How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Entrepreneurs and “Deliberate Practice”
I happened upon an interesting bit of writing this morning in Annie Murphy Paul’s blog “How to be Brilliant.”The post, “How Virtuosos Get So Good: ruthlessly root out your errors to achieve mastery,” is focused on world-class musicians. As Annie Murphy Paul points out,
The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately — whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill — you might as well not practice at all.But much of the thinking here applies to startups and entrepreneurs.
She points to a groundbreaking 1993 paper by Anders Ericsson that highlights the difference between practice and deliberate practice, a critical distinction. Ericsson clarifies the distinction in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Making of an Expert,” excerpted below:
To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition, it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades. However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
This, of course, is precisely what entrepreneurs and startups must do. It is often the case that startups are trying to do something that no one does well – or does at all. And the entrepreneur in such a startup is at nearly every point confronted with the challenges that attend learning to do something that the entrepreneur and the company cannot possibly do very well. Yet.
For this reason I think entrepreneurs should look closely at the the notion of “deliberate practice,” a concept that has found a wider audience through Gary Marcus’s recent book, “Guitar Zero.”
In Guitar Zero, Marcus a cognitive psychologist who applies his expertise in language, biology, and the mind to an interesting new objective: learning to play the guitar.
On the eve of his 40th birthday, Gary Marcus, a renowned scientist with no discernible musical talent, learns to play the guitar and investigates how anyone—of any age —can become musical.
The theory here is not that practice makes perfect. Rather, “practice makes permanent.” And it isn’t possessed of any bias. It makes permanent what you do well. It also makes permanent what you do badly.
This is where things become especially difficult. Most of us know how to do a few things very well. It is those things that have helped us achieve the measure of success we’ve experienced so far. Some people know how to do quite a few things very well. And to make things even more complicated, deep domain knowledge (not just things I can do, but things I know and have a deep understanding about) is often in shorter supply than basic skill (programming, marketing, finance, sales). The universe of things we can’t do very well and things we don’t know very much about is vastly larger than the universe of things we do well and understand thoroughly.
So when it comes to the entrepreneurial version of “deliberate practice,” how do we pick the things that should occupy our focus and attention? In other words, which of the many things we can’t do well (or at all) do we actually focus on? Do we apply some form of the 80/20 rule? Do we invest our energies and attention in the things we’re most passionate about?
And once we’ve decided what we’ll be deliberate about, what we’ll practice, how do we measure our progress? How do we know our practice isn’t a matter of doing something badly – and doing it badly over and over – until we’ve managed to thoroughly bake it in?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.