Can deliberate practice make “anyone better at anything”?

Posted on Posted in Process Improvement

I recently passed the inburgering exam in the Netherlands. Inburgering means assimilation in English, and the test that requires that certain immigrants learn how to read, speak, and write on a basic level (A2) as well as understand Dutch cultural norms. This is an updated post from my blog, Possibly Netherlandish, that discusses using deliberate practice techniques from Peak: The New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson to improve my Dutch.

In August 2016, I introduced specific goals to improve my Dutch. The idea came from a Freakonomics podcast, How to Become Great at Just About Anything. I felt that I needed to do something to improve my Dutch. I kept advancing in my classes, but just barely, and I couldn’t shake the fear that I had plateaued some time ago.

The podcast interviewed Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, to discuss how (whether?) it was possible for anyone to become an expert at anything. Steve Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago sums up Ericsson’s premise as:

“…absent hard work, no one is really great at anything.”

If you start with someone with talent, and another person who has no talent, the person with talent works just as hard as the person who has no talent, almost for certain they’re going to have a better outcome. So, if our measure is true virtuosity, true expertise, it seems unlikely to me that this populist version of “oh, you don’t have to be good; you just have to try hard,” I think that’s probably a fallacy. But I firmly believe the other direction, which is that: if you don’t try hard, no matter how much talent you have, there’s always going to be someone else who has a similar amount of talent who outworks you, and therefore outperforms you.

What really drew me in was one of Ericsson’s examples: the show interviewed a Danish psychotherapist, who wanted to do an experiment testing Ericsson’s deliberate practice technique. Her goal wasn’t related to her profession; she wanted to SING like Whitney Houston. So, she tracked down the best singing coach in Copenhagen, and was somehow able to persuade him to instruct her. Freakonomics aired a tape of her singing before the lessons, and she sounded exactly like a Danish psychotherapist who wanted to sing like Whitney Houston. After a year and a half practicing, she was ready to quit. She wasn’t able to get the “big” sound that she wanted, but her coach kept encouraging her – unlike her, he could tell she was improving and was close to a breakthrough. Long story short: she improved enough to have a hit on the Danish charts. Who wouldn’t want learn about deliberate practice after hearing that?


It's not as easy as it looks...
She made it look so easy…

How does it work?

In Peak, Ericsson states that how you practice is critical. Purposeful, or deliberate practice, must employ the following methods:

  • Well-defined, specific goals. “Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.” Ericsson’s example of an insufficient goal, is wanting to decrease your golf handicap by five strokes. An example of a specific goal would be to create goals that help you assess what is necessary to decrease your golf handicap: e.g. by increasing the number of drives landing in the fairway, and then determining what needs to be done to achieve that.
  • Focus. It is not just the hours of practice that makes someone exceptional in their field, it’s how those hours are spent. Someone who does not go back and specifically address their mistakes is not going to improve past a certain level. Ericsson provides an example of someone learning to play tennis for fun: first, he would practice hitting the ball against the wall, then take lessons, and eventually go out to play games with friends. Basically, that tennis player can become competent over time but will continue to have weaknesses that a skilled player can exploit, like a weak backhand. If that player never specifically practices his backhand, it will not improve no matter how many games he plays.
  • Getting out of your comfort zone. “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” My partner is an avid soccer player. She’s crazy about it – if she’s not playing soccer, she’s reading, watching or thinking about it. She feels that while it’s uncomfortable to be one of the weaker players on a stronger team, it is the only way to improve. On better teams, she gets more feedback, and she believes better players elevate her game. Without challenging yourself by getting out of your comfort zone, the chance of plateauing increase. This plateau is often mistaken for a limit in someone’s ability, but Ericsson states that it occurs because that person did not challenge herself enough to push through and improve.

How successful was I in implementing Ericsson’s ideas?

Overall, I felt that this experiment was worthwhile and did help me improve my Dutch a bit. Also, a year later, I passed the Inburgering exam, so that’s something. However, after finishing Peak, I realized that my goals fell short of deliberate practice. They weren’t specific enough, and I substituted quality for quantity. I should have created a goal around each practice that would allow me to assess how successful that practice was. For example, a better goal would be to improve my writing in Dutch by creating a test of irregular verbs, taking it once a week, reviewing my mistakes and gradually improving my performance.

As for focus, I didn’t solicit feedback as much as I should have. That feedback would help determine what I practiced. I passively watched television, without much assessment of whether I had understood what was said. When I spoke Dutch either with my partner or at the language lab, I wasn’t always corrected, and if I was, there was little follow up on the mistakes I had made.

The language lab did get me out of my comfort zone. It was something that I enjoyed more than I thought I would, since friendly people and beer are never a bad combination. However, a better way to improve would be to discuss a variety of topics with patient Dutch speakers or people who have successfully learned the language.

What I enjoyed most about this book is its optimistic premise – that a person excels through deliberate practice rather than relying on innate talent. My main take away is that a month-long goal is insufficient. The work needs to be done consistently with commitment and focus to see sustained improvement.


For the goals I set see the 31 Day Dutch Challenge

Follow me on Twitter: @egeltjeconsult

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