When to engage in deliberate practice

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 18, 2009
Filed in Communication

There are lots of good comments on my post, The importance of deliberate practice and I was prompted to write this one based on Tony Karrer’s observation that many people are thrust into jobs where they must get up to speed quickly. Tony was wondering whether deliberate practice makes sense in these cases. Do we have time to be experts?

The principles of deliberate practice make sense in any situation. It is just a matter of degree. If deliberate practice is an ongoing and designed set of activities where you apply your skill in a domain of expertise, such as storytelling, then reflect on your efforts, get feedback (coach, peers, yourself), modify your practice based on this reflection, then do it again, and again and again then this process is similar to Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and we know it works when we are trying to improve our ability to do things well. I’ve emphasised the doing because deliberate practice is all about doing rather than merely being able to answer questions. Much of our vital knowledge can’t be written down and we build this intuitive know-how through reflective experience (without the reflection you are condemned to repeating the past). While social networks are great for the quick answer it doesn’t help you with the class of question that only experience can provide (unless of course you convince the expert to get involved in doing the project with you), such what is the best design for a circuit board? how should I emphasise aspects of this CAD design so the fitters will know what to do? How should I lead my team?

It’s true that it’s harder to be the most outstanding expert. Stephen Jay Gould has written on this topic using baseball statistics and shows that the normal distribution of batter performance has changed shape since Babe Ruth’s time. In his day the tails at both ends were long: there were many good batters and quite a few bad ones. But with professionalism the distribution has been squashed shortening the tails and making the centre hold most of the players. It’s hard to be the very best. But who cares about being the very best. We just need to be bloody good and to be that requires practice.

To put the effort in to be bloody good requires time and dedication. Consequently we need to pick our desired expertise carefully. Here are some things to consider:

  • do you love the skill that much that it doesn’t seem like work to you?
  • is it a skill you can use in any job?
  • will people value and recognise your expertise and therefore motivate your ongoing efforts?
  • can practice feel like play? If so then there is much more chance you will keep practising.

We will always need content experts. Your social network should help you connect to these valuable folk. What will also need are people who can thrive in complexity and the skills we’ll need to deliberately practice will include designing, leading, managing, innovating, storytelling, strategizing, implementing, sensemaking, and engaging (I’m sure you can think of others). These skills will be helpful in any job and so feel free to dedicate 10,000+ hours to any one of them and know you haven’t wasted your time.

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. Lubna says:

    I landed here from your comment on Linked In – Stories for Business Group. This is an amazing site.

  2. Tim Kannegieter says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I think this term you are using is really just “training” in most organisations and common sense. I think it depends a lot on the culture of the organisation. I’ve just spend the past year working for the NZ Army and they spend about 30% of their time training against specified standards of competence. Whereas my decade or so of experience in the publishing industry was characterised by a noticeable lack of training. They either hired people with demonstrable aptitude for writing, hired SMEs and let them learn on the job.
    Tim K

  3. I’m not talking about training but rather those things you do in the workplace to improve a skill. For example Mark and I took 10 minutes to reflect on a difficult conversation we were having with a partner and realised that the way we were approaching things was helping. So we reached for higher ground and it made a difference. We were practising things we were trained in. The question for me is how to become more deliberate in this practice.

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