How to Achieve Greatness Through Deliberate Practice

tiger-woods

What is the secret to greatness? How do you play golf like Tiger? How do you invest like Warren Buffet or play the piano like Mozart?  Were these people just born great or was something else involved…

According to the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin the secret to greatness is something called “deliberate practice”. The main point of the book is that greatness is accomplished not by inborn talent or genes, but by repetitive, specific hard work. In essence, it’s all about who practices the most and who practices correctly.

The author walks us through a study of groups of musicians at one music school to prove his point:

The results were clear. The telltale signs of precocious musical ability in the top-performing groups—the evidence of talent that we all know exists—simply weren’t there. On the contrary, judged by early signs of special talent, all the groups were highly similar…One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.

If this all sounds a lot like Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that’s because it is very similar. Many of the concepts overlap with the most notable being that it takes 10 years of consistent practice to master a skill.  The biggest difference is that while Gladwell’s book mainly focused on the need of practicing, he did not drill into the idea of deliberate practice which is an important distinction.  Many people do the same jobs for 30 years and still do not achieve the level of a true expert. That’s because they’re not deliberating trying to become an expert – they’re just doing their jobs and going home.

What is Deliberate Practice?

If you want to be as great as Tiger it’s not enough to just hit a bucket of balls for 2 hours everyday (though that might be a good start). Instead you should be hitting the balls into specific target areas, or trying to increase your drive by 10%, or slightly changing your form and tracking the impact. In order for the practice to be “deliberate” it should have the following characteristics:

  • Beyond Your Comfort Zone: The practice should not be easy or fun. You should be pushing yourself just beyond where you’re comfortable. That’s where the real improvement occurs.
  • Specific: The practice should focus on an individual skill like hitting a deep forehand crosscourt for a tennis player rather than just rallying or doing match play.
  • Immediate Feedback: During the practice you should strive to get immediate feedback as to whether what you’re doing is correct or not. This is why so many people that achieve greatness have a coach or mentor that helped them get there.

What about the Prodigies?

If all that matters is practice, then many people wonder how you explain a child prodigy like Mozart or Tiger Woods? What about people that are just great from an early age? Colvin explains with the following:

Tiger is born into the home of an expert golfer and confessed “golf addict” who loves to teach and is eager to begin teaching his new son as soon as possible. Earl’s wife does not work outside the home, and they have no other children; they have decided that “Tiger would be the first priority in our relationship,” Earl wrote. Earl gives Tiger his first metal club, a putter, at the age of seven months. He sets up Tiger’s high chair in the garage, where Earl is hitting balls into a new and Tiger watches for hours on end….Earl develops new techniques for teaching the grip and the putting stroke to a student who cannot yet talk. Before Tiger is two, they are at a golf course playing and practicing regularly.

After reading that it’s pretty clear that it was a lot more than inborn talent that drove Tiger, it was a Dad that was willing to put his son through a rigorous golf education starting at seven months. Tiger is better not because he was born that way, but because he was already practicing while others were still learning to walk.

Conclusion

I’ve read a lot of biographies of “great” people and the most common thread that I see is persistence toward a goal and the ability to focus everything on their task at hand. In many ways, that’s what deliberate practice is. People love the idea of the born-genius or to say that they could do this or that if they just had the talent. But in the end we all have the ability within us, it’s just a matter of whether we want to make the commitment to deliberately practicing day in and day out.

No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich

-Chinese Proverb

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