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This blog post is Part 13 in a 14-part blog series on discovering and living your mission. (If you missed the previous posts, you can find Part 1 here.) In the last few blog posts, we have explored some exercises to help us identify an area of expertise—the “how” part of the equation for discovering and living into your mission. In this blog post, I want to talk about what science has to say about how to actually become excellent at something.

When you ask people how they think people become excellent at something, most people say hard work or practice. But in reality, most practice fails to actually develop expertise. Maybe you have had this experience: You really want to become great at something, so you put in a lot of time in practice. But try as you might, you don’t see all that much meaningful improvement. Eventually, you probably quit, concluding that you don’t have the “talent” for whatever it is you were trying to do.

There has been quite a bit of research showing that lots and lots of accumulated practice generally results in a person developing an expertise at a particular skill. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell made popular the 10,000-hour rule, which says it takes 10,000 hours (or about 10 years) of practice to develop an expertise.

But it’s not just any type of practice. It has to be a particular kind of practice. I call this type of practice DEEP practice, and I think understanding DEEP practice is key to improving any skill. Our misunderstanding of DEEP practice is one of the biggest reasons we don’t get better at the things we do in our lives, even though we spend hours and hours working and practicing.

Most of our practice is shallow. Let me give you an example from my own life. I’m a below average basketball player. I played YMCA basketball when I was little, and got cut from my high school team. The highlight of my basketball career was winning a co-ed intramural championship in college. (I recruited really good teammates.)

There have been times in my life where I practiced a lot of basketball, and got frustrated because I didn’t improve much. But here’s what I would do to practice: I would start by doing a few layups, and then shoot jump shots for 10-15 minutes. Then I would look for a pickup game to join, and I would play games for about an hour.

This is shallow practice. Most of us do shallow practice. Because of our practice habits, we might spend a lot of time practicing the skill we want to improve, but we don’t see any improvement. Shallow practice = No improvement. We can do better.

To understand DEEP practice, remember the acronym DEEP:

  1. DEEP practice is designed: DEEP practice is designed specifically to improve performance. For any particular skill, there is usually a tried-and-true method for improvement. Often you need a teacher who has a large body of knowledge about a specific field to design practice activities. The teacher can also observe things about your performance that you might not be able to recognize yourself. Feedback on your performance is readily available.
  2. DEEP practice occurs at the edges: DEEP practice stretches you beyond your current abilities. This is key. Most of us, when we practice, get to a certain level of competence and then just stay where we are at. We stay in our comfort zone. This is not DEEP practice. DEEP practice targets mistakes, and occurs at the edges of one’s abilities.
  3. DEEP practice is engaged: DEEP practice is highly engaging mentally. It requires an intensive level of focus and concentration. Because of this, you can’t do DEEP practice for very long. 4-5 hours per day seems to be the upper limit that a person can do DEEP practice. A study of elite violinists in Berlin found that the best musicians only engaged in DEEP practice about 3.5 hours per day, separated over 2-3 sessions.
  4. DEEP practice is rePeated: DEEP practice needs to be repeated a lot. A high volume of practice is key. Ted Williams, one of the best hitters of all time, hit baseballs until his hands bled. Pete Maravich, one of the best basketball players of all time, would shoot baskets from morning until night. DEEP practice needs to be repeated, and it needs to be repeated a lot.

Think about your own life. Think about the areas that you are trying to develop an expertise. How DEEP is your practice? How could you practice in a way that is designed, engaged, repeated, and occurs at the edges? Can you see a connection between your practice activities and your expertise? How might what you discovered here inform your “how?”

Click here to read Part 14: Stepping Forward Into Mission

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