The Power of Deliberate Practice: 5 Steps to Skill Mastery

Peak book on deliberate practice
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Ever wondered how experts master a new skill? In almost all cases, it’s by harnessing the compounding power of deliberate practice. In this article, I’m going to show you how to use deliberate practice to go from novice to expert in the shortest and most efficient route possible. 

The inspiration for this article is the book Peak by Anders Ericsson. It is a series of studies that chronicle the evolution of the idea of deliberate practice. It was a game-changer for me when I first read it. It underpins my belief in life that anything can be learned if you are motivated to learn it and you’re willing to put in the effort required. 

Let’s break it down into three parts:

  • Purposeful Practice
  • Mental Representations
  • How to Go About Developing Mental Representations

Purposeful Practice

Think back to a skill that you already have.

When you first started developing that skill, you probably spent a lot of time practicing it. 

Think about golf, or tennis, or even mental skills such as writing. You start by just doing it and the more you do it, the better you get. 

Playing tennis
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Photo by Renith R on Unsplash

In the beginning, it can feel exponential in how much you’re learning and how much you’re improving. But if you’re not focusing on the specific things you should be practicing within that overall skill, you hit a plateau. 

What is purposeful practice and why do we hit this plateau? 

Getting out of your comfort zone in a focused way 

Setting clear goals. Having a plan of action to reach those goals, a way to monitor your progress towards them, and a thoughtful, mindful way of making sure you stay motivated throughout. 

A perfect example is my YouTube Channel

Andrew Barry Teaches YouTube
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My goal for this year as to grow my channel to help spread the word about teaching online and I want to be able to reach more people to do that.

The goal I set out for myself was to create 52 videos to publish one per week every single week of the year.

However, if you don’t have a deliberate focus on certain elements of making a video, of playing tennis, or of playing golf, or whatever the skill might be, you’re going to hit this plateau. 

It’s often an unconscious plateau where you think by just doing the thing over and over, you’re going to keep getting better. But if you’re not very specific about the things you’re focused on, and you don’t critically have a frame of reference over what excellent looks like, you’re not going to get better. 

Last year I signed up for and worked with Ali Abdaal for his YouTube course

It was an eye-opening and life-changing experience because I saw how much improvement there was to go. I saw a master at work and saw a lot of different things that I could be working on. 

So how do we go beyond the plateau? That’s where mental representations come in. 

Mental Representations

The Queen’s Gambit movie on Netflix is a great example of this. 

The Queens Gambit
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Those chess grandmasters can walk around a room of 50 people playing all the different boards, and beat all of them while just seeing those boards for a few seconds at a time. Their opponents across from them are studying those boards with their undivided attention. 

How do they do this? 

What’s happening is those grandmasters have mental representations of each board. 

They’re not actually memorizing every single board, but they’ve seen them before. What they’ve been able to do is translate the patterns within various different board layouts into patterns within their long-term memory. 

So while a novice is using their working memory to remember different moves, and what each piece on the board does, an expert has taken that 10 to 40 steps ahead, because they’ve seen it before and it’s encoded into their long-term memory. 

How to Go About Developing Mental Representations

Identify who the experts are

You have to be pretty careful when identifying experts. The choice you make here is crucial. There’s going to be a lot of work, effort, and time that flows from this. So you really want to make sure that the person you have identified as the expert now is the right expert for you. 

We tend to be swayed by factors like education, experience, recognition, seniority, and even friendliness and attractiveness.

The best way to approach this step is to seek out people you trust who work intimately with other professionals and ask them who they turn to for help.

Figure out what it is that they do that makes them so good at what they do 

How did they learn what they learned? 

So for those of you who follow my podcast, that is exactly what I do.

Decoding deliberate practice podcast
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I interview experts to uncover how they learned what they learned. It is the most fascinating thing and I can do it all day long.

You can listen to a few of those episodes here

By listening to a few episodes, you can begin to understand the development of mental representations these experts have undertaken in domains like systems thinking, gaming, poker, animal tracking, design, professional rugby coaching, business analysis, content creation, and more. 

It doesn’t matter what the skill is. The techniques and the frameworks people use are the same. That’s what’s so exciting about this. 

Come up with training techniques that allow you to practice what the experts are doing 

A great example of this is Mozart

Mozart was a master at deliberate practice
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One of the greatest composers of all time, he was an absolute prodigy who created an incredible body of original work. But he got started as a young kid by copying the work of others. He would deconstruct and reconstruct compositions and music to understand how they worked. 

Great writers do this too! 

It’s actually recommended if you want to start writing well that you take passages or paragraphs or even entire chapters of your favorite writers and write them out yourself, by hand.

This is to really get a feel for what the cadence of writing is like and how to create those turns of phrases so you really start to encode that in your long-term memory and create those mental representations that they have when they were doing it themselves. 

Writing
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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

There’s a cool thing that’s happening here. That experts who have created this amazing new work of art, or produced something incredibly creative, have first understood the rules of the game that they’re playing, and then figured out how to break them. 

So by taking somebody else’s work, copying it, making it your own, and getting into that habit, that training routine, you can start to understand those rules as they evolve. 

By doing that multiple times over and over again, once you have a feel in your bones of those rules, you can start to break them. 

Mental analysis alone isn’t enough 

You have to have a bias for action. You have to go and get on the golf course and play over and over and over again. 

And remember, this isn’t just playing. 

Take someone like Tiger Woods, for example. There are hours of videos of him just doing hundreds of repetitions of the same swing or using the same club. He’s not just playing, he’s focusing on one specific thing and he’s practicing that over and over again until it’s natural. It’s part of what he does.

So have a bias for action, but make sure that that action is focused, and deliberate. 

It’s really helpful at this point to have a coach, someone that can point out what you’re doing wrong and what to focus on. 

It’s very hard to know that yourself. 

That’s one of the differences between purposeful practice and deliberate practice and why so many people hit that plateau and never move beyond it. 

Getting Unstuck 

Finally, what do you do when you get stuck? Because there will come a point in time where your motivation drops. 

  1. First, figure out exactly what is holding you back. 
  2. What mistakes are you making, and when? 
  3. Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first. 
  4. Then design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness, possibly with the help of a coach. 
  5. Pay attention to what happens when you practice. 
  6. If you’re not improving, try something else. 

Summary 

If you follow the approach:

  1. identify the experts
  2. deconstruct how they do what they do
  3. come up with training techniques so that you can practice that over and over again and finally, 
  4. have a bias for action 

you can learn anything you set your mind to!

Peak book on deliberate practice
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