In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell popularized what many refer to as the “10,000 hour” rule in the book Outliers. Gladwell explained that in order to master a particular skill a person would need to practice that skill for approximately 10,000 hours. He used several case studies to make his point, including how Bill Gates and the Beatles both put in many thousands of hours of practice as they honed their skills.
The research Gladwell used to form his story came from a Florida State professor named Karl Anders Ericsson. Mr. Ericsson has dedicated most of his professional career to studying and understanding deliberate practice. In 2016 Ericsson published his own book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. In the book, Ericsson explains how Gladwell misinterpreted the research and, to be blunt, got most of the “10,000 rule” concept wrong.
Ericsson explains three different types of practice. The first is naive practice. This is the sort of practice most of us do when we play a sport or game of chess.
In fact, my kids are all into chess right now. The first games of the day start during breakfast and the last games typically end right before bedtime. I’d estimate my younger kids play 10 to 15 games per day. And while this isn’t bad, and they’re likely improving with experience, they will quickly reach a point where they’ll no longer improve no matter how many hours they play – even 10,000 hours.
Ericsson explains, “Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.”
The second type is purposeful practice. For practice to be purposeful, several characteristics must be in place.
- It must have a specific goal or purpose
- It’s focused
- The learner receives feedback
- The learner is pushed outside their comfort zone
- The learner is creative and works through temporary plateaus with new techniques and approaches
Here’s the way Ericsson summarizes purposeful practice, “Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.”
And last, but certainly not least, deliberate practice adds a few important things to purposeful practice.
- It’s done in a well-defined field where it’s possible to differentiate between an expert and a novice
- An experienced teacher/coach is actively involved by tailoring practice and learning techniques
Here’s how Ericsson explains it, “We are drawing a clear distinction between purposeful practice— in which a person tries very hard to push himself or herself to improve— and practice that is both purposeful and informed. In particular, deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.”
Another key point Ericsson stresses is the difference between knowledge and skill, which is a topic near and dear to me, and all of my Gemba Academy colleagues.
Over the years we’ve produced A LOT of continuous improvement content. We’ve published 2,554 articles, 308 podcasts, and more than 1,500 videos. That’s a lot of potential knowledge. But something we also work very hard at is ensuring our customers are able to practice what they’re learning in purposeful, and when possible, deliberate ways. We accomplish this through virtual and on site coaching. We also build in specific ways for learners to practice what they’re learning with targeted action guides.
In fact, we recently launched a new Lean Practitioner Certification course that has gained immediate traction. And while there is lots of knowledge taught…the most significant aspect of this program is the purposeful and, when possible, deliberate practice required to develop real skill.
Each student will be assigned an experienced lean coach who will tailor the practice accordingly through weekly virtual coaching sessions. No expensive travel is required, which means learners will be able to get back out to their gemba, or the place the practice should be done, immediately after a coaching session. And, as those that follow Gemba Academy have likely guessed, the entire Lean Practitioner Certification course is built upon the principles of Scientific Thinking/Toyota Kata.
How You Practice
The most important thing I have taken from Ericsson’s work is how easy it is to practice naively and how difficult it is to practice purposefully and deliberately.
And, to be sure, I personally think it’s just fine to practice things you enjoy naively. In fact, I don’t have any intention, or interest, in becoming a chess Grand Master… but I do enjoy coming home after work to an eager 9 year-old-boy who greets me, with a slightly mischievous grin, by saying, “Hey Dad, wanna play some chess?” As such, I most definitely continue to naively practice my chess game!