and say, “just yesterday, I saw…” A teacher will try to explain how this abstract concept relates to these sleepy students and will say, “just yesterday, Jim was asking me how to make his roommate quit …”

Somehow, in a classroom, “just yesterday” is far more compelling, far more relevant than “here’s a story I learned in grad school” or “when I wrote this lecture five years ago, here’s the story I made up” or “let me tell you this joke I found in Reader’s Digest, but you can pretend you have never heard it before.”

Richard didn’t teach me to tell stories, but he gave me the gift as a young faculty member of the label for a powerful kind of story and the encouragement to use those stories in my teaching. And after more than two decades, I have spent a lot of time finding stories and analogies and metaphors in my daily life.

Today, when I tell stories to illustrate points, and there is a glimmer of understanding because of a story, it’s because Richard gave me permission and a platform for practicing.

I moved on from that school seventeen years ago. Richard died several years ago of cancer This week, the latest version of that school dies, after a couple name changes and a merger that never quite worked.

But sometimes, I remember those days like they were just yesterday.

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.

Paging deliberate practice

dp-logoI’m following Darren Rowse’s “31 days to Build a Better Blog.” One of his projects is to build a sneeze page.  (This being allergy season, it seemed to be a good thing to do.) According to Darren, a sneeze page is a page of links to posts that you have written. It propels people deep into your blog (hence the name).

It’s a concept of particular value to a thinker like me. I write posts in a random way. As a result, though I may talk about a topic many times, the posts are scattered throughout my blog. A sneeze page lets me gather those posts, provide some context, and create a more useful resource for finding that topic in my blog.

And it might help the people who read my blog, too.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a lot about deliberate practice.  I got tired of having to go digging through the past six months of writing to find those posts. As a result, as of today, over in the right column is a link called Deliberate Practice. I’ll keep updating it as I research, reflect and write.

Let me know what you think.

Get a little help

This week, I talked with a friend about writing. She’s a writing coach. She was giving away free 30 minutes sessions for the first five people who asked.

I asked.

I already know how to write. I already know how I write. I want to be more effective.

It was interesting for both of us. We respect each other. We know each other’s writing. It could have been awkward, but it wasn’t.

I told her what I was wanting in my writing. She asked me some questions about what was stopping me. I answered and thought. She made some suggestions. I’m working on them.

It was a very fast half-hour.

Today, consider asking someone for help. This time, however, not because you feel desperate (our usual reason to ask for help).

Ask because you want to do better.

(thank you Joanna)

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 300wordsaday.com. 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 delicio.us/jnswanson/dp-march).

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?

A conversation with Hope – deliberate practice in practice

Easter is a busy time at churches.

Sunday evening, after three services and lunch and naps and a drive, Hope and I headed for a wings place to use her coupon for a free dessert. Nancy enjoyed some time at home.

It was a fun time to talk. Among other things, we talked about working hard, about doing things well.  I made a distinction that, as I listened to myself (which happens occasionally) ended up being pretty helpful.

On one hand, I said, there times that we finish an event, a task, a project, and we say, “I should have done better. I could have done that differently. That wasn’t very good.” If we are unable to identify exactly what we could have done better, we probably are talking out of guilt or false modesty.

On the other hand, I said, there are times that we finish and we say, “This is what I can do better or differently the next time.”  When that happens, we are on our way to actually improving our effectiveness.

I asked if she understood. She did. She offered a perfect example (which I won’t share.) And if she does what she said she needs to, it will in fact improve her performance in a specific setting.

I do, however, have an example I can share from my own experience yesterday.

We, like many churches, usually hand out a bulletin, a program, every Sunday. Like many churches, we usually put an ad in the paper for Easter, inviting people. Like many churches, we usually print invitations for people to give to friends inviting them to Easter services.

This year we didn’t do any of that.

Instead, we produced a DVD with four segments about our church. (Here’s one of the video segments ‘starring’ me.) We tried to give guests and regulars a picture of what we are doing every week, not just on Sundays. We handed them out to every family group that came on Sunday.

A great idea. (And our attendance didn’t suffer)

However, we have already had some feedback that some people don’t know how to use a DVD. We also found out that our website didn’t list our special service times on the front page.

It would be easy to say, “we failed.” But that would be silly. More than 1150 people showed up and had a great and thoughtful morning. 400 family groups have DVDs. Some have already watched them. And only a couple people reported not having the times…but they did make it into the building anyway.

We can, however, do better in specific ways. We can do a video on how to play a DVD and play it in the service most likely to not know how to use this format.  We can make a checklist that says “for Easter, list times on the sign, in the newsletter, on the website.” We can keep looking for opportunities to be even more effective.

Hope knows what she’ll be working on this week. I know what I’ll be working on this week.

But what about you? What one thing do you know that you can fix in what you are already doing well?

taking some steps

What are you doing for the next month?

If you are a blogger, would you like to join me in a project with Darren Rowse called “31 days to build a better blog”?

Darren runs a site called Problogger. He talks a lot about how to be successful as a blogger. I’ve paid some attention, but I haven’t plunged into working hard at building a better blog.

And then I read a month ago that Darren is running this program. There will be daily emails. There will be daily homework. It will take some concentration.

So why am I doing this? Because of my three words for the year. One of them, singing, has nothing to do with this project. The other two, however, do. I’m wanting to focus this year, to learn to strip away what doesn’t matter and look at what does. And I’m working on deliberate practice, working on the weakest parts of my strengths.

As I look at my blogging, particularly the work I’m doing at 300wordsaday.com, I want to do the best work I can be doing, to make the most of the energy that is going into what I’m doing.

Though I write more to figure out what I’m thinking than to make a living from blogging (which is what Darren has done), I am fully aware that there are people who find value in what I write. Taking that trust seriously means that I need to look at how I can be more effective.

Darren is encouraging us to invite other people. So follow this link to sign up as a friend. (and maybe we can encourage each other).

And then, at the end of that month, I’ll be spending a couple days in Chicago at SOBcon 2009. I went last year with the strong encouragement of my friend from smallbizsurvival.com, Becky McCray. I’m going again for the same reason. What I’m looking forward to, in addition to the great face-to-face conversations with people I know screen-to-screen, is extension of the learning from the 31 day challenge.

As you look at what you are doing, whatever that is, what steps are you taking to do it more effectively, more responsibly, more delightfully?

Writing lessons

Coffee cup nearby, I write.


I write because I don’t know what I think until I start.

But I need you.

Practice becomes deliberate–life-changing–when I stretch, I’m coached, I have feedback.

I write deeper, clearer, after three years writing here, because you coach and comment.

And because you wonder.


For Joanna Young who invited us to write about writing lessons and for Nancy who challenged me to write only 50 words.

I get up at 6

I set our alarm for 6. I usually get up. In fact, even when I don’t set our alarm for 6, I still wake up.

I started doing this several months ago. I wanted to read. I wanted to write. I wanted to learn to use time to influence lives.

And so I get up at 6.

Sometimes, I talk about that itself as if it is an amazing feat. But it isn’t.

Some mornings I get up and spend an hour looking at my computer screen. I browse through articles that have been gathered for me from 138 other writers. I read short comments made by more than 100 of my friends. I read what people have sent me directly by email. I follow connections made in all of those places to other articles, other people.

In my fogginess, as I drink my first cup of coffee for the day, it seems as if I am doing something useful. I may be. I sometimes find things that are helpful for understanding what is going on in the lives of others. I often am able to write to someone, to encourage someone.

Most of the time this random skimming is just random skimming.

Sometimes, the night before I have made a list: Here are the things I am not going to do in the morning. Here are the things I am going to do.

I’m not going to look at the articles from 138 people. I am going to read from the book of Isaiah. I’m not going to look at whatever comes to me. I am going to reflect on that idea I’ve been working on. I am going to send a note to my friend. I am going to write a short essay about that subject.

And  on the mornings when I get up at 6 and work through that kind of list, I am doing something.

I am learning step by step how to use time to influence lives. Starting with mine.


Getting up at 6 to be up for an hour, that is practice.

Getting up at 6 and working through a specific list of activities designed to sharpen my mind and heart and soul and pencil, that is 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.

Just getting up at six is like a kid who sits at the piano for a thirty minutes, counting every moment his seat is on the bench as practice. Working on the hard parts  is like the musician who each day works on the part of paying scales that was hard yesterday.

Does that make sense, my daily coaches and feedback providers? Does that help illustrate deliberate practice?