The importance of deliberate practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 12, 2009
Filed in Anecdotes

It took me a little while to work out what was happening. I snapped my first photo of the motor scooter with clip board attached in Soho but I only got a fleeting glance and then he was gone.


But my next sighting was far more informative. This time the motorcyclist was parked so I asked about the clipboard and what he was doing. It turned out he was learning to become a London taxi driver; he was learning was they call, “the knowledge.”

It takes between 2 and 4 years to learn the 320 routes (they call them runs) required to pass the tests. The student is given 20 runs at a time to memorise and they ride their scooters along the routes remembering the vagaries of one-way streets and where the traffic jams happen, as well as the notable sights a tourist might want to see. The guy I was chatting to said the first 20 runs seem like a jumble but when you learn the next set of 20 patterns begin to emerge as one run partially coincides with another.

I’ve just finished reading Geoff Colvin’s book, Talent is Overrated. His central theme (which I believe is shared by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which I haven’t read yet), is that high performers are not merely naturally talented (and perhaps talent has little to do with it), but they also engage in deliberate practice. That is, they design and perform a program of activities focussed on developing specific skills. For these future black cabbies they were deliberately developing their navigation skills in the pursuit of passing a test and at the same time actually enlarging part of their brain.

In Colvin’s book I was taken with the story of how Benjamin Franklin developed himself a program for improving his writing skills.

“First, he found examples of prose clearly superior to anything he could produce, a bound volume of the Spectator, the great English periodical written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Any of us might have done something similar. But Franklin then embarked on a remarkable program that few of us would ever have thought of.

It began with his reading a Spectator article and making brief notes on the meaning of each sentence; a few days later he would take up the notes and try to express the meaning of each sentence in his own words. When done, he compared his essay with the original, ‘discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.’

One of the faults he noticed was his poor vocabulary. What could he do about that? He realized that writing poetry required an extensive “stock of words” because he might need to express any given meaning in many different ways depending on the demands of rhyme or meter. So he would rewrite Spectator essays in verse. Then, after he had forgotten them, he would take his versified essays and rewrite them in prose, again comparing his efforts with the original. ”

This has got me thinking about what would a program of deliberate practice for developing your storytelling skills look like. Any suggestions?

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. I suspect that deliberate practice can play a role in most professions. The lives of athletes and professional musicians are filled with more practice than actual performance. Public speaking is a skill that can’t be improved without regular practice. Writers are told to write, write, write every day, just for practice. Some occupations require not just the practice to acquire a certain level of knowledge and expertise to perform, but ongoing practice to maintain or continuously update knowledge and expertise.

  2. Shawn, what a timely post. The London cabbies in-training are a powerful example. Two points jump out at me – an example of excellence, and deciphering patterns. Both are essential (aside from the work).
    Story-telling varies by the mode of communication (e.g. dance, opera, business meeting, cover letter). Each mode has its own definition of excellence, separate from the story, yet just as essential. How many times have we attended a lecture with blurry photographs or a meeting with a poorly formatted PP? Or the opposite – great photos, no story.
    Great storytellers command both the mode and the subject of the story.

  3. TooManyTaxis says:

    I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which talks about the 10,000 hour rule,most anybody who is world class at anything will have practised near 10,000 hours to get where they are.I never once thought about London Taxi drivers doing the knowledge whilst reading this book but it kind of makes sense.You would think i would have thought about this as I am a Taxi driver myself….Found you on Twitter by the way.

  4. I’ve been asking myself precisely the same question! I’m already a believer in “practice,” meditation and yoga make it absolutely evident. I would love to learn more about how to develop a “story telling” practice that would serve my mission of “changing the way change happens”

  5. Tony Karrer says:

    I’m really torn on this issue. I believe strongly in the value of deliberative practice as a means of building skills. You only need to watch your kids learn something with a good coach to see how effective it can be.
    The challenge today (and more so going forward) is that we don’t have time to become experts except in core skills. Instead, we are pressed to become quickly proficient and we need to produce expert level answers without necessarily being an expert.
    I’m struggling to figure out how this fits with deliberative practice – see Does Deliberative Practice Lead to Quick Proficiency? and Expert Level Answers via Social Networks.
    I’d very much welcome discussion around this.

  6. Paul Cooper says:

    There’s an interesting article from Scientific American called The Expert Mind by Philip E. Ross Aug 2006 (you can get it online these days at: The quote at the top of the article is: EFFORTFUL STUDY is the key to achieving success in chess, classical music, soccer and many other fields. New research has indicated that motivation is a more important factor than innate ability.
    DEAD RIGHT! Takes years of effort to be considered as an expert at anything…in my view

  7. Wayan says:

    Deliberate practice is great in story telling. I do it often with my stories as they pass through different media, contexts, and audiences. My goal is to perfect my story telling ability in one form of each (media, context, audience) which means I’ll be expert-level in 3 approaches. Enough for mortals.

  8. Mike Wagner says:

    This post reminds me of learning my Lutheran catechism over 8 years of grade school. That’s how “the knowledge” was pass on to me.
    Thanks for stirring up all kinds of memories and applications with this this post.
    Keep creating…stories worth repeating,

  9. Michael says:

    I recall a story (read, I think in The Eocnomist) of the women who, after hearing a concert pianist play, exclaimed that she would have given half her life to be able to play like that.
    To which the pianist replied, “Madam, that’s exactly how long it took me”.

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