Tag Archives: deliberate practice

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.


100 percent savings and a free ebook

I had a coupon for 40% for Borders this weekend. The book I wanted wasn’t in our local store. (I need to read Outliers: The Story of Success for my deliberate practice, um, practice).

I thought about just buying some book because the coupon was so great. But saving 40% on a book that I don’t exactly need, just because the coupon is great isn’t much of a savings.

So I renewed my hold at the library and realized that I had saved 100%.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the time that I would have spent either reading that other book or worrying about having one more book on my pile of books to read.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the focus that I would have diverted from the projects that I need to focus on.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the energy we would have spent going to the store.

And then I realized that I had saved 100% of the emotional struggle that would have happened from spending 60% more on a book than we had planned to spend yesterday.

And so that 40% off coupon saved me 500% of resources that are limited.

That, my friends, is an amazing coupon.


Now for an offer that may be a savings to you and may not be.

Here’s the back story. Kathy Drewien sent me a tweet the other day:

kdrewien @jnswanson Do you have posts on church communication? I just agreed to head team of new committee to enhance communication at church.

It was a great question. My first reaction was to say “no”, because I haven’t written or tagged any posts with “church communication.” But then I search my blog for “church” and realized that I have, completely inadvertently, written a number of posts that could be useful for church committees to use if they don’t want to sound churchy.

I spent a little time on the project and now have a new ebook: Unchurchy: reflections on communication and church.

It’s a collection of seven essays (posts) on communication, including “The Next Sentence” and one of my Emilio posts.

Here’s what I would love:

  • Download it if you or someone you know needs a way to help churches think about communicating differently.
  • Download it if you feel like helping me with layout and design.
  • Download it if you feel like adding one more book to your reading pile.
  • Don’t download it if it will add to your list of things that you want to get to but never will.

I’d love to save you 100%, but I’d love your feedback, too.

Make sense? The link for my new ebook again? Unchurchy: reflections on communication and church.

time to learn again

I stood at the free throw line, close to tears. All it was going to take was a couple dribbles and then a shot. And for a moment, I just couldn’t do it.

I wish that I was talking about some grades school experience. But I’m not. That little experience happened this week. I was standing in a gym, one other person in the room. Absolutely no pressure, no risk, nothing to fear. Nothing but my own fear of messing up.

Deliberate Practice in practice

I’ve written about deliberate practice before. It’s one of my words for the year. Let’s see if I can explain it simply. Assume that there is something that you are good at. If practice is repeated activity in what you are good at, deliberate practice is focusing those repetitions on the weakest part of what you are good at.

If you are  a great golfer, practice is playing extra rounds. Deliberate practice is working on the most difficult shots. If you are a writer, practice is writing a lot. Deliberate practice is writing sonnets if you regularly do prose so that you work on maximum impact from minimum syllables.

My challenge is to bring that level of intentional learning into spiritual formation, helping people learn how to follow Jesus.

So what does this have to do with basketball?

Last night, Greg wanted to talk with me. He’s working with a new group at church and we’re talking about how to approach it best. I had to take care of a few things and he waited for me in the gym. Shooting baskets. I walked in, took a couple shots, and realized that I needed to learn from Greg.

(A year ago I tried shooting baskets. It was a miserable experience. It was time to try it a different way.)

So here’s what I learned last night.

1. I had to decide to learn to learn. I could have continued not knowing how to shoot baskets. However, for some reason, I decided that now was the time to change that. It was tough. There were a million other things to do. But I decided.

2. I had to let Greg be smarter than me. I’ve known Greg for more than twenty years. When we met, he was a college student and I was a faculty member. We went different ways and now we are at the same church. He’s working on a teaching degree. I’ve taught, one way or another, for years. Neither of us are smarter than each other. However, last night I had to acknowledge that this former student knew more than I did about shooting baskets.

There is a humility that is necessary for learning. First, there is a vague sense of “I need to learn.” After that, however, comes “you know more than me.” The first can happen in my head. The second involves my body.

3. I had to look foolish. When Greg watched my shooting, he quickly diagnosed the problem. I was doing a shot put. I was shoving the ball toward the basket. Instead, Greg said, use your wrist.

In order to find out what that felt like, I had to stand in the gym holding my arm in the air, practicing the motion. I had to stand near the wall, practicing the motion with a ball. I had to stand at the free throw line, practicing the motion and then practicing with a ball.

For someone who is not an athlete, trying to train my arm was hilarious.

4. It’s hard to learn. Now we’re back to the beginning of this story. After we had been shooting for awhile, after a lot of coaching and demonstrating, I stood at the line. I dribbled. I lifted the ball to shoot. I put it down. I practiced the motion. I lifted the ball again. I wanted to walk away. I couldn’t.

I realized standing there that this wasn’t about shooting a basket. This was about whether I was willing to try something that I couldn’t do. This was about whether I was willing to commit to learning how to shoot, no matter what.

This was about whether I was ready to learn a new lesson about learning.

And I was feeling tears of frustration and tears of joy. I don’t remember the last time that I said, “I just have to learn this.” And it was hard.


Deliberate practice is about improving process, about how we go about doing what we are doing. I only made a couple baskets last night. In fact, my percentage of completion was worse than it had been last year when I was shooting 50 baskets.  However, I made a significant change in the process of shooting.

I’ll let you know more about how much I improve at making baskets. I think I just let you know how I’m improving at learning.

remembering three words 8 ways

Some of us created lists of three words at the beginning of the year. But how do you remember them? Because it’s Tuesday and February, I figured we could all use a reminder about reminding ourselves.  (See Chris Brogan’s post on three words for 2009 for background.)

1. Create a wordle (wordle.net) of the three words and other words that matter to you. If you type the three words multiple times, they show up bigger. If I were good, I’d provide a wordle tutorial, but I’m not that good. (Besides, there is this issue of focus that I’m working on).

2. Let other people know your three words. They can help you find material or ideas or accountability. For example, I have a guy in Texas feeding me ideas and asking how I’m doing. (Thanks, Tim).

3. Explore your three words regularly. I’m doing it here at the Levite Chronicles. In fact, if you look back through my posts this year, you will find regular links to focus and to deliberate practice. Singing is my own problem and I’m not writing about it.

4.  Find opportunities to talk about your words in other settings. For example, I had the opportunity to do some training. I had my choice of topic. Of course I picked deliberate practice. The more we become our own experts on our own words, the more likely we are to do what we wanted to do.

5. Be willing to change your words. So your three words for the year become your three words for six weeks and then two of them change. Big deal. You are adjusting.

6. Write summaries of your progress. Whether in your blog or in a journal or using a Sharpie on your bathroom mirror, let yourself know that you are working on this list. You’ll be more likely to trust yourself in the future if you are holding yourself accountable to yourself for encouragement as well as criticism.

7. Lighten up.

8. On your calendar for April 22, write “three words review.” That way, after Easter, after spring break, around the equinox, you’ll have a reminder to think through what you are doing.

So, do you remember your three words?

The late Jon Swanson

“You’re late!”

“I was born late!”

I was, in fact. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I was born two weeks after the due date. And for the past fifty years, I haven’t done much to catch up. I am consistently late.

Today I finally realized that I am highly skilled at being late. I can arrive  5-10 minutes late to almost any appointment, any meeting. Regardless of the distance to the meeting, regardless of the time of day, I can hit that 5 minute window with remarkable precision.

I realized this while traveling to a mentoring appointment, to which I arrived 10 minutes late. I also realized why I was realizing it. I am talking with this friend about life management, as a spiritual director of sorts. And to be helpful that way, there must be some personal integrity. And showing up late consistently lacks integrity.

I also realized it because I am looking at deliberate practice, at seeking to improve the weakest points of what I am good at. I am reasonably good at conversations. A weak point is starting them late. So I need to work on that particular skill.

My friend Kay helped me sort the problem through a bit:

Here’s why she’s right, at least for me.

I often show up late, I explain,  because someone catches me with a question on my way out the door, or I need to grab something from the printer, or I need to grab a couple books for my briefcase or I remember one last thing I needed to ask.

If I’m honest, however, I’ll acknowledge that although the last 10 minutes before I walk out the door are a flurry of activity, they are preceeded by plenty of time of doing…or not doing…other things, things that can be adjusted, things that could be better planned.

In previous periods of my life, I was late because I had meeting after meeting, each one running a bit late. It is easy to blame others for making them run long. However, I’m the one that believes I have to stay to the bitter end because I might miss something or they might miss my significant input.

However, whether it’s because I want the attention of arriving late or the attention of being thought extremely busy or the attention of the last statement at the previous meeting or the attention of rushing about getting out the door, it all comes back to what I want.

And that is arrogant.

And so it’s time to start working on the skill.

In about 10 minutes.


So, how do you make sure you are on time? And are you an on-time person (in which case, I don’t care 🙂 ) or are you a late person by nature who has changed your behavior?

thoughtful looking back

I know it’s Monday morning, time to plunge into a new week, new lists, new adventures.

And there is no time, I know, to stop and think.

But what if you took 10 minutes and looked back at last week, at the highs and lows and chaos and peace and adventures and quagmires?

What if you looked at all of what you”ve been trying to forget…or trying to remember?

What if you took ten minutes and answered this question:

What one thing can I do today that will continue the best of how I worked last week and will avoid the worst of how I worked?

Write it down.

Let me know tomorrow how that worked.

my fault

Every time we stay in a hotel, I hope that the in room coffee tastes great. Every time I’m disappointed.

This morning I realized that I could bring coffee with me. When traveling by car I could even bring water with me. I could bring my own real mug.

All it would take is remembering that I could make a change and not just blame the hotel.

I wonder it there’s a lesson here.

help yourself focus

One of my three words for the year is “focus.” In the post where I introduced the idea I asked, “What’s your focus? what do you want to make clear to others?” To answer the question, I started making calendars.

Some of you are thinking, “It’s about time Jon started using a calendar. He could use a watch while he’s at it.” But the calendars I’m making aren’t helping my time management much at all. They are helping my attention management.

The two words that we want to characterize our organization (a church) are “changed lives.” We use those words a lot, but I realized that we didn’t see them anywhere. And so I decided to make a calendar for January that had those two words. I made up a photo montage of faces (using the powerful photo editing capacity of … PowerPoint).

I put it on the top half of a page. I put a calendar of January on the bottom 3/5. And at the bottom I put part of the transcript of our pastor’s first sermon of the year where he talked about…changed lives. And I printed one for my office and one for home.

It was helpful.

I made a new one for February. By doing a new one each month, I have to think about the statement again. Twelve times a year I am committed to look at and for changed lives. This one has a bunch of our kids singing (including our daughter).

This one is now in our main office. It’s on the wall of a couple of our staff members. And I’m starting to look for the picture for March that will illustrate another part of our activity that is connected to changed lives.

I know that it’s no big deal. It’s just a calendar. That hangs by my desk. So that every time I need a date I look at it. And am reminded that I am wanting to focus this year.

It’s your turn. Follow the link in the picture to my flickr account where I’ve put a February and a March calendar. Download the calendar. Put your own picture on the top. Put your own passion statement or vision statement or three words on the bottom.

And focus.


By the way, if you actually make a calendar, let me know. I want to cheer.

which weaknesses

We’re great at pointing out what we do poorly. We spend much energy trying to fix what is wrong with us.

And we often are glad that we are good enough to get by with our strengths so we have more time to spend on the weak areas.

What if, rather than looking at our weaknesses, we looked at the weakest part of our strengths?

Here’s what I mean. What are you best at? What is the weakest part of what you are best at? You may still be better than 90% of the population at that thing, but you aren’t happy with it.

Now, rather than pouring the next week into fixing the thing you don’t know how to do at all, pour it into fixing the weakest part of what you are best at.

Have a great phone style but can’t remember to smile? Fix that part. Know how to do every part of a sales call well but somehow always spill your coffee? Fix that thing. Write incredible posts but can’t quite figure out how to end them? Fix that thing.

I don’t know what you do worst about what you do best. But you do. Fix that, and your best will be even better than now.

Make sense?

Have a seat. Just for a minute or two.

January is almost over. It’s been a strange month of weather delays, traveling, inaugural activities, sickness, bills, economic uncertainties, and everything else that disrupts our schedules.

Many of us are trying to remember the commitments we made at the beginning of the month (year). Some of us had three words. Some had a goal. Some had a strong commitment to not set goals or pick words.

I understand.

I had three words – focus, singing, deliberate practice – and I’m wondering what it was I was going to focus on, and what, exactly, I was going to practice. And yet, I still remember the words. I have made incremental progress. I’m guessing that you have, too.

But there is still a bunch more to do.

So take a couple minutes. Take a deep breath. Take another drink of coffee. I’ll have a couple questions for you in a minute.


What one thing are you going to make sure you get done today?

How are you going to do it?

What’s the first step?

How do you want me to ask God to help you?


Okay. Take off. Go do it. Let me know how I can help.