Tag Archives: spiritual formation

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.


So today is my first full day in my new position.

(I actually started yesterday and, as my first official action, took care of locking the doors and turning off the sound system at the end of the evening.  It showed the interesting and odd and fun nature of working in a church: on the first day you are trusted with locking up the facility.)

As I walked into the office today, there was no schedule. My position is still in the process of being formed. I needed to talk with a couple people about what they do, but they weren’t available until the afternoon. I’m starting to get to know people. I’m figuring out coffee and microwave and forms and … culture.

That’s the challenge of walking into someplace new. What is the culture? This is particularly true if you care at all about relationship or if what you are about IS relationship. What are the expectations? What are the boundaries? What are the things one never does? What are the things one always does? What kind of questions can you ask? What kinds of questions must never be asked? How much permission do you have to push back on ideas, on traditions, on how it’s always been done?

Complicating this search for many of us who start new positions is our background. We may have learned some lessons in our previous position about our own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, strengths, delights. We may walk in the door thinking, “I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying ‘I’ll do that’ to everything again.” And then we are quickly presented with the opportunity to have our identity be rooted in what we do, what we are willing to do, how we can prove our value to the organization.

Why is this process all so challenging for me this time? Why is a person who has started new jobs many times being so reflective about the process of starting a new job?

Because my new position is, at its core, about helping people become more like Jesus.  And any process of growth or transformation or change which involves human beings must start be understanding who and how and where they are. Yes, you can tell people they have to change, but that often doesn’t work. What works far more permanently is starting with where people are, what they know, how they value, and then describing and explaining and modeling and living whatever the transformational process is.

And so I need to be mindful (and heartful) in this time of learning and listening and attending.  I need to watch and pray. I need to be cautious of how often I say, “At ___ we did it this way.” I need to remember that my job is not making anyone better or like another church or more or less businesslike. My job is to help people become more like Jesus.

And looking in the mirror, that’s a challenging process to be in.