Updated on 04.01.11

Deliberate Practice: Improving Your Finances, Career, and Life

Trent Hamm

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.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Amanda says:

    I think deliberate practice, to get you ahead in your career, needs to be in a desired skill. Spending hour(s) a day practicing presentation skills would probably be wasted effort for a post-doc. Presentation skills are important, but everyone presents their own work – you aren’t “chosen”. Spending several hours preparing before a conference or job talk would be a better choice of time. Focusing on developing some new lab techniques and getting very good and efficient at them would probably be a much better use of time and practice and would definitely advance your career.

    Not everyone appreciates deliberate practice, so you have to be leery. When I was an accounts receivable secretary in high school, I was bored out of my mind and spent extra time making improved pricing spreadsheets in Excel. The other secretary was livid I was doing more with the job (making her look bad) and did everything she could to get me fired. Thankfully, it was just a summer job, but was one of the worst experiences of my life.

  2. Pat S. says:

    Indeed. One way to painlessly apply this type of deliberate practice is to use lists and check off sheets. I do something similar with a stock investing checklist and a schedule for posting on my site.

  3. Robert Muir says:

    Yep, deliberate practice is critically important.

    That said, practicing scales *can* be a waste of time. It depends on what you’re focusing on when practicing the scales. I focused on two things.

    1. Learning the notes of the scales on the keyboard.

    2. Much more important, learning the role that the weight of your hand and arm play in playing the piano. The monotonous repetition of practicing scales is where I learned not to push the keys down, but to play them with arm weight instead. This lesson allows you to vary the loudness/softness of the notes at will, effortlessly and consistently.

    Do not practice scales with the purpose of “playing” scales better. A totally useless occupation. Virtually no music incorporates straight scales as a component. (“Joy to the World” notwithstanding.)

    Hanon, Czerny, etc. are likewise useless IMO. Much better, if you have a great teacher, is to practice technique using actual music pieces that incorporate the technique that is desired to be mastered.

  4. EngineerMom says:

    My husband is a biochemist post-doc in a lab with more than three other post-docs. I disagree with your statement about presentation skills. DH has great presentation skills (I’ve been the recipient of numerous presentations, both practice and real).

    I do, however, agree with Amanda. The content of the presentation is one’s own work, so even if you have great presence in front of an audience, if your work is crap, you aren’t going anywhere.

    DH developed very good lab technique for some rather specific tasks, and was called upon during his grad student days to advise some industry types who were struggling with getting consistent results. Developing those bench skills was far more useful in making contacts than presentation skills.

    I would agree that there are certain skills that can make you stand out in a crowd of others doing the same work. When working as an engineer, I always noticed when my drafter was either very organized and methodical, or chaotic and paid no attention to detail. I was in the position at one point to be a reference for two drafters I worked with. One was very organized, and I highly recommended him to the prospective employer. The other was rather disorganized and tended to make the same types of mistakes over and over, and I was honest about that, too.

  5. Johanna says:

    This post seems like an attempt to force the real world to fit into some kind of Puritanical morality play. “Suffering is virtuous in itself, so if you want to get ahead, bring suffering upon yourself.” The world might work like that sometimes, but certainly not all the time.

    I agree with Amanda and EngineerMom that it would be a waste of time for a postdoc to spend an hour a day (let alone two) working on presentation skills, and that the situation Trent describes (in which the postdoc with the best presentation skills gets to go to more conferences) is particularly far-fetched. Both my PhD advisor and my postdoc advisor made sure that *all* the members of their groups had plenty of opportunities to go to conferences, because they know that when their students and postdocs make connections and move on to bigger and better things, that makes the advisors look good too. It’s definitely worth it to spend some time thinking about what makes a good presentation good and a bad presentation bad (don’t overload your slides with equations, people!) and, specifically, about how to talk about your own research to people at all different levels (the random friend of a friend who wandered by your poster at the poster session versus the big-shot professor who invented the technique you’re using), but an hour or two a day just working on general presentation skills is silly. There are so many ways to make better use of that time.

    As for music practice: I’m also learning a new musical instrument (the English concertina). A lot of the skills people have mentioned developing with scales and exercises (familiarizing myself with chords, intervals, and the notes in a key, getting an even tone, control over volume, developing the connection between myself and the instrument), I’m working on by playing simple tunes whose notes I already know well. I’m still improving just as much (at least, I think I am), and it’s a lot more fun.

    One of the best pieces of musical advice I ever got was that you have to bring your own enthusiasm to the music. You can’t count on the music itself to convey its own enthusiasm, and you can’t count on the other people you’re playing with to bring the enthusiasm for you. You can’t just show up and play the right notes in the right order and expect it to sound good – your heart has to be in it. It sounds corny, but I’m finding that it really holds true for me.

    So, if you can bore yourself out of your mind with scales and exercises and still have emotion and enthusiasm to bring to the songs when you play them, then more power to you. But if playing lots of scales and exercises is killing the joy of the instrument for you, you may be shooting yourself in the foot.

  6. kristine says:

    I agree with thew deliberate practice, and I would emphasize, if it is your interest, focusing on up and coming program skills. I teach art, and it is a distinct advantage that I can do 3-D animation, video editing, etc.

    However, I doubt that typing skills will put one admin asst. ahead of another. People skills, program skills, professional discretion, and meeting deadlines are everything there. And appearance, depending on the industry. Typing 90 vs 70 words/min is almost inconsequential.

    I absolutely get your point, and agree with it, but I would check out my analogies with people in the professions I choose to use as examples, or come off as out of touch. Friendly suggestion- get a journalism intern to work as a fact/reference-checker for you, Good for them, good for you!

  7. Ashlee says:

    I’m realizing more and more that deliberate practice is essential! But I still believe you do need to love (or at least enjoy) the skill you’re practicing. Working on being the best typist and phone-answerer may be good to get the best administrative assistant job but if you actually hate it, then you won’t really be the best you could be. I’m actually trying to figure out what skills I should actually practice. I’m in college so writing is something I’m already good at, but like Trent always says, you can get better and better. Which I plan on using a LOT in my career, and it’ll improve my grades and possibly scholarships too. Also study skills/time management would probably be good to practice and keep track of more too. Plus health boosting things, and of course money management skills. Now I’m definitely thinking I should come up with a few and do a short of “gold” star checklist! Any ideas guys?

  8. Availle says:

    I agree with the gist of the post: You need practice to succeed (in anything) and you should be focused on (the important aspect) of said practice.

    However, I think the presentation example is a bad one, for two reasons:

    1) I an academic environment, you are rarely chosen to give a talk. You only present your own work. And even then, if you have co-authors, it’s not sure that the best presenter will give the talk. In my field the unwritten rule is that the youngest co-author will present the paper.

    2) Presentation skills are nothing you can learn or substantially improve in a vacuum. If it were so, I would not have suffered through so many bad talks at so many conferences… To become a good presenter, first you have to give a lot of presentations and second you have to apply the feedback you get. And somehow I can’t believe that the busy people in any lab would be willing to give you feedback every day for two hours…

  9. eva says:


    But, as a note–this is actually exactly what I did: ..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.

    And consequently I was given many data entry projects, and developed a serious RSI which now prevents me from typing…at all. YMMV.

  10. Sue says:

    As a professional musician and teacher, I would advise anyone to totally ignore comment #3. Scales and arpeggios are the building blocks of a vast selection of classical repertoire on any instrument, and, after 35 years, I still practice them daily.

    I just finished reading “The Talent Code”, which discusses in depth the idea of deep practice, which can be applied to virtually anything. It basically picks up where Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” left off with the 10,000 hours idea. A fascinating read, and highly recommended.

  11. Justin says:

    Something I’ve been interested in (but still haven’t gotten around to starting…) is learning a new language- like REALLY learning it.

    I took a lot of Spanish classes, so I can manage with that, but I would rather learn something like Chinese, French or Russian. As the world gets smaller, I think knowing languages like these will be very helpful in getting a higher income, whether you’re a freelancer, own your own business or work for someone else.

  12. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    Although we didn’t have a name for it at the time, this worked well for my husband. 15 years ago, he was laid off. Having only a HS education and 2 years in the navy, his work experience didn’t prepare him to be competitive in the marketplace for jobs of equivalent pay. We had just purchased our first home computer the day before – he asked if he should cancel the order – I said “no”. I told him it was in his best interest, careerwise, for us to keep the home computer and for him to learn the thing inside out and backwards – not only the software, but the hardware as well. He ended up getting rehired by his old company about 18 months later…and with him he brought these new skills. Learning these skills put him ahead of the pack when they’ve had more lay-offs (and subsequent rehires). Though they just had another lay-off, he managed to hang onto a job with his company as he is now the unofficial IT guy due to the fact that he has maintained and kept up with these skills.

    For me, it didn’t work out so well. Having the software/hardware skills, fastest typing speed, furthering my business admin education, etc. did not get me the promotions I was hoping to get – in fact – more than once when I’ve tried to go from “pink” collar to “white” collar, I’ve been told that the promotions won’t come because I can’t be replaced in the job I was already doing. Subsequently, the promotions went to the less educated and skilled folks. The last time I was laid off, in 2003, I was told that the decision to lay-off was between me and another woman in the office. It came down to “who would be most able to find other employment”, and since they felt that was me, the less skilled person remained employed and I was laid off. Well, I still haven’t found a job – and have ended up starting two small home-based businesses. My income doesn’t come near to what I used to make ($32K a year), but I do the best I can.

    I guess my point is to not become TOO good at what you do, you may never be able to advance because of it.

  13. Mary says:

    That’s a very interesting way to illustrate your point. A friend of mine uses the same point when he is searching for a job. He is a marketer and his last job was in the t-shirt business. He has skills in a variety of areas but he wanted to stand out from all the other job applicants. He printed his resume on t-shirts and sent them to the companies he was most interested in working for. . . he was hired.

  14. Ashlee says:

    @Mary Oh my gosh! That’s genius idea! I love it when people think of creative stuff like that to stand out.

    Trent, can you possibly share some of the writing exercises you do? I found one site (oneword.com) that is fantastic and making you focus for 60 seconds on writing about one word. And I know this will definitely become part of my deliberate practice schedule for writing!

    Now I just need to work on some other area’s I need to deliberately practice on!

    If anyone wants to read more about this Cal Newport has done a few posts on it @ calnewport.com/blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *