Performance Excellence: Deliberate Practice and 3 Models of Mastery

This post includes additional detail to support my post at ActiveGarage blog: Origin of Leaders Pt 3: Learning – Growing through the Crucibles in your life.  It is worth reading that post first for the background and context for this post.

How do we achieve mastery?

Gary Kasparov, Grandmaster

An entrepreneur friend recently commented to me an early conversation he had with a mentor:

“Alex, you have great potential”.
“Do you know what great potential means?”
“You ain’t done nothing yet”.

What does it take to turn potential into mastery?

Malcolm Gladwell has made famous the concept that 10,000 hours of practice leads to world class performance in his book Outliers.  I say this is not true.  There are plenty of people who have amassed over 10,000 hours and they are still poor or mediocre at what they do.  The truth is that these 10,000 hours need to be “Deliberate Practice” in order to achieve excellence.

What is deliberate practice?

“For starters, it isn’t what most of us do when we’re practicing” Geoff Colvin. The key piece of scientific literature on this subject is “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” by Anders Ericsson.

There are five things that characterize Deliberate Practice:

  1. It is designed specifically to improve performance
  2. It can be repeated a lot
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available
  4. It is highly demanding mentally
  5. It is not fun

There are three fields of human performance where methods for becoming world class have been developed and honed over hundreds of years.

Musicians, Sportsmen and Chess players have found practice models that lead to world class performance based on the inclusion of the 5 aspects of deliberate practice. We can bring these styles of practice into the world of business and leadership.

The Musician Model

Barry Douglas:
Ireland’s top Pianist

Great musicians become great by repeatedly copying others and comparing their results with the results of previous great musicians. Musicians spend much of their life reading and practicing music that is written on sheets.

How does the Musician Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Get to know inspiring community leaders.  How do they live their lives?
  • Read biographies and personal accounts (and blogs) of leaders you respect.
  • Practice reading speeches out loud and get a feel for how great speakers use words and structure

The Chess Model

Excellent chess players play lots, have deep knowledge on openings and expert play, have studied extensively the decisions taken by grandmasters – “what was he seeing that I don’t see?”. It is important that you not only copy, but also reflect on why the master followed this series of moves, what was the underlying strategy?

How does the Chess Model apply to learning to lead?

  • Review the decisions taken by great leaders.  What were they thinking?  Why did they take this particular decision?  What other options did they consider?
  • Always ask a question when in a conference or formal presentation.
  • Formulate your opinions on everything – news, stocks, impact of the iphone on society, most important values for children, role of the MBA, etc
  • “War games” Practice scenarios, what if? How would I respond to X, Y, Z? Prepare.

The Sports Model

Sports success requires intense physical and mental conditioning – keep your mind and body fit. Sports people repeatedly practice the basic physical skills; but this is not enough.  It is vital that performance on the big day of the competition is as high as during the practice.  Sports people need to work on their mind so that their performance under the glare of lights and pressure of competition does not reduce.

There are 4 ways to handle anxiety – top sports stars need to use the mature 2 methods: tolerate or enjoy – in order that their performance is not impaired by pressure.

How does the Sports model apply to learning to lead?

  • Enjoying anxiety or high pressure situations requires a belief system that sees your life as a continual journey of growth as a human being – whether you succeed or fail each pressure moment is an opportunity for growth.  Do you treat pressure moments and critical decisions as opportunities for reflection and growth?
  • Performance under pressure requires that you have practiced the basic moves to a degree to which you can trust yourself to perform – if reading financial statements and making quick judgements is important to your job – practice making these judgements on a daily basis – don’t just wait for your boss or client to ask your opinion.
  • Keep fit – athletes need to be fit, leaders need all the energy they can get.
  • Eat well – fruit and veg better than pizza and beer.
  • Sleep enough – I need 7 hours. I need to read 20 minutes to calm my mind to sleep.


What will your 10,000 hours be?

I take decisions every day, every hour. The decision to play it safe. The decision to be like all the others. The decision to copy how someone else would do it. The decision to work hard at being the same. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they have consequences. The least safe decision in the long term is to seek comfort now. The world will keep changing. Web 2.0, globalization increase the pace at which change is driving through all of our lives. My grandfather’s competition were the other males living in his town. My competition is every Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, Spaniard in the world. There will always be somebody able and willing to do the simple, commodity tasks for less pay. This is inevitable. There is no escape. A sinking ship will eventually sink. I can bail a little. I can pray. I can put up bigger borders. But I cannot stop that the boat will eventually sink. The effort that I put into delaying the sinking is effort that could have gone into making myself not a commodity, into being valuable for me.

What do you want to be doing 20 years from now?  In what domain are you going to accumulate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice?

My free (as of December 2012) Speaking As a Leader Program can help you begin a disciplined practice around public speaking.

6 responses to “Performance Excellence: Deliberate Practice and 3 Models of Mastery”

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  3. […] a few things is much better than mediocrity in many; and it is the route to mastery of big […]

  4. […] do I perform?  How do I learn best?  Don’t struggle with modes that don’t work for you. […]

  5. […] do I perform?  How do I learn best?  Don’t struggle with modes that don’t work for you. […]

  6. […] art, to math and science—consistently find that raw, innate talent is overrated. What matters is Deliberate Practice and coaching.  Malcolm Gladwell tells us that it takes 10,000 hours to become world […]

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