Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Deliberate Practice" is More Than Just Practice

The idea of "deliberate practice" has been around for years, but it's become something of a buzzword lately. You've heard the drill: you need to put in 10,000 hours of work, or about 10 years of focussed practice, to achieve expertise in anything -- from writing poetry to throwing darts. Which is why your writing mentors are forever telling you to write, write, write. Because the more you write, the sooner you'll become a master of your craft, write? I mean, right?

Well, not exactly.
I've just finished an astonishing, hopeful book called The Genius in All of Us, by David Shenk. Shenk argues that we all have far more capacity than we give ourselves credit for; that through focussed application we can all become very, very good at what we dream of doing -- not only that, but we can, like the London cabbies he writes about -- actually grow our brains. The whole idea of "talent" is a red herring. People are not born with talent -- not Mozart and not Ted Williams. They became legends because they practiced really, really, really hard. But here's the real kicker:

Shenk says these arrows should actually
be pointing in the same direction

It's not enough to play a lot of soccer or chess (it's not enough to write for three hours every day including Sunday). It's not enough to go to a good critique group and attend tons of conferences. It's not enough to simply want it very badly.

"Deliberate practice requires a mindset of never, ever being satisfied with your current ability. It requires constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond  one's capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again."
In other words, Shenk says that to attain expertise, you have to push yourself to failure, deliberately. Just like weight-lifters do in the gym. That's how you grow your writing muscles.

How many of us really do this, I wonder? I'm thinking about a series of exercises we might do as writers that would aim us toward small daily failures in a deliberate way. Do you all have any tricks you use to push yourselves beyond your comfort zone? And how does that work out for you? I'd love to hear about it.


  1. This is an interesting concept. I'm thinking of tenure cases in a university environment, where they want to know not only which journals you submitted papers to and were accepted, but which ones you didn't get into -- presumably higher-tier ones to show you are pushing yourself.

    I do think you need to constantly evaluate your writing process, your output, your support system and see where you are getting complacent. Constant vigilance!

    1. Not sure if I'm replying to Bluestocking or to Gail by clicking here, but I intend to reply to Gail.

      So ... I think it's probably easier to apply this advice to writing than to other pursuits, because when confronted with one's own writing -- especially after having completed it only recently -- it's impossible not to see the seams. You know what you intended, you know how you fell short, you know how many deletions and rewrites went into each ridiculous little sentence that only carries a tenth the weight it was meant to anyway. I know of only two writers who don't hate their own work, and they're both idiots.

      The constitutional self-loathing of the writing biz is indeed good for craft, because you're constantly fixing yesteryear's deficiencies and discovering new and more complex ways to suck. The trick is to not forget old lessons when mastering new ones. I don't know if that happens. It hasn't for me yet, but I'm young. And I look at the way some older writers become technically advanced in certain ways while losing touch with the fundaments of the craft, and wonder if they're just bumping up against the limits of the human RAM.

  2. Wow, all this time I thought I was just neurotic. Turns out I'm actually growing as a writer. :P

    Okay, that was cheeky, but I have often wondered why I'm never satisfied with anything I write. I've probably put in about ten years of serious writing now, and while I think I've mastered a few things and don't really consider myself a bad writer, I just can't ever get to a point where I feel really good about my writing. But maybe this is a good thing. *shrugs*

    I should probably read this book.

  3. I definitely believe that those who excel at something practiced out the wazoo. But I personally believe that some people are born with more aptitude in certain areas than others.

    In fact, did you know that they've done studies on some world-class atheletes and discovered that many have genetic mutations that allowed them to excel in their given sport? Lance Armstrong's lungs, for example, have a significantly higher capacity to take in oxygen than most people. Michael Phelps feet bend at the ankle a significant degree further than most people's. Anyway, not to discourage or anything, I just think it'a a fascinating topic! :)

  4. I agree with Janet. Definitely practice is necessary, no matter who you are, but some people have a genetic edge. Perseverance is also key though. You can be talented, but if you don't submit your work, or you give up after the first rejection, you won't get published.

  5. Pushing myself in terms of volume seems to help--like, the more I write per day (not just over the years, although it has been about ten of them for me), the better my writing gets. I think being open to instruction helps, though, because there's always more to learn.

  6. I both love and hate this post, lol. I think we're told a lot growing up to focus on our strengths and not our weaknesses. While this is great advice for the self-esteem, it doesn't help much when you're trying to improve. Thinking back on 2011, I learned three really important writing lessons that I believe pushed me forward in my writing. Two of them came out of deliberate study. I knew I was weak in the area of structure, so I read books on the subject and broke down my own novel to see where it was lacking and where it needed fixing. I also realized that I didn't quite understand tension and how it worked in a novel. So I studied books that had lots of tension to see how the authors utilized it, then applied those techniques to my writing. For me, the areas that I've grown the most significantly are the areas where I identified a weakness and deliberately sought to learn about it and overcome it. So I'd say Shenk is right on.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. You all are inspirational! @Brandon: I bet the expert swimmer or the professional flautist can be just as hard on themselves as us writers. @Susanna and @Janet: Shenk speaks to these issues of genetics, but he thinks the jury is still out. His discussion of Kenyan runners is particularly interesting. And, as I mentioned, the London cabbies whose brains actually GREW to accommodate their new spacial skills. That just blew me away. His argument is a lot more complicated than I've made it sound here, but basically it comes down to a complex interaction between genes and environment. I highly recommend this book.

    1. Gail,

      Just put this on hold at the library. Fascinating. It's encouraging to know that with dedicated work (and lots of failed attempts)we can achieve things beyond what we ever imagined.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


  8. This is great! Failure is important in any pursuit, so this concept makes sense to me. I'll have to check this book out. Thanks for sharing.

  9. This is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing it. :)

  10. I'm going to have to look up that book. Thanks!

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