July 3rd, 2020 · 26 comments
I was saddened to learn earlier today that Anders Ericsson, creator of deliberate practice theory, recently passed away. Longtime readers of mine know that his work greatly influenced me. I never met Anders in person, but we shared a sporadic correspondence that I cherished. I thought it appropriate to offer a brief personal tribute to his powerful ideas.
Anders tackled the fundamental question of how experts get really good at what they do. The framework he proposed, which clarified a lot of confusion in the field at the time, introduced these two big ideas (among others):
- When trying to get better at a skill, an effort called “deliberate practice” is most effective. Deliberate practice, which aims to isolate areas that need improvement and then stretch you past your comfort zone to induce growth, is the critical activity that helps individuals move past amateur status in many endeavors, both physical and cognitive.
- To reach an expert level often requires a lot of deliberate practice. In some of Anders’s more engaging studies, he would sift through accounts of so-called “prodigies”, and identify, time and again, prodigious quantities of deliberate practice surreptitiously squeezed into their early childhood years. As his New York Times obituary recalls, Anders once summarized this finding as follows in an interview: “This idea that somebody more or less discovers, suddenly, that they’re extremely good at something, I’ve yet to find even a single example of that type of phenomenon.”
I first came across Anders’s work in Geoff Colvin’s 2008 book, Talent is Overrated, which blew my mind, and led to a deep dive into deliberate practice theory. It provided an antidote to an increasingly frenetic, digital-mediated world, where everyone was trying to find their passion or seek to somehow transmute social media busyness into accomplishment. It explained a lot about what seemed to resonate for me when I reflected on my own life, or surveyed those I admired around me at MIT or in the biographies of big thinkers I was devouring at the time.
The theory laid the foundations in my own writing for the idea that the type of work you’re doing matters (elaborated in Deep Work), and that meaningful accomplishment often requires the diligent application of such efforts over a long period of time (elaborated in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.)
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July 21st, 2017 · 19 comments
An Insightful Life
Claude Shannon is one of my intellectual heroes.
His MIT master’s thesis, submitted in 1936, laid the foundation for digital circuit design. (My MIT master’s thesis, submitted 70 years later, has so far proven somewhat less influential.)
His insight was simple. The wires, relays and switches that made up the types of complex circuits he encountered at AT&T could be understand as the terms and operators of logic statements expressed in the boolean algebra he encountered as a math major at the University of Michigan.
Though simple, this insight had huge impact. It meant that circuits could be designed and optimized in the abstract and precise language of mathematics, and then transformed back to soldered wires and finicky magnetic coils only at the last step — enabling staggering leaps in circuit complexity.
But he wasn’t done. A decade later, inspired in part by his wartime research efforts, Shannon developed information theory: a mathematical framework that formalizes both techniques and fundamental limits for reliably transmitting information over noisy channels.
(For a popular treatment of this theory, see this or this; for a technical introduction, I recommend this guide).
Put another way, Shannon’s master’s thesis laid the foundation for digital computers, while his information theory paper laid the foundation for digital communication.
Not a bad legacy.
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May 24th, 2016 · 38 comments
The Deliberate Creative
Last month, Scott Barry Kaufman posted an article titled “Creativity is Much More Than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice.”
Kaufman was responding to Peak: Anders Ericsson’s recent book on expert performance.
At the core of Kaufman’s critique is the idea that deliberate practice does not work well for “almost any creative domain” [emphasis his].
As he summarizes:
Deliberate practice is really important for fields such as chess and instrumental performance because they rely on consistently replicable behaviors that must be repeated over and over again. But not all domains of human achievement rely on consistently replicable behaviors. For most creative domains, the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and consistently replicable behaviors are in fact detrimental to success.
This discussion caught my attention because my day job is the quintessential creative endeavor. As a theoretical computer scientist, I solve math proofs for a living. To conjure something that makes it past the brutally competitive peer review process in my field usually requires an original approach that makes progress where other really smart people have been stuck.
This reality is why I’m able to draw with some confidence from a well of personal experience when I note that I strongly disagree with Kaufman.
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April 29th, 2016 · 15 comments
Top Performer Returns
Last October, Scott Young and I launched an online course called Top Performer, which teaches knowledge workers how to apply the insights of deliberate practice to excel professionally. The first session of the course was a big success, so, by popular demand, we’re going to open up a new session later in May.
To help prepare for this new session, Scott and I wrote a series of articles that share the most interesting insights we’ve learned from the over 1000 individuals who have gone through our curriculum to date.
We’ll be posting these articles over the next two weeks only on our email newsletters (to keep our respective blogs tidy).
Therefore, if you’re intrigued by the idea of deliberate practice in the workplace, sign up for my newsletter using the form at the top of my right sidebar.
If you already receive my posts in your inbox from me (e.g., and not from Google) then you’re all set. Similarly, if you already receive Scott’s posts by email — and if you don’t, you should! — you’re also all set.
What to Expect from the Launch Process
I know some of you don’t like when I sell things (e.g., this course, my books), so I want to let you know in advance exactly what to expect from this launch process…
The article series mentioned above will be published on our email lists over the next two weeks. After those two weeks, we will briefly open Top Performer for sign-ups, so there will probably be a flurry of 2 – 3 posts/reminders on the blog and email list surrounding that short window.
And that’s it.
November 9th, 2015 · 24 comments
I’m currently re-reading Genius, James Gleick’s celebrated biography of physicist Richard Feynman.
I was particularly drawn to the opening chapters on Feynman’s childhood in Far Rockaway, Queens. It’s tempting when encountering a brilliant mind like Feynman’s to resort to cognitive hagiography in which the future Nobel laureate entered the world already solving field equations.
But Gleick, whose research skills are an equal match for his writing ability, uncovered a more interesting origin tale…
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June 16th, 2014 · 64 comments
As a self-observant theoretician, I’ve learned that my research success depends on two intertwined factors: (1) my ability to digest and understand diverse results in my field; and (2) my ability to persistently attack good problems once identified.
Through practice over the past few years, I’ve become adept at the second factor. My deep work hours per week are quite high and have recently led to a correspondingly high rate of producing publishable results.
A nagging concern of mine, however, is that I’m not as good with the first factor. Indeed, I’m often frustrated with how long it takes me to digest interesting new results (and how often I end up aborting the process).
This concerns me because in my field voracious reading is required to keep the pipeline of good problems full.
What’s going wrong?
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June 1st, 2013 · 27 comments
On Reading On Writing
Every few years I re-read On Writing, Stephen King’s professional memoir. It helps me reorient to the reality of becoming better at creative endeavors.
Here’s King, talking about his initial efforts to publish his short stories in magazines:
“When I got my rejection slip…I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor [phonograph]…and poked [the rejection slip] onto to the nail…By the time I was fourteen (and shaving twice a week whether I needed to or not) the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. By the time I was sixteen I’d begun to get rejection slips with handwritten notes a little more encouraging.”
It would be another ten years before King sold his first novel, Carrie.
The obvious lesson of this story is that King wrote a lot before he became good. The visual of rejection slips filling a spike is vivid.
But there are two other important elements lurking, uncovered only with a deeper reading of On Writing.
First, King didn’t just write, he tried to get people to pay for his writing, by submitting it to magazines. The nice thing about money (as I elaborate in SO GOOD) is that people don’t like to give it up. Therefore, when you ask people to give you money in exchange for your product, you’re going to get brutally honest feedback.
Second, King was careful to always aim above, but just barely above, his current skill level. His first published story was in a fanzine — the 1960’s version of a blog. He moved from fanzines to second-tier mens magazines like Cavalier and Dude. After he cracked that market he moved on to top-tier mens magazines and top-tier fantasy and science fiction publications. Only once he could consistently hit those targets did he succeed in selling his first novel to Doubleday.
Let’s step back and summarize these key points of King’s training: lots of practice, driven by honest feedback and challenges just beyond his current skill level.
King’s rise to writing fame is a perfect case study of deliberate practice in action.
(Photo by snck)
April 8th, 2013 · 27 comments
The Deliberate Practice Pilot Program
I’m fascinated by deliberate practice.
I’m convinced this advanced practice philosophy can help knowledge workers rapidly pick up skills that will make them invaluable and provide control over their career. It is, as I’ve argued here, in my last book, and in the Wall Street Journal, perhaps one of your most effective tools for building a working life you love.
But it’s also really hard to figure out how to adapt these ideas to the world of knowledge work.
I decided a good way to proceed with my investigation of this topic would be to: (1) take my best shot at distilling what I know into a formal system; then (2) recruit a group of people, from a variety of different knowledge work careers, to try out my recommendations and report back what they experienced.
This is exactly what I’m going to do.
Over the past few months, I’ve worked extensively with Scott Young (a master of rapid learning), to create a four week pilot program that walks you, step-by-step, through our best understanding of how to identify key skills and then apply deliberate practice techniques to dominate them in a small amount of time.
Now we want to recruit an (extremely limited) group of participants to give this pilot course a try and tell us how it went. In other words, I want real people, in a variety of real jobs, to kick the tires on these ideas Scott and I have been writing about for so long.
Learn More About This Experiment
I don’t want to clog Study Hacks with tons of logistical posts about the experiment — more details, how to sign-up, etc. — so I created a separate e-mail list for this purpose. If you’re interested in learning more about this pilot program click the link below to sign-up for the list.
This will be the only place where you can hear more details and receive information about the first-come-first-served sign-up that will likely happen as soon as next week.
Click here to sign-up to learn more…
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…