Can Deliberate Practive Give You an Competitive Edge?

In his best-selling book "Talent is Overrated," author Geoff Colvin writes about the concept of deliberate practice and how by adhering to this principle, the practitioner can attain expertise far more rapidly than they could through repetitive methods of practice that focus on already sharpened skills.

Here are the criteria for an activity to qualify as deliberate practice:

  • Exercises designed specifically to improve performance past your limits.
  • It is repeated over and over.
  • High-level feedback on results is continuously available in a supportive environment.
  • It's highly demanding mentally.
  • It's not much fun, thus implies the need for passion.

How I Practiced

When I began writing professionally, I wrote a lot of fluffy content thinking that I was painting a magnificent picture for the reader to enjoy. Truth is, I was wasting a lot of unnecessary words. Good writers don't hide behind adverbs. Said Stephen King, "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." It wasn't until I read "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser that I understood King better and wrapped my mind around the concept of clarity and brevity. I began to deliberately focus on brevity. I edited everything I wrote with the goal of trimming 10 percent away immediately, cutting words, combining phrases, changing passive to active voice and then examining my third paragraphs to see if it was a more qualified lede than my opening paragraph. As a result, my writing was cleaner, smoother and tighter.

My next area of deliberate practice was engagement. I wanted to write ledes that resonated with readers. That was a function of interviewing and not of writing, so I had to come up with better questions to ask. That meant better research before interviews and reading any stories about the subject and examining the angles of other writers in search of a way to bring the reader something new. I also started observing my surroundings during live interviews and making notes about the scenery, what the interviewee was wearing, facial expressions, and vocal tone. In time, my ledes became more dynamic and interesting. I discovered interesting angles, and found ways to interject the personality and voice of the interviewee into my story. When I started receiving emails from readers telling me how my stories made them feel, I knew that the effort had bore fruit.

For the last two years, I've been practicing better ways to present "he said/she said" attributes when opening and closing quotations and looking for ways to incorporate the five senses in my writing in an effort to engage readers using their dominant senses. We all have them--mine is visual, then olfactory, and then auditory--and writing to these makes a standard journalistic story read like creative non-fiction.

Circles of Growth

On an episode of the TLC show, Miami Ink, tattoo artist Kat Von D remarked that she hadn't gone more than five days without tattooing since she was 14 years old. That's a decade and a half of practice, and if you've seen her work, you can't discount that deliberate practice is also a factor. Is there any wonder why Von D is worth an estimated $5 million? I would surmise that all five aspects of deliberate practice were and still are present in her work. Her practice has paid off as Von D has inked pop stars Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga and Demi Lovato, and actors Dakota Fanning and Ewan McGregor.

So how we apply this and harness the power of deliberate practice? What does it look like practically?

Growth zones.

Colvin describes these as three concentric circles. The inner circle is your Comfort Zone, the skills you have that you can do with little effort. The middle circle is your Learning Zone, skills that you are currently learning and have not mastered. The outer circle is your Panic Zone. These are the skills you need to know, but have no idea how you'll reach.

Applying the Principle

Take a moment and write down items in your Comfort, Learning, and Panic Zones. Here's an example of what a journalist might look like:

Comfort Zone

  • Writing ledes
  • Telling compelling stories
  • Writing rapidly on deadline

Learning Zone

  • Paragraph transitions
  • Interviewing techniques
  • Writing conclusions (Not leaving the reader hanging)

Panic Zone

  • Public speaking
  • Investigative journalism
  • Pitching to larger publications

How it works is that as you maintain your Comfort Zone you're actively growing your Learning Zone. In time, those items in your Learning Zone become Comfort Zone activities. Your new Learning Zone is now comprised of your Panic Zone activities. And your Panic Zone? The next set of goals that further your career but seem out of reach.

A Lesson from the Greatest

National Basketball Association Hall of Famer Michael Jordan didn't become the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball by practice. He did so with intention using deliberate practice. Once when told that he was a great scorer, but a marginal defender, Jordan focused on his defense and when he retired, he was the steals leader for three seasons (1988, 1990, 1993) and was a first team all-defense player for nine seasons (1988-1993, 1996-1998).

Deliberate practice is hard. Deliberate practice is frustrating. Deliberate practice will make you want to quit. But Deliberate practice works.


"My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength." -- Michael Jordan