I mentioned at the beginning of my last past that humans seem to feel the need (at least nowadays) to overcomplicate everything. When we are talking about skills, the thing that gets overcomplicated most often is deliberate practice. Instead of putting in the work, people are always after the quick fix, the magic bullet or pill that is going to make everything better for them rather than the constant hours spent doing things over and over and over again.
Getting shredded (or ripped, jacked, cut or whatever the current expression is) is one thing that almost every guy wants at some stage during his teens or twenties. The first place their minds go is not the gym and all the reps they should be putting in, it’s either the supplement store for a whole lot of expensive stuff that they don’t need yet, or to training programs designed for people that have been training a decade. As Arnold says (and I have already quoted) “you have to do the reps”. If you want to get more muscular, the most important thing you have to do is work your muscles. It’s not even a difficult thing to deduce, but people don’t want to do the reps, because doing the reps is boring. Doing the reps is repetitive. Most of all, doing the reps is hard.
Yesterday I spoke more about doing those hard yards and sticking through it. Today is about what those hard yards should actually entail. The above is a perfect example of exactly what deliberate practice should be – simple. If you want to build a big chest, it’s simple, do exercises that will target your chest and do a lot. There is no need for a complicated program, hydrolised whey protein, creatine, testosterone booster and so on. All of that is just noise and it won’t help you if you aren’t doing the simple stuff. In this example, you’re basically trying to jump to the deep work stage without doing the deliberate practice.
People always want to jump to the end stage, the deeper work stage of their pursuit. The urge to start thinking about the complicated things and more abstract concepts is a strong one because it takes the pressure off us to do the hard work. If you want to become truly good at something, you have to resist this urge and get down to business.
Where to begin? Most activities actually have their own version of deliberate practice, you just have to stick with them rather than being tempted to move on to the more fun parts of the endeavour. In boxing, that means practicing your jab, cross, hook and uppercut until they are crisp and powerful before you move on to combinations and ring strategy. In computer programming it means writing thousands of lines of code which handles basic functions before you start putting your mind to writing code for Jarvis of Iron Man.
I’m going to address this next part to all the university students out there because I think you can gain the most from it. You have to think of all your studies as deliberate practice. Everyone (myself included during my bachelor’s degree) thinks of study as a chore. Essays are left until the last minute, readings are left unread and research is half assed. This is the time that you should be honing your skills, not complaining that you hate the essay topic and putting in the bare minimum.
Writing an essay on a topic you neither like nor care about is the perfect example of deliberate practice. By taking it as such, you can turn it to your advantage and not waste the opportunity. Rather than trying to impress the markers with your incredibly new and progressive ideas (which are no doubt far from new to them), you should be trying to perfect the technical parts of your writing such as grammar, sentence structure and the flow of your essay. I’ve marked plenty of essays where the student clearly had some great concept in their head but didn’t pay attention to the nuts and bolts of their work. The result was each page having almost as much red ink on it from my correction pen as the black ink from their typing. Basic mistakes such as incorrect usage of punctuation, sentences that didn’t make sense, paragraphs that had no real point to them and..spelling mistakes! By the end of marking work like this, no one cares about your ideas, because you can’t even articulate them properly.
This is why deliberate practice is a must. If you can focus on improving your writing skills during the many (and there will be many) essays on topics you don’t care for at university, when the time comes for you to specialise and seek out topics that do interest you, you will actually be ready for the deep work that you will be doing. Writing books is another area where people always want to bypass the deliberate practice and go straight to the payoff. People sit around waiting for the big idea when they should just be writing as much as possible about anything they can think of just to improve their skills. Most of the time when you wait for that big idea instead of putting pen to paper, it never comes. When it does come, like in Fifty Shades of Grey, everyone can see you haven’t put in the practice because while the idea is there, the ability to write decently (because you’ve skipped the practice part) isn’t.
I’m putting my own advice into practice at the moment with chess. I love chess, but I’m not going to lie to you and act like it makes up a big part of my life, it doesn’t. I do, however, want to get better at it. I have a few books that a friend recommended to me and I haven’t picked up one of them yet. I could be exploring endgame, strategy, reviewing old master’s games. Nope, none of that. Right now I am spending 30-60 minutes each day practicing the fundamentals of chess, tactics. I get through about 50-100 different problems most days, before I then play a few games. It isn’t sexy, it isn’t super fun and it’s frequently frustrating, but it’s doing far more for my game than exploring the deeper stuff before I’m ready for it.
Whatever the skill you are trying to improve, keep things simple and just keep doing them. There will be time in the future for you to do the more complicated, deeper work, but it is not now. Never cut short your time doing deliberate practice, because those that do will always stand out to the experts in the field. They are called pretenders, and they are mediocre.