Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that to master any subject you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. But according to the scientists who did the research behind Gladwell's famous dictum, the New Yorker writer didn't present their work quite right.
Of course, lots of practice is required for greatness. But not just any kind of practice will do. Ten thousand hours won't amount to much if you don't use them well. And according to at least one elite pianist, most people really don't do practice right.
The pros don't practice like you or me.
How do most of us practice? Think back to high school violin lessons, track, or Math Olympiad and you'll probably remember repeatedly running through scales, drills, or problems, identifying weaknesses, and then trying to fix those problems. That seems sensible, but according to to a fascinating, classic post from the blog of computer science professor and author Cal Newport, it's actually the wrong approach to practice.
This insight comes to Newport via a young elite pianist identified only as 'Jeremy.' A music performance major in college, Jeremy finished at the top of his class and won major competitions. He explained to Newport that what distinguished those like him who excel in their training from those who struggle is their counterintuitive but highly efficient approach to practice.
1. Avoid flow.
If you're a fan of pop psychology at all, you've no doubt heard of the concept of 'flow.' It's that fully absorbed feeling you get when you're doing something that completely captures your attention so that hours pass in a flash. Psychologists recommend we all seek out the enjoyable state sometimes.
But according to Jeremy, elite performers avoid it like the plague in the practice room. "The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you'll hear people 'playing' by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety," he explains to Newport.
In short, if you're in the flow you're not practicing. You're playing. That is fun but it won't help you get better.
2. To master a skill, master something even harder.
Practicing skills you're weak at is frustrating, so why would you ever make something you're already struggling with even harder? Because that's the best way to get better.
"Strong pianists find clever ways to 'complicate' the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms," Jeremy claims.
Some experts insist you should slowly turn up the difficulty level of new skills in order to build your mastery without burning out. That approach has its merits. But it's not what the best of the best do. Instead, when they spot a weakness they throw themselves at it headfirst by insisting they tackle the hardest examples they can possible handle. If they master those super challenging elements, they know they'll be ready to leap over any ordinary roadblock in their path.
So maybe consider giving that speech with your spouse heckling you from the sofa before the big presentation. Or switch up your running route to include the huge hill you've been avoiding. No, it won't be pleasant, but it will make you much stronger.
3. Don't run away from mistakes. Instead, chase a vision.
We often think of practice as ironing out kinks and removing errors. That's totally backwards, Jeremy says. Rather than eliminating mistakes, think of practice as an opportunity to actively build toward your ultimate vision for a skill.
"Weak pianists make music a reactive task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along," he says. "Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image."
You don't have to be a musician to put this advice to work. If you're trying to master public speaking, focus on the impression you want to leave on the audience, not the many errors you need to avoid. If you're learning to cook, think about your vision for the meal not the various ways to screw it up.
In short, forget high school practice. Almost everything you learned there was less than the best. Master better approaches to practice and you'll still need a lot of time to reach mastery, but it might be a good deal less than 10,000 hours.