Study Hacks Blog

The Father of Deliberate Practice Disowns Flow

April 9th, 2012 · 67 comments

Feeling Low on Flow

In a trio of recent articles, I emphasized that flow is dangerous (see here and here and here). It feels good, so we’re tempted to seek it out, but it doesn’t actually help us get better: the key process in creating a remarkable life.

Most of you liked this concept, while a few of you thought I had missed the boat. Here’s an example of the latter sentiment:

I disagree with [your] point. Flow is the experience of being lost in one’s effort. That can easily happen when one is highly challenged and enjoying the intense effort.

There was also quite a bit of discussion on what, exactly, “flow” means, with enough different points of view presented that I soon felt that the whole issue was becoming muddied and difficult to wade through.

Then someone sent me an article penned by Anders Ericsson — the psychologist who innovated the study of how we get better by introducing the idea of deliberate practice. In this article, which was published in 2007 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ericsson addresses the difference between flow and deliberate practice:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

In other words, the feeling of flow is different than the feeling of getting better. If all you seek is flow, then you’re not going to get better. There is no avoiding the deliberate strain of real improvement. (This is not the say, however, that you should not seek flow in addition to deliberate practice as a strategy to recharge, or experience it as unavoidable when you put your deliberately honed skills to use.)

Ericsson concludes by echoing a warning familiar to Study Hacks readers:

The commonly held but empirically unsupported notion that some uniquely “talented” individuals can attain superior performance in a given domain without much practice appears to be a destructive myth that could discourage people from investing the necessary efforts to reach expert levels of performance.

He said it. Not me.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

The Satisfying Strain of Learning Hard Material: A Deliberate Practice Case Study

March 28th, 2012 · 40 comments

A Deliberate Morning

This morning I finished my notes for an upcoming lecture in my graduate-level theory of computation course.

There are two points I wanted to make about these notes…

  1. The process of creating them is very hard. On average, it takes me between 2.5 to 3 hours to prepare a lecture. This preparation requires that I work with absolutely zero distractions as the material is too difficult to be internalized if my attention is divided in any way. Furthermore, the work is not particularly pleasant. Learning things that are this hard does not put you in a flow state. It instead puts you in a state of strain, similar to what is experienced by a musician learning a new technique.
  2. I have gotten better at this process. The lecture I prepared today was the twenty-first such lecture I have prepared this semester. The earliest lectures were a struggle in the sense that my mind rebelled at the strain required and lobbied aggressively for  distraction. This morning, by contrast, I was able to slip into this hard work with little friction, tolerate the strain for three consecutive hours, then come out on the other side feeling a sense of satisfaction.

Recently, we have been discussing the deliberate practice hypothesis, which argues that knowledge workers can experience big jumps in value if they apply deliberate practice techniques to their work. My three-month experiment in timed, forced concentration provides a nice case study of this idea. I am now better at mastering hard concepts than I was before. The mental acuity developed from this practice translates over to the research side of my job, helping me more efficiently understand existing results and more deeply explore my own ideas.

To toss the ball back in your court, imagine what would happen if you replaced “graduate-level theory of computation” with a prohibitively complicated but exceptionally valuable topic in your own field, and then tackled it with the same persistence…


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

Learn the Landscape Before Putting on Blinders: How to Direct Diligence Toward Remarkable Results

February 5th, 2012 · 19 comments

The Five Year Eureka Moment

Daniel Kahneman met Amos Tversky in 1969 when Tversky came to Hebrew University to give a talk.

As Kahneman recalls in his 2011 intellectual biography, Thinking, Fast and Slow,  the two researchers hit it off and decided to pursue a joint project: figuring out if some people had more of an intuitive grasp of statistics than others.

They discovered that the answer, universally, was a resounding “no.”

“Our expert colleagues…greatly exaggerated the likelihood that the original result of an experiment would be successfully replicated,” Kahneman recalls of their results. “They also gave poor advice to a fictitious graduate student about the number of observations she needed to collect.”

“Even statisticians are not good intuitive statisticians,” he concluded.

This small observation led to a bigger idea: perhaps humans are hardwired with cognitive shortcuts to help them make sense of an uncertain world, and perhaps these shortcuts, in certain situations, consistently lead to irrational conclusions.

This hypothesis was profound. At the time, social science believed that humans were fundamentally rational, and only emotion, like fear or anger, could lead us to irrational behavior. Kahneman and Tversky were proposing that humans, on the contrary, were wired for illogic.

To support this view, they gathered over twenty different examples of cognitive shortcuts consistently leading to irrational conclusions. They combined the results into a paper titled “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.”

They published the paper in the journal Science where it has since become one of the most important studies in all of social science. (According to Google Scholar, it’s been cited over 13,500 times since its publication.) The paper formed the foundation for the field of behavioral economics, which won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002 (Tversky had died seven years earlier).

Here’s what caught my attention about this story. This paper — Kahneman and Tversky’s first publication on their theory — came out in 1974, a half decade after they first began pursuing the underlying ideas. In other words, it took them a full five years to refine a rough hunch, through systematic exploration and discussion, into an idea too good to be ignored.

They were, in short, diligent.

The reason I’m telling you about Kahneman and Tversky, however, is that I’m convinced that there must be more to the story…

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Closing Your Interests Opens More Interesting Opportunities: The Power of Diligence in Creating a Remarkable Life

January 29th, 2012 · 56 comments

The Banjo Player

Steve Martin made the comments around twenty minutes into his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose. They were talking about how Martin learned the banjo.

“In high school, I couldn’t play an instrument,” Martin admits.

“I remember getting my first banjo, and reading the book saying ‘this is how you play the C chord,’ and I put my fingers down to play the C chord and I couldn’t tell the difference.”

“But I told myself,” he continued, “just stick with this, just keep playing, and one day you’ll have been playing for 40 years, and at this point, you’ll know how to play.”

Learning banjo is not easy, especially at a time and place (1960’s California) where banjo lessons were not a possibility. Martin’s technique was to take Earl Scruggs records and slow them down from 33 RPM to 16 RPM. He would then tune down the banjo to match the slower speed and start picking out the notes, painstakingly, one by one.

Years later, Martin began to integrate the banjo into his act.

“The reason I played [banjo] on stage,” he explained in an ABC interview, “is because…I thought it’s probably good to show the audience I can do something that looks hard, because this act looks like I’m just making it up.”

As he kept playing and practicing he got better.

In 2009, Martin released his first album, “The Crow.” It won a Grammy. (Last month he was nominated for his second Grammy.)

This was 50 years after Martin picked up his first Banjo — not far off from the 40 years he had predicted as a teenager it would take him to “know how to play.”

Martin’s Diligence

One of the things that has always impressed me about Steve Martin is his diligence. In his memoir, Born Standing Up, he emphasizes this theme — defining diligence not just in terms of persistence, but also in the ability to ignore unrelated pursuits.

Martin was, of course, being facetious when he pepped himself up with the idea that it would only take 40 years to get good at the banjo (he was playing at a high-level in his act within 5 – 10 years of starting his training), but this statement reflects a deeper truth: getting good at something is not to be taken lightly; it’s a pursuit measured in years, not weeks.

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Beyond Flow

January 5th, 2012 · 39 comments

A Deliberate Day

Earlier this week, after three days of trying, I proved an interesting theorem. I was studying a certain type of scheduling problem in graphs. I was finally able to prove that without lots of knowledge about the graph no algorithm can solve the problem fast.

This morning I set out to extend this result. I wanted to know what happens if you have more knowledge. After about an hour, I had a partial answer: If the graph is small in a certain way there is an algorithm that can solve the problem fast — I know this because I found it.

Unfortunately, for more general structures I couldn’t make the math play nice. I had a hazy intuition, but attempt after attempt to make it concrete failed. I couldn’t hold the pieces straight in my head. (See here for more on the style of problem I’m talking about here.)

After another 3 – 4 hours I had to stop for the day.

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How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

December 28th, 2011 · 17 comments

The Deliberate Student

I just received the e-mail reproduced below from a computer science major who successfully applied the deliberate practice hypothesis to his academic work.

This is good food for thought for students home for Christmas break. As you think about your fall and make plans for your spring, remind yourself of the following essential truth:

When it comes to studying, there’s a huge difference between doing work and doing useful work. If you’re not putting a lot of thought into navigating this distinction, you’re probably mired in the former.

On to the e-mail…

  • “I’m a computer science major with little background in programming. I took a data structures course this semester, and scored below average on my midterm.”
  • “I actually studied pretty hard for that exam, but obviously failed to make the distinction between ‘hard work’ and ‘hard to do work’.”
  • “Last week, I decided to use deliberate practice to weed out my weak points by going over the more difficult problem sets in extreme detail. I ended up breaking the curve for the final.”[Cal: see here and here and here for more on applying deliberate practice to master technical topics.]
  • “I think the reason I failed to fully reap the benefits of deliberate practice on my midterm was that I avoided it (subconsciously), because it was mentally taxing. But that’s one of the reasons why it works.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre: Advice on Getting Better from an Accomplished Piano Player

December 23rd, 2011 · 93 comments

The Piano Player Confessions

I recently received a message from an accomplished piano player. Let’s call him Jeremy.

This is someone who majored in piano performance at music school, where he was one of the top two students in the major. He won state-level competitions throughout his college career.

Jeremy wrote in response to my recent article on the surprisingly relaxed lives of elite musicians. He told me that post agreed with his experience.

“I, and the other strong students in my department, did practice less than the weaker students,” he said.

He then went on to explain exactly what he and the other strong students did differently as compared to their less accomplished peers.

I reproduced his explanation below (I added the headings and edited the text slightly), as I think it offers profound insight into the difference between the type of work most of us do and what it actually takes to become so good they can’t ignore you.

As you read Jeremy’s strategies, ask yourself what it would mean to apply these same ideas to your livelihood, be it as a writer, programmer, consultant, student, or professor. When I performed this exercise I was embarrassed by the gap between what I should be doing (if I want to maximize my ability), and what I actually do.

Good food for thought as we roll toward a new year…

Jeremy’s Strategies for Becoming Excellent…

  • Strategy #1: Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.
    “The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”
  • Strategy #2: To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.
    “Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”
  • Strategy #3: Systematically Eliminate Weakness.
    “Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”
  • Strategy #4: Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.
    “Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by Kofoed)

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 2nd, 2011 · 48 comments

Bad New for Strivers?

Two psychology professors, David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed with a typically snarky title: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters. Many helpful readers were quick to forward me the link.

The authors of this piece start by asking a simple question: “How do people acquire high levels of skill?”

They note that research in recent decades — pioneered by Anders Ericsson, among others — has emphasized the importance of practice, and that these findings have been “enthussiastically championed” by popular writers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, perhaps due to their “meritocratic appeal.”

They then trip their intellectual trap: “This isn’t quite the story science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters.”

To support this view, they cite their own research, recently summarized in a paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science, which shows that people with larger working memory capacity end up better piano players.

I’m mentioning this article because we’ve been exploring what I call the deliberate practice hypothesis — the idea that applying deliberate practice techniques to a knowledge work environment can lead to huge gains in ability and value. The question at hand is whether this New York Times piece should give us reason to pause.

I read their paper, and my conclusion is that it’s not yet time to abandon deliberate practice to start searching for your innate talent.

Here’s why…

Forget About the Final 7 Percent Until After You Maximize the First 93

What struck me about Hambrick and Meinz’s paper is that it emphasized the necessity of deliberate practice for high achievement.

Consider, for example, the graph at the top of this post, which was pulled from their study. Both lines in the plot show how performance on a piano sight reading task improves with increases in working memory capacity, a trait that the authors argue is innate.

The red line shows this improvement for players with lots of deliberate practice and the blue line shows the improvement for players with less practice.

The key take away is that the  impact of deliberate practice dominates the impact of memory capacity. Practicing more makes you over twice as good. Going from low to high working memory capacity, on the other hand, yields only a minor improvement for an already well-practiced player.

When they finished crunching the numbers, and doing the proper controls for practice quantity, the authors found that this memory capacity accounts for less than 7% of a player’s ability at this task.

From a scientific point of view, this result is important as it clearly identifies a separation between innate and acquired skill.

But from a practical perspective, it’s essentially irrelevant. The fact that these findings are so rare, and that these authors are so excited about such a small effect size, only emphasizes just how small a role innate ability seems to play in achievement.

In other words, unless you are trying to become the world’s top piano sight reader, the 7% advantage of having been born with a vast working memory capacity is not going to play a major role in your achievement.

Now let’s return to the setting that concerns us here at Study Hacks: knowledge work. The deliberate practice hypothesis assumes that almost no one in this setting is working in a way that approximates deliberate practice. In the context of the Hambrick and Meinz study, most of your coworkers are therefore on the blue line from the graph above.

This, of course, only reinforces the idea that embracing deliberate practice can have a profound effect on your ability in this work setting, as this embrace will vault you to the red line. From this lofty perch, minor differences in innate talent won’t matter. Your overwhelming value has already been definitively established.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Figure from Psychological Science)