Practice only makes perfect if you’re paying attention

According to Philip E. Ross

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but “effortful study,” which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one’s competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player’s progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

According to Sharon Begley

Through attention, UCSF’s Michael Merzenich and a colleague wrote, “We choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, we choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense, and these choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.” The discovery that neuroplasticity cannot occur without attention has important implications. If a skill becomes so routine you can do it on autopilot, practicing it will no longer change the brain. And if you take up mental exercises to keep your brain young, they will not be as effective if you become able to do them without paying much attention.

An important article, “The Making of an Expert” by K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, is here.  According to the Harvard Business Review

Popular lore tells us that genius is born, not made. Scientific research, on the other hand, reveals that true expertise is mainly the product of years of intense practice and dedicated coaching. Ordinary practice is not enough: To reach elite levels of performance, you need to constantly push yourself beyond your abilities and comfort level. Such discipline is the key to becoming an expert in all domains, including management and leadership. Those are the conclusions reached by Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University; Prietula, a professor at the Goizueta Business School; and Cokely, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, who together studied data on the behavior of experts, gathered by more than 100 scientists. What consistently distinguished elite surgeons, chess players, writers, athletes, pianists, and other experts was the habit of engaging in “deliberate” practice–a sustained focus on tasks that they couldn’t do before. Experts continually analyzed what they did wrong, adjusted their techniques, and worked arduously to correct their errors. Even such traits as charisma can be developed using this technique. Working with a drama school, the authors created a set of acting exercises for managers that remarkably enhanced executives’ powers of charm and persuasion. Through deliberate practice, leaders can improve their ability to win over their employees, their peers, or their board of directors. The journey to elite performance is not for the impatient or the faint of heart. It takes at least a decade and requires the guidance of an expert teacher to provide tough, often painful feedback. It also demands would-be experts to develop their “inner coach” and eventually drive their own progress.

If you need more motivation, consider that although new neurons sprout in the adult dentate gyrus, a brain structure involved in learning and memory, they are unlikely to survive except when strenuously exercised.  (Use them or lose them.)  According to Tracey J. Shors

Interestingly enough, among the animals that learned in our conditioning tasks those that were a bit slow—in that they required more trials to learn how to master a task—ended up with more new neurons than animals that learned fast. Thus, it seems that new neurons in the hippocampus respond best to learning that requires a concerted effort.

Timing Counts

Why effortful learning should be critical is not clear. One theory is that tasks requiring more thought—or taking longer periods of training to learn—activate more vigorously the networks of hippocampal nerve cells that include these newborn neurons, and that such activation is key. I tend to favor this hypothesis for a couple of reasons.

First, a number of investigators have demonstrated that tasks involving learning, such as the classical eyeblink conditioning test, generally increase the excitability of neurons in the hippocampus, making them become much more active. Furthermore, this hippocampal hustle and bustle goes hand in hand with learning: the animals that show the most activation are the ones that best learn the task.

Next, it appears there is a critical window of time in which learning can save newborn neurons­—in rodents, between about one week and two weeks after the cells arise. One recent study in rats reported, for instance, that learning can rescue cells when the cells are seven to 10 days old. Training that occurs after that time is too late: the neurons are already dying off. And training before that time is too early to help. This learning window corresponds to the period when these newborn cells, which start life unspecialized, begin to differentiate into neurons—sprouting signal-detecting dendrites (which receive impulses from other parts of the brain) and axons (which carry messages to a neighboring region of the hippocampus called CA3). Around this time they also begin to respond appropriately to certain neurotransmitters—the chemicals that carry communications between nerve cells.

These observations suggest that the new cells must be somewhat mature and wired into networks with other neurons in the brain before they can respond to learning. When learning is difficult, neurons throughout the hippocampus—including the new recruits—are fully engaged. And these recruits survive. But if the animal is not challenged, the new neurons lack the stimulation they need to survive and then simply fade away.

For another discussion of effortful study, see here.

It’s reminded in the comments below that “Practice makes habits.” Very true. So if you practice doing something poorly, you’ll make a habit of it doing it poorly, until eventually you do it poorly perfectly.

There’s a big difference between practice and deliberate practice.

According to Rob Redmond

As I wrote previously, I trained thousands of people in martial arts. I ran a Karate club at a local university. I taught people Karate both in the US and Japan. During that time, I saw people join up and ascend to the heights of skill in six months. I saw other people who trained daily for hours for decades struggling to achieve mediocrity.

And no, Tool, hours of practice will not make me into whatever I want to be. I put in 14,000+ hours on a karate dojo floor myself with some of the best karate coaches on the planet. I was never better than mediocre. I just don’t have “it.” But I have coached people who do, and there is no way to deny talent when you see the difference it can make.


As for my experience as a martial arts instructor – I don’t think observing 1000’s of my students, all of whom I loved dearly as friends, and noting that some of them obviously had an innate ability to learn and perform karate movements or use good timing and distancing to hit other people seemingly at will has anything to do with stereotyping. I saw nothing about them that could predict they had the talent in advance of them attempting it.

Mark Horstman responded

And, from what I read in this thread, a lot of folks don’t know what Colvin meant by practice. It’s NOT what most people think..and Rob, I think you’re wrong here. Those guys you were coaching weren’t engaged in deliberate practice, they were just practicing. BIG difference.

I am convinced that I am perceived the way I am perceived today by many (including some in this thread) due to years and years and years of deliberate practice. I have been so focused on managing and improving my skills and measuring my growth it’s cost me family and friends. Grinding, negative feedback-filled deliberate practice. Sadly or not, no complaints here.

More blog entries about Learning.



  1. According to Serena Williams, after winning the 2014 WTA finals, it was “good for me to lose that match” (against Halep in the round robin), “because now I know what to go home … and work on once pre-season starts”.


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