Deliberate Practice

Last week, I read a book called Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.

About a year ago, I don’t think I would have told you that. It would have implied that I wanted to be a world-class performer, which would have seemed terribly ambitious. And in my family, while people are in fact terribly ambitious, they never, ever talk about it. (I mean, my father is an MD/PhD and my mother is an MD/JD. And their children take after them in various ways.) When I look back at it now, I realize that I was raised according to the oddest standards, the standards of a nineteenth-century aristocratic European family. There were things one simply did not talk about. Money and ambition, for instance, although it was always assumed that one would have money (not that we did), and that one would accomplish at the highest level (well, we did that, I think). I grew up with the distinct impression that if your possessions were too new, you came from new money, and there was something shameful in that. That a woman should never call a man first, or accept money or any gift of significant value (unless they were actually engaged). I know, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I also know how to ride horses and crochet lace. Seriously.

Where was I? So I was reading Talent is Overrated, which is a very interesting book about how anyone can develop world-class talent if he or she puts in the necessary work. The necessary work turns out to be a lot, about ten year’s worth of what the author calls deliberate practice. I’m still thinking through the book, but here is what I’ve gotten out of it so far, at least for myself as it applies to my writing. Here are the steps you need to take, to achieve world-class talent.

1. Know where you want to go.

Where I want to go is a writing career, of course. By which I mean a lot of things that I’ve written about before, so I won’t try to explain them all here. Let’s go through these steps first.

2. Decide what skills you need to get there.

The skills I need are writing skills. I need to be able to write a terrific story, poem, essay, novel. I think I probably also need the skills to market my writing effectively. I need to be able to do readings, create ebooks and podcasts, that sort of thing.

3. Practice those skills deliberately.

There are several ways to accomplish this step. First, you need to practice a lot, but that by itself is not enough. You need to practice in a targeted and effective way, focusing on specific skills that will go into creating the work. You need to find good teachers – who for my purpose can be teachers I interact with or writers who have long been dead, but whose writing I can still learn from. You also need to seek out and receive feedback on your progress, so you know what you’re doing well and what you need to keep working on. And you need to modify your practice to reflect your growth.

This is a lot, and I need to write about it more, separately.

4. Develop a deep knowledge of your field.

The book says that the best performers are also the most knowledgeable about the field in which they excel. A chess master will understand chess in a way that a lesser player does not. The same goes for a world-class musician. I think you see this among writers. I’m reading a book by P.D. James on the history of the detective story, and it’s clear that she understands her field inside and out. Stephen King seems to have a deep knowledge of supernatural horror as a literary genre.

What is my field? Writing – so I need a deep knowledge of the literary tradition and of writing more specifically.

I have to think further about these four injunctions, because they make me think differently about what I do. For example, do I actually engage in deliberate practice? I need to think about that one. But I’m hoping to write about it later in the week. When I’m a little less tired!

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3 Responses to Deliberate Practice

  1. Yes – you are almost right on all counts. Very successful people are less ‘talented’ than they are specific, and you were not specific enough about Number 4. Knowing about ‘writing’ is vague – what sort of writing, for which audience, in which genre? Even if you do not agree with the world’s categorizations, an acknowledgement must be made of their existence, and that one does write within the world, and is prey to the world’s critical observation, and the world’s purchasing habits. When a determined person homes in on what is necessary to become successful regardless of their talent level, they discover a niche they can fill. The smaller the niche, the sharper their focus, the more likely it is that they will succeed.
    About backgrounds – they are more important than you think, and elegance attracts a market of a certain kind. Your elegant avatar is an echo of how you were raised, and is a very pleasant diversion from the vulgarity that sweeps this way and that, taking in everything and everyone as it goes. One can find it in writing too, and perhaps like attracts like. Recognition comes from those with a similar background, from those with less money than sense and taste!

  2. Interesting that you post this now. I’ve just been trying to understand my Clarion experience in the framework of deliberate practice.

    I haven’t read Colvin’s book, but I have read the paper by K. Anders Ericsson that introduced the concept of deliberate practice and presented the data that it seems to take 10,000 hours to develop expertise in diverse fields (tennis, chess, violin, etc.).

    What I took away was that “deliberate practice” consisted of:

    1. performing your skill
    2. monitoring your performance
    3. evaluating your success
    4. figuring out how to do it better

    What occurred to me was that step 1 is just doing your writing, but that Clarion (doing critiques and listening to other students’ critiques on the same stories) was all about improving your skills at steps 2–4.

    In the context of deliberate practice it all makes sense—because once you can do steps 2–4 on your own, you’re in a position to engage in deliberate practice on your own. That’s when you can really start getting better at writing.

    Here’s what I wrote about it:

    http://www.philipbrewer.net/2011/03/26/clarion-at-home-expertise/

  3. What Rosanne wrote brings up an issue I’ve been thinking about: is deep knowledge of your field a knowledge of how to write well in general (a knowledge of literary history, in other words) or a knowledge of your specific professional field (for me, fantasy writing, maybe the YA market, that sort of thing). I think it may actually be both?

    Phil, that’s very interesting and helpful, and I think you’re absolutely right about Clarion. We didn’t know it at the time, but that was absolutely what we were doing. Looking forward to reading your post!

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