Deliberate Practice: Improving Your Finances, Career, and Life

I’ve mentioned deliberate practice in the past, but after several experiences in recent days, I felt like it was a vital topic worth revisiting.

What’s deliberate practice? I first learned about the topic from Stephen Dubner at the New York Times, who was writing about how Alex Rodriguez built his baseball skills. Dubner noted that not only did Rodriguez practice in abundance, he applied three basic tenets to his practice:

1. Focus on technique as opposed to outcome.
2. Set specific goals.
3. Get good, prompt feedback, and use it.

This scene from The Karate Kid illustrates that idea:

I described it in this way:

Many people, when they want to learn how to play a guitar, pick it up and try to bang out some awful rendition of Stairway to Heaven. They’ll practice at that song some, trying it over and over again, and they might eventually figure out how to make it passable, but playing anything else is going to be rather difficult and the person (unless they have obscene natural talent) will never get good enough to play in front of others and earn a positive reaction.

On the other hand, if you sit down for an hour and just work on a single chord, then spend another hour just working on one other chord, then spend two or three hours alternating between the two, you’ll begin to master the basics of how to actually play a lot of things. Add a third chord to that and you can play most of Tom Petty’s songbook. Add a couple more and you can play virtually every well-known pop and rock song of the last sixty years.

So let’s start there, with music. Just be patient – we’ll get around to some personally applicable stuff in a bit.

As many of you know, I’m learning to play the piano. I take lessons once a week from a wonderful piano teacher, and I do my best to practice during the week.

When I have practice time at home, I can choose either to attempt to play a specific song – say, Clocks by Coldplay – or I can choose to work on things like mastering jumping back and forth between chords over and over again, or play scales over and over again, while focusing on getting the finger work for these repetitive moves down cold.

The first kind of practice – playing the songs – is a lot more fun. It’s enjoyable to tackle a song that I really like. The other type of practice – deliberate, repetitive tasks – can be really boring at times.

What’s interesting, though, is that when I go to piano practice and run through what I’ve been working on, I’ll find that if I work on a particular song all week, I’ll be better at that song, but I’ll be just as bad – if not worse – at other songs. On the other hand, if I work on those boring deliberate tasks all week, I might not be as good at that one song, but I’ve usually improved at it and I’ve improved at every song.

The deliberate practice is boring, but it pays off.

The same thing is true with public speaking, appearing on the radio, and podcasting. In each of those cases, it’s always most fun to think about and practice the message I want to deliver as a whole.

Instead, I find that if I practice deliberately – focusing on specific things like speaking at a slower cadence, using voice practice to lower my speaking voice a bit, using good posture to project my voice, and improving the language of my message – not only does the presentation at hand improve, but so do all future presentations, impromptu or otherwise.

So how does this help me maximize my career and my income?

First of all, modern workplaces do not encourage deliberate practice. Most modern jobs simply want people to be competent in a lot of areas, not excellent in one or two. Deliberate practice focuses on excellence in a specific area, so your employer isn’t going to invest time and money in your deliberate practice.

On the other hand, people who do excel at a particular skill tend to rise quickly, earn more, and often eventually become independent contractors, earning even more. Think about it this way. If you have several new employees at your company and one of them is astoundingly good at some particular attribute of their job – say, speaking or managing the books – that person is going to stand out. They’re going to be first in line for promotions and raises and they’re most likely going to be the one that has the door open to them for new career paths.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that you’re in an adminstrative assistant pool at work. Most of the people in the pool can type at about seventy words per minute, as can you. However, you go home at night and put in an hour of deliberate practice to improve your typing speed and eventually you inch up to ninety words per minute. You’re now the most productive typist in the pool. A permanent adiminstrative assistant position opens up. Who’s going to get it – and get the financial rewards that go along with it?

Here’s another example. Let’s say you just got a postdoctoral research position at a university and you’re in a lab with three other postdocs. Each day, you spend an extra hour or two focusing on honing your presentation skills. Eventually, you’ll be outshining the others when it comes time to present your research, and your lab head will notice this. You’ll be chosen to go to conferences to present the lab’s work, enabling you to make contacts that will eventually further your career while the others are left behind.

Applying deliberate practice to key skills you’ll use in your career path – or even simply on skills you enjoy building – can have a powerful positive effect on your career trajectory, earning you more money and more opportunities.

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