The Practice of Practice

Perhaps the most important ability any person can have is the ability to practice, for by it almost everything else is possible.

Since having a daughter, I’ve discovered humans are born with the ability to practice. She practices new skills daily. One day it’s repeating the same sound over and over, another it’s rolling across the floor front to back, back to front. Lately it’s pulling herself to a standing position, then sitting down without falling over. She practices relentlessly, and it’s a good thing too, because practice is the only way she’ll master important skills like walking and talking.

As we get older, we tend to associate practice with drudgery instead of mastery. I remember having to “practice the piano.” Fifteen minutes seemed like an eternity. I knew I was getting better, but I didn’t take the same sort of joy in it that I see my daughter take when she keeps her balance after one more step than last time.

And it’s important that we find joy in practice, because practicing to the point of mastery is how we go from mere learning to leaving a legacy.

Much has been written about practice. Malcolm Gladwell argued in Outliers that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to go from being an expert to being a master. The Power of Habit describes the human relationship to such repetition, and in Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin cites case after case in which great men and women were the product, not of innate talent, but of relentless, deliberate practice.

Artist Chuck Close doesn’t mince words when he says,

I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.

Perhaps no advice is better for starting down the road of deliberate practice than Jerry Seinfeld’s, who once advised a young comic not only to write every day but to track his effort by getting a wall calendar and marking the days when he did write. The goal, Seinfeld said, was to create a solid chain-link fence of X’s.

Personally I have several goals that could use this sort of consistency, so for the last couple years I’ve been using a mini-calendar that I can tape to a corner of my desk and mark when I practice. Being so small, it’s easy to have one for each goal. It’s downloadable below for the year of your choice.

Regular, deliberate effort has helped me to write more and (I like to think) better. It’s easy to self-criticize and think our work needs to be improved before others see it, but nothing shuts down the creative instinct like constant judgment. Writing every day undermines the non-constructive habit of self-censoring, and builds—hopefully—long-lasting, phenomenal mastery.

Whatever your field of choice, deliberate practice is the key to deep mastery. Whether it be writing, programming, consulting, cooking, painting, inventing, or something else altogether, I challenge you to practice it every day.

  • Leah S. says:

    The Power of Habit made a strong impression on me and I have used paper calendars in the manner you describe for tracking habit progress – I used to have one on the inside of my medicine cabinet to track my flossing progress. Eventually I stumbled across an Android app which had the flexibility and specificity for goal setting that I wanted: I highly recommend it.

  • George says:

    Very good post! I have just recently discovered this app for tracking/making habits, I haven’t used yet but I am planning to start soon:

    Found your blog in HN, keep up the good work!

  • Ted Stockwell says:

    Well, I don’t think Chuck Close was a good choice. I totally believe that Chuck said ‘I don’t work with inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs’, because I find his ‘art’ to be totally uninteresting and uninspired. He’s made a lot of money by hustling and work hard, but I don’t think that should be the yardstick that we all aspire too.,

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