Malcolm Gladwell is right about the power of practice, but he only tells half the story.

At this time of year, many of us are working to better ourselves and execute plans that we devised at the beginning of the year. While everyone has his or her own strategy for learning about and achieving personal goals, many people rely on books, podcasts, or other internet resources published by experts in their fields. But do you ever wonder how the people writing the books or giving the TED Talks developed their expertise? Did they read more books, or plan out their career paths more efficiently? 

Psychologist K Anders Ericsson has spent a lifetime studying how people cultivate extraordinary abilities across a wide range of disciplines, including sports, medicine, music and business. His key finding is that a specific kind of ‘deliberate practice’ makes the difference. 

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell said: “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” He pulled this finding from Ericsson. But, as Ericsson points out, it’s not the hours you put in, but the way you practise that matters most.

We often associate practice with repetitive drills. While doing something new many times often stimulates early improvement, repeating a skill or task – even over a long period – doesn’t build expertise. Once you reach a reasonable level of competence, the skill becomes automatic and the brain spends less time on it. This makes us more efficient human beings, but doesn’t cultivate expertise.   

Ericsson’s research on how the very best learn and develop their skill demonstrates if there’s something you want to excel at, you have to push past this comfortable, automatic level of competence and challenge yourself through deliberate practice.

Four steps to deliberate practice

1. Pick something you care about

Developing expertise in any skill, from knitting to public speaking, isn’t easy. Many of Ericsson’s research subjects showed initial improvement with practice, but ultimately hit a natural ceiling. It was their determination to improve that got them over the hump to breakthrough performance. So, pick something you truly care about so you stay motivated.

2. Set specific goals and get out of your comfort zone

Goals need to be challenging and specific. Getting better at something isn’t specific enough. Break the larger goal down into skill units, then practise these small, achievable steps. As Ericsson said: “A fundamental truth about any sort of practice: if you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”

3. Feedback is key

Ericsson emphasizes that when it comes to developing skills, breaking out of your comfort zone isn’t always just ‘trying harder’, but is often about ‘working differently’. Learning how to work differently often comes from gaining feedback on your performance.

Self-assessment and feedback is helpful as long as progress can be measured and tracked in some objective manner. But as Ericsson’s studies reveal, a real differentiator is working with someone who has attained a higher level of performance than you: an expert, coach, mentor, etc. This is critical, as they can provide informative feedback and can help design better practice plans.   

4. Consistency and persistence

Ericsson noted that practice regimes of top performers across a range of disciplines shared similarities. Their practice included a consistent series of brief but intense, daily or semi-weekly practice sessions. Purposeful practice sessions lasting 20 minutes with full concentration are better than longer sessions performed sporadically or while distracted. 

Whether your goal is being a more influential speaker, running better meetings, improving a technical skill, or stimulating more innovation, try the steps above for a better outcome. Mastery is possible – just not the Malcolm Gladwell way.

An adapted version of this article appeared on the Dialogue Review website.