I’ve been singing in the shower almost every day for decades, and I’m still no Mariah Carey or Freddie Mercury. We’re told “practice makes perfect,” yet if all it takes is practice, why haven’t I sold-out concert venues for my vocals?
Since the early 1990s, Anders Ericsson has sought to further our understanding of how people — especially those who become experts — learn and master skills. He’s distilled many of his findings into his book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”
Ericsson’s research distinguishes between naive practice and purposeful practice:
- Naive practice: “I just played the piano piece ten times. I only played it correctly twice. I don’t know where I messed up, but I played it ten times.” (Sounds like my shower practice sessions.) Most people “practice” this way, but it’s ineffective. Repetition doesn’t equal practice.
- Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals that are useful for each practice session. It’s focused beyond your comfort zone, and you’re receiving feedback and able to judge whether the practice session has been successful.
Principles of Deliberate Practice:
- The field must be well developed with clear experts and amateurs, which allow you to know the skills you will need to develop and how people have already been successful.
- Deliberate practice requires a teacher or mentor who can provide practice activities to improve performance.
- Performing at near maximal effort, continually growing out of your comfort zone. It’s not fun; it’s uncomfortable.
- Well defined, specific goals, not aimed at “overall improvement,” but improving particular weaknesses.
- Full attention and conscious action.
- Feedback and constant little improvements based on feedback.
- Adopting and adapting mental representations, “which in turn [makes] possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem-solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.”
- Focusing on building and improving specific skills by concentrating on intermediate goals.
For fields without deliberate “training” options often found in musical pursuits or sports, you can apply the same principles in a looser sense:
- Identify the experts and those with great success in the field.
- Figure out why they’re exceptional, what they do differently than others, and the successful training methods that led to their expertise and mastery.
- Develop training techniques to emulate their abilities.
If true deliberate practice is not possible, try to come close to it.
For me, I think I’ll remain blissfully naive with my singing and focus my deliberate practice in other pursuits.