Journalist and author Geoff Colvin is Fortune Magazine’s Senior Editor at Large and author of the book Talent is Overrated.
Colvin has studied talented athletes, musicians, chess players and others considered to be extremely talented, and he reports that talent is not what separates the average performers from the truly great in any field. He describes what he calls deliberate practice as the differentiator. Read about it here.
Deliberate practice means that you take one skill you don’t have and work on it over and over and over and over. And then work on it some more. You work until you’re exhausted. And then work on it some more.
You may not have the time or patience to do this kind of practice, but you may be able to get better results by applying yourself in a more deliberate way. Here are some tips for setting up a more deliberate practice, whatever you do.
- Break down the skill you want to develop into single components. Take a single part of the work (your follow through on a golf swing, for example) and practice it against a known standard. Focus on that single component until you get it right.
- Figure out what model you are working toward. Colvin cites three models of preparation and achievement. The “Music” model is based on the theory that perfection exists. You’ve heard the Beethoven sonata performed exactly as it should be by a master, and you aim to get as close to that as possible. In art, you have a photograph of the object to try to reproduce. While interpretation is part of being creative, most artists strive to be able to master a piece so that it’s technically perfect as well. The “Chess” model is based on studying masters and their moves over and over again so that eventually you always know which move will work in which situation. For the record, business is taught using this model. The “Sports” model is based on the fact that in a competition, you cannot know what will happen next. You can only prepare yourself and your skills to be at top form. In this model, no matter what happens, you can exploit the moment. Steal the ball, find the opening, pass your opponent. You can’t plan in advance, but you can be ready.
- After you have an idea of your preferred model, get a coach. There’s a reason that almost every professional in every field has a coach. Actors, musicians, athletes, and artists all know that they need an outside source to observe them impartially, make suggestions based on experience, and hold them accountable for practice and improvement. Business is one of the only professions where coaching is rare. When you think about it, there are many skills we could improve on in business; it’s funny that so few individuals or companies invest in coaches. But they’re available to all of us. The challenge is in knowing what skill you need to work on so you can help your coach help you.
The idea of deliberate practice is not to be able to do things automatically, without thinking. Colvin says that the great performers do just the opposite; they do everything with utmost concentration and focus. Colvin calls this ability to observe themselves and think about what they’re doing “metacognition” (thinking about thinking.) When average long distance runners run, for example, they try to distract themselves from the painful reality of pushing their bodies to the limit of their endurance. Elite runners, says Colvin, does the opposite. They will focus intensely on what they’re feeling and what adjustments they are making, and they do an intense evaluation of their performance afterward.
How can you create a deliberate practice in your life to improve performance? Read more in Part Three.