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Practice Won't Make Perfect, But Deliberate Practice Might

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As many teachers have told us, practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, hours spent at the piano or in the batting cages or at the chessboard aren't worth much unless you're smart about it. That's the lesson from performance expert K. Anders Ericsson, whose research into "deliberate practice" — despite the scientific kerfuffle it's caused — can help kids (and adults, for that matter) get more out of their practice sessions.

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What Is Deliberate Practice?

In 1993, Ericsson and two colleagues published a study in the journal Psychological Review that challenged the idea that a person's talent was the main driver of success. The authors claimed that instead, what seems like innate talent is actually "the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years." This is the basis for the now-ubiquitous "10,000-hour rule," made popular in Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers." But in heralding the number of hours of practice, Andersson says Gladwell missed the point. It's not about quantity of practice, he says, but quality. In fact, he believes that with the right kind of practice, anyone can get good at anything.

Other researchers clash on this last point. While most agree that deliberate practice is important, they say that expertise comes from a complex mix of factors. "In 2014, an entire issue of the academic journal Intelligence was devoted to articles disputing Ericsson's work," writes Jenny Anderson for Quartz, "arguing that IQ and other factors like motivation, range of motion, and the varied timing that some creative talents develop matter just as much as practice."

The key phrase there is "just as much." Sure, deliberate practice may not be the magic bullet that turns you into an NBA star or a Grammy winner, but it's got research-backed benefits — and many people don't know how to do it.

What Is Deliberate Practice?

You could say that the difference between practice and deliberate practice comes down to your comfort level. Regular practice is fun — you get to do what you enjoy, and hopefully what you're good at, for a handful of hours a week. Deliberate practice requires spending lots of time outside of your comfort zone, working at the things you're lousy at and accepting criticism from someone smarter than you. After all, if you only practice your strengths, you'll never improve your weaknesses.

For example, when a child starts playing guitar, she could go one of two ways. In the traditional practice model, she could sit in her room learning the chords she needs to play her favorite songs, meet up with other friends to play those songs together, and eventually start a band and perhaps write songs of her own. It's a journey many of us have traveled.

In the deliberate practice model — which, while more effective, is admittedly less pleasant — she sits in her room learning the chords she needs to play her favorite songs, then starts taking private lessons from an experienced teacher. That teacher assesses her ability and gives her regular, personalized feedback on what needs improvement, which she uses every day to practice her weakest skills. Eventually, she begins performing, first with the help of her teacher, then on her own, all the while doing her own self-assessment to figure out what areas could use more practice.

It's important, though, to not push kids too far, too fast. "It's counter-productive for a parent or teacher to push them longer than they can," Ericsson tells Quartz. "That creates motivational problems and forces the child to do the best they can when they don't have 100 percent concentration. That's linked to developing bad habits." But soon, kids learn that working hard on something they love reaps benefits beyond what they could imagine. And even if they don't become the next Joni Mitchell, they've developed a skill that's even more useful: deliberate practice.

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