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tldr summary: The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance

I’ve often come across citations of this paper, and I finally took the time to read it. It is an engaging and lucid read, but it is long — forty pages of dense journal layout. For those too lazy to read the whole thing, here’s my summary.

The paper is part survey, part original work. It’s goal is to investigate the factors that go into expert, world-class performance in any given field. The standing theory that it challenges is the importance of “natural ability” or “innate talent”, as opposed to something that can be built up and attained over time. That something, the authors argue, is deliberate practice.

Poor correlation between ability measures and performance: Ability tests tests predict “new graduate” performance (performance on a job immediately after training) with a correlation of 0.3, and that goes down to 0.2 for long-term performance.

Experts can rarely move across domains: Again and again, experts have failed to transfer their gifts to a new domain. Their gift works only in their own domain.

“The search for stable heritable characteristics that could predict or at least account for superior performance… has been unsuccessful.”

Just practice is not enough, and there is usually a plateau: mere repetition of a task leads to a performance plateau. Most adults perform at less than maximal levels even for tasks they do frequently. Looking at long-term performance records (mostly in sports), performance of the best has had a constant upward trend (i.e. world records are regularly broken).

The ten-year rule: Surveying many experts in many fields reveals that it takes at least 10 years to achieve world-class performance.

Three types of activity: Work, play, and deliberate practice. Work is extrinsically motivated, and performance stability and predictability (i.e. that you’ll get the job done) are paramount, performance growth is not. Play is intrinsically motivated and pleasurable, but not goal-directed, and not structured to improve performance. Deliberate practice is structured, effortful practice, usually not pleasurable, focused on specific performance bottlenecks.

Characteristics of deliberate practice: Tailored to subject’s existing level and weaknesses. Must get immediate feedback on performance. Subjects should actively try out new methods and refine them to match new performance goals. Since deliberate practice is effortful and not pleasurable, subjects must be motivated enough by the promise of increased performance to go through it.

Intensity: deliberate practice must push your limits. One must push their maximal level. This is in contrast to both work (where the goal is steady-state performance) and play (where the goal is to have fun).

Monotonic benefits: Performance increases monotonically with deliberate practice. This is perhaps the most important point of the paper. You can break past plateaus and crank up your performance — if you are ready to put in the hours of deliberate practice.

The importance of rest: deliberate practice is intense and exhausting, and can only be sustained for a limited time each day. There were no benefits from doing this for more than four hours a day, and benefits trailed off after two hours a day. Adequate recovery time is essential.

The importance of support structures: the commitment to deliberate practice involves not just the individual, but an intricate support structure consisting of parents and teachers and facilities, sustained over a long period of time.

Copyright 2008-2013 Vivek Haldar