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What You Must Know About Deliberate Practice

There's a huge upside to applying a little bit of science before working on what you love

“In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”

— Malcolm Gladwell

How long did you practise your craft today AND how did it go?

The Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson lays out a bold case for how long it takes to master a discipline like writing, painting or playing the violin (a case popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers).

According to Anders, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a discipline like playing the violin or writing.

Several years ago, I wanted to achieve my 10,000 hours. So I set a target of writing just fiction for three hours a day, every day.

I picked three hours a day because most fiction writers — even Stephen King — don’t write over three hours a day, every day.

I recorded how long I spent writing fiction each morning, using a timer on my computer, and I totalled up the hours at the end of the week.

Three hours a day adds up to twenty-one hours a week and approximately one thousand hours a year.

At this rate, it would take at least ten years to achieve mastery, provided I wrote seven days a week, 365 days a year.

No sick days, no holidays, and no time off.

I found it impossible to balance the demands of a job and family life with my 10,000-hours goal.

I resented my lack of progress, and my plan fell apart within weeks.

Then, while writing The Power of Creativity, I discovered how Mozart turned deliberate practice into part of his early life.

The Origins of Mozart

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) practised in obscurity for a mere 13 years (or 10,000-plus hours) before developing a style of his own and becoming popular.

Under his father Leopold’s guidance, the boy-genius Mozart learnt to play the piano, the clarinet, the violin, and other musical instruments.

He also learnt how to compose music.

Leopold Mozart recognised his son’s early talents and even believed he was a divine gift.

With his father, Wolfgang studied the great music of the day, and he travelled to the courts of France, Austria, Germany and England to perform alongside others.

He also emulated the popular musical styles of the musicians and composers he met.

In London between 1764–65, the boy Mozart spent two years practising his craft under the guidance of Johann Christian Bach (the eleventh son of Johann Sebastian Bach).

During a concert on May 19, 1764, JC took Mozart onto his lap and according to a witness:

“They played alternately on the same keyboard for two hours together…before the King and the Queen.”

Mozart imitated Bach’s playing style, discussed music at length with him, and musical scholars have drawn a strong link between some of Mozart and Bach’s works.

As he grew older, Mozart continued to play music, work with other composers and deliberately practise each area of his craft.

In doing this, he more quickly discovered where his true talents lay. He realised his future was not in playing church music in Salzburg for Archbishop Colloredo (a man who had little time for Mozart’s music) but in creating music for the people of Vienna.

He wasn’t a musician; he was a composer.

So, Mozart wrote to his estranged father who by now was dependent on Mozart for financial income:

“I am a composer… I neither can nor ought to bury the talent for composition with which God in his goodness has so richly endowed me.”

Then, Mozart spent the remainder of his life working towards one goal: becoming a great composer.

The Problem With Mindless Practice

Mozart is an extreme example of a creative master.

He possessed the innate talents to deliberately practise his craft as a young boy and not just as an adult.

In other words, as a child Mozart practised his art at a level that most people don’t reach until much later in life.

So while Mozart’s experience does not directly correlate with that of your typical creative, there is still something to be learned from it.

Although Mozart was a musical genius, the trajectory of his artistic career demonstrates that the quality of time you spend practising your craft is as important as the quantity.

He worked hard at perfecting his skills and played or composed almost every day for his entire life.

Understand that creativity is also more unpredictable than simple mathematics.

The famous ‘10,000 Hour Rule’ refers to everything creative people do, not just the time you spend with a violin or a pen in your hands. Putting in your time won’t have the impact you want if you aren’t doing so deliberately.

There’s little point in putting the hours in each day at your desk or in the studio if you’re unaware of how the practice will progress your craft.

Similarly, you’re wasting your time if you don’t evaluate your performance and get critical feedback from others about your work.

If you practise your craft each day without experiencing real progress, this creative stagnation will inevitably reduce confidence in your abilities.

It’s either that or you’ll find the process of doing the same thing day-in, day-out boring and eventually look for more exciting things to pursue.

The accomplished violinist and academic Noa Kageyama specialises in helping talented musicians audition for orchestras, and he also sits on the board at the Juilliard School in New York.

He describes his experiences of mindless practice:

“I remember struggling with the left-hand pizzicato variation in Paganini’s 24th Caprice when I was studying at Juilliard. I kept trying harder and harder to make the notes speak, but all I got was sore fingers, a couple of which actually started to bleed (well, just a tiny bit).”

That was one of my mistakes.

I kept trying to write the same stories, and all I got were rejection letters and failed competition entries.

I was too focused on fiction writing, and I didn’t count other types of writing, like blogging or copywriting, as counting toward my practice.

I also didn’t count the time I spent studying topics, like creativity, storytelling, and more as practice.

If a weightlifter lifts the same weights in the gym each day, their body will adapt, and if they continue to mindlessly practise lifting weights, they’ll never become stronger.

If you want the bond between your ideas to grow stronger and more powerful, you must increase the demands upon yourself and your work.

You too must avoid mindless practice if you want to master your chosen discipline.

Beware of penning the same stories, drawing the same pictures or playing the same songs each night.

The S-Shaped Curve of Creativity

The S-shaped curve of creativity represents the trajectory of creative output over time and your mastery over elements of your craft.

As you invest more hours into your discipline, you will move further along this curve.

The first stage of the S-shaped curve belongs to the beginner, to the outsider.

Here, you invest a significant amount of time and resources and for negligible returns.

Like a young Mozart, you imitate, copy others and look to the JC Bachs of your craft for advice.

Unless you possess his genius, it’s natural to think the quality of your creative output is low or derivative.

If you’re a writer, you’ll pen dozens of stories that are abandoned, rejected or end up in the bin.

If you’re a musician, you’ll compose track after track and then discard them.

If you’re a filmmaker, you’ll storyboard idea after idea for your film without ever shooting a scene that belongs in the final cut.

You may feel discouraged by your lack of progress and wonder if practising in obscurity is worth it.

Persevere!

Spend more time deliberately practising your craft and you will reach the second stage of the S-shaped curve of creativity.

As an apprentice, you feel more comfortable with your medium of choice, the task at hand and what you want to achieve.

You’re able to scale your creative ideas in quantity and quality too.

You finish a book, record an album or release a short-film that you feel confident about showing to your peers.

You’re an outsider, unburdened by the curse of knowledge.

You can approach your craft in a fresh and exciting way.

In Mozart’s case, as a teenager, he began to write compositions that alarmed his father because they were too complicated and too different from the popular music of the day.

At the third stage of the S-shaped curve, your voice is stronger and more confident and your style distinct.

As a craftsperson, it’s natural sometimes to experience setbacks and even feel discouraged about how far you have to go to master your craft.

In Mozart’s case, his setback came during a trip to Paris in 1777 when he was 17.

Despite Mozart’s obvious skill, he struggled to find a job that matched his talents.

After his mother died and he was in need of money, he returned to Salzburg. There, he took up a position working under Archbishop Colloredo as the court’s organist and also as keyboard instructor for aristocratic children.

Mozart felt trapped by his father, the job and his new boss.

If you’re luckier than Mozart, a supportive outside expert will help you work through this stage.

Your editor, producer or creative mentor can provide you with an outside view of your performances or work to date.

With their help, you can push past your inevitable setbacks. The final point of the S-shaped curve of creativity comes when you have mastered your craft (or an element of it).

You’re able to express your voice and your ideas in a way that compels others to listen to you. And you know what it is to finish working on an idea that succeeds.

While it may take just a few weeks or months to master an element, mastery over your craft as a whole could take a lifetime.

In other words, you could practise playing a song on a guitar and reach the final point of the S-shaped curve in your mastery of a song, while at the same time finding yourself at the first point of this curve in your abilities as a musician.

Mozart mastered his craft in his mid-twenties. After composing the opera Idomeneo, which premiered in Munich in 1781, he broke from the Archbishop and his father and moved to an apartment in Vienna.

Finally free, he composed great works like the Haydn Quartets and The Marriage of Figaro.

How to Deliberately Practise Your Craft

To deliberately practise your craft, you must push yourself in new and exciting directions.

This effort is slower, more tedious and painful than mindless practise, but it will help you avoid diminishing returns.

Kageyama writes:

“Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.”

You must be open to new ideas, even when you’re not sitting at your desk writing a first draft, in the studio or in front of the blank page.

Study creative masters in your subject of choice (as Mozart did with Bach), use what you discover to improve at your craft, and commit to a lifelong study of your chosen discipline.

Here’s how you can put in your ten thousand hours of practice without trial and error:

1. Set a Target

You must exercise your craft over and over so that it becomes subconscious but not unfocused.

To avoid mindless practice, set a challenging target for each of your sessions this week and this month.

For example, your goal for today’s deliberate practice session could be to perform the opening note of a solo piece or to write an introduction for your book.

When it’s time to practise, focus only on this target.

Tomorrow, pick a different but equally specific target.

Setting the aim for your practice sessions will give you confines in which to practise and something tangible to reach.

It will also help you apply your creative energies to specific areas of your craft, and as your deliberate sessions stack up on top of each other, you’ll accomplish more over time.

2. Focus Relentlessly on Reaching Your Targets

Mozart was at his desk every morning by seven am to compose.

You too must eliminate superfluous activities and anything that distracts you from the task at hand so that you can deliberately practise for thirty to ninety minutes, alone and without interruption.

Beware, too, of trying to accomplish more than one thing at once.

The productive gains of multi-tasking are a myth and attempting to write, paint or draw while checking email, talking to others and considering what you want to cook for dinner will stagnate your progress.

If you attempt to perform two tasks at the same time, understand that you can’t do both at once.

Instead, your brain rapidly switches from one task to next.

It gets worse: if you have to stop and think about just one of these tasks, you’ll slow down at both.

In the end, you reduce the benefits of deliberate practice and exhaust your limited mental resources faster.

3. Time and Track Yourself

Creative people often feel uncomfortable with the “right brain” thinking that goes with self-quantification, but it’s hard to argue with cold maths.

Remember, what get’s measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done.

And if you’re a professional creative, then you’re in the business of getting things done.

Timing the length of your practice will help you become more realistic about the amount of time you spend doing the work.

According to the Paris Review, Ernest Hemingway recorded his daily word count on a large chart, which he kept beneath a mounted gazelle head near where he wrote. He did this “so as not to kid myself.”

Record the amount of time you write, draw, paint or play in a journal or even a spreadsheet and then keep a running tally so as not to fool yourself.

This self-knowledge will help you identify when you are working hard but achieving little gain.

4. Troubleshoot, Iterate and Repeat

If you set a challenging target, there’s a high chance you won’t hit it on the first, second or even on the tenth go.

The trick is to critically analyse what’s holding you back from progressing. Be brutally honest with yourself.

Ask “Where did I go wrong?” and “What held me back?” Then use your answers to improve the manner in which you deliberately practise.

When Kageyama encounters difficulties while deliberately practising the violin, he pauses to reflect on how his practice is going and what he can do to improve:

“Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that clearly wasn’t working, I forced myself to stop. I brainstormed solutions to the problem for a day or two, and wrote down ideas as they occurred to me. When I had a list of some promising solutions, I started experimenting.”

I used his advice to adapt how I write.

For example, I regularly come across new hooks for stories and ways of writing better sentences I record these religiously in a creative notebook and review them often.

You too can avoid playing or practising from memory by writing down the lessons you’ve learnt about your craft and then using these insights to inform future practice sessions.

How Accountability Helps

Have you worked on a project and faced internal resistance to the task at hand, but when you’re put in charge of the project, you take ownership of it and your internal resistance dissolves?

A creative accountability partner will help you take ownership over your craft and deliberately practice.

Turn to a friend, a family member, or a peer in a writing group or band.

It’s helpful if your accountability partner is working on a creative project too as they are more likely to understand the process and what it feels like to be doing the work.

Their role is to check in with you regularly — once a day, a week, a month or as often as is necessary — to see how your work is progressing.

This check-in could be something as simple as a conversation where you say, “I wrote 5,000 words this week,” “I wrote five songs this week,” “I completed filming a sequence in my film this week,” and so on.

Often simply knowing you have to tell someone how you are getting on is enough to overcome procrastination and focus on your creative work.

With the support of a creative accountability partner, you’re less likely to break your commitment and stop practising if they encourage you to push through the difficult patches in your work.

The Essential Role of Critical Feedback

Critical feedback about your work will help you move along the S-shaped curve of creativity faster.

Bashing out a 50,000-page novel and then asking your mother, father or favourite aunt to read it and tell you that your novel is the “the next big thing” isn’t useful.

Instead, show your work to someone more accomplished than you and ask them to evaluate it coldly and ruthlessly.

If you’re a new writer, for example, get critical feedback on your work by hiring an editor to read what you’ve written and give you a frank evaluation of where you need to improve.

If you’re a musician, pay a more talented player or hire a producer to listen to your work and then explain where you need to work.

If you’re an artist, attend a class and ask the teacher to comment on your paintings.

Be Smart, Be Patient

Today, Mozart is hailed a “genius of geniuses,” but it’s worth remembering that even he deliberately practised his craft for 13 years before he produced popular works of his own.

He had to perfect his musical style, and he did so by relying on the guidance of mentors like JC Bach.

There are no shortcuts to creative success, even for Mozart.

If you’re ready to practise your craft for 13 or even 30 years, be smart about it.

Work on improving the elements of your craft that you’re weakest at doing; get outside help if you need to.

Seek out other creative masters you admire (whether living or dead), immerse yourself in their work and draw out lessons that you can use to improve your skills.

Set yourself targets for each of your practice sessions and, at least once a week, ask yourself how you’re progressing and what you can do to improve.

Because it all counts.

Creative Takeaways

  • Reflect on your routine for practising your creative work. Now ask yourself is it mindless or deliberate?
  • Prepare your four-step plan for deliberately practising your craft.

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