The Practice of Practice Blog Explained

There has been some smart interest lately in recent research on the nature of expertise and how it’s acquired, including books by Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers), Geoff Colvin (Talent is Overrated), and a forthcoming book from Doubleday by David Shenk (The Genius In All of Us: Nature, Nurture and the New Science of Talent).

This blog is an attempt to work out ideas and chapters for my own forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Practice of Practice (currently toying with subtitles; suggestions welcome). The books mentioned above have all examined the research on expertise from a broad perspective, giving us a general idea of what it takes to become a world-class expert in disciplines as diverse as music, tennis, chess, comedy, x-ray film analysis, and juggling, to name but a few. As to the question of how to find a world-class juggler? You know him when you see him (yes, or her). For two potential candidates, check out Michael Moschen or the Raspyni Brothers on TED.

The most surprising finding of all this research into expertise, a finding that belies the folk wisdom we tell ourselves, is that talent plays a minuscule (perhaps nonexistent) role in the process of acquiring expertise; it’s all about a specific kind of practice. The books mentioned above give excellent broad overviews of the findings (you can read my reviews of these books on this blog), but leave one wanting as far as practical application goes. As Yogi Berra said (also attributed to others), “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.” That’s what this blog, and the book, are aiming for: to take the theories and translate them into something you can actually put in the bank. Something you can actually do to improve.

I’m working on a PhD in music education from Northwestern University, have played trumpet for over 30 years, guitar for 10, dabble with many other instruments, and I’ve written three other books on music, so my focus for this project will also come from a practicing musician’s perspective. But because the idea and techniques of practice are so fascinating and universal, I’ll attempt to include information and strategies in ways that can be adopted by people interested in improvement in other fields, too. This includes topics like motivation, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow, and a whole raft of other strategies designed specifically to improve performance at anything, whether you’re bent on becoming an international sensation or are simply determined to take your game to the next level.

I’m excited about all the research I’m reading and am excited about interviewing some world-class musicians in the pursuit of practical knowledge about practice. I sincerely hope you join me for the ride and tune in to this blog.

This blog will be a shoot-from-the-hip exercise for me in which I’ll try to synthesize and explain the research reviews and interviews I’ll be conducting. Because of the “draft-ish” nature of the blog, I welcome advice or constructive criticism, so if you have either, please share it.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Piyush says:


    I wanted to understand the “science” of practice at a deeper level. When one struggles at a certain step during learning, he/she should practice it according the the three rules(talent code). But does an absence of struggle mean one is not learning? If so, how should one approach the internalization of whatever is learnt to a subconscious level? If internalization doesnt happen, its difficult to hoop to next levels of learning, or is it not?
    To sum it up, there should be a period where one should internalize whatever he/she has learnt to do well(consciously). My question is, how much time and energy should be given to such a process? Is it helpful?

    1. Great question. In my own practice, I simply continue to learn/do the skill in question until it becomes internalized. The key for me (and what the research lit shows) is to be sure to go extremely slowly in the early stages of learning, which–in my view–is the most crucial stage. If you don’t lay the foundation solidly, the time it takes to achieve automaticity/internalization will be not only longer, but not as reliable. There is no one simple “state” of learning (such as struggle= learning, or easy=no learning). In my experience the difficulty fluctuates widely between easy/hard depending on my own skills/experience. Some things we struggle with while others come more easily, and still others may be completely beyond one’s ability at the moment. That’s where a great teacher is so incredibly helpful in trying to figure this out. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal teacher, but a good one can see where you are in this process and help guide you to your own understanding of what works best. No big surprise, right? As to your final questions, the time/energy that “should” be spent are entirely dependent on how badly you want to acquire the skill, and how carefully you are practicing those skills (such as taking it VERY slowly in the beginning to ensure quality).

      This is all very abstract, but I hope it’s helpful. Thanks for the question.

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