Speech delivered at Alpha Toastmasters Club, Kotara 25/7/16


Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to take a moment to think of a skill, a skill that you deeply wish to acquire. Hold this skill in your mind for the next five to seven minutes. We will come back to it.

How does one attain competency, if not mastery, of a skill? Evidence from the field of cognitive psychology suggests that innate talent, is overrated. Hard work, dedication and motivation, is also overrated. Tonight we will learn about deliberate practice – the scientifically supported pathway towards mastery – what it is, and how you can use it.

You may have heard of the 10 000 hour rule, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It states that 10 000 hours is the time required to attain mastery in a given field, and was derived from a study of expert violin players.

Now, I could stand up here and talk at you for the next 10 000 hours. I guarantee you my delivery would be much the same as when I started, and Stephen would likely have thrown the timer at me.

As it turns out the pathway to mastery is not paved in mindless repetition. Expert level performance is primarily the result of expert level practice.

Anders Ericsson, the author of the study that inspired the 10, 000 hour rule, has coined the concept of deliberate practice. He describes deliberate practice as having four components:

  • Deliberate practice takes near-maximal effort, taking place outside of one’s comfort zone, and is generally not enjoyable
  • Deliberate practice should aim at improving a specific aspect of performance, rather than performance as a whole
  • Deliberate practice should involve immediate feedback
  • Deliberate practice should be repeated again, and again, and again

Maximal effort, uncomfortable – well look at that, I’m deliberately practicing now!

It appears that the founders of Toastmasters had grasped the principles of deliberate long before Ericsson published his seminal paper in 1993.

Compelling support for this method comes from the advent of functional MRI scanning. A team at University College London compared the brains of London taxi drivers, constantly planning different routes and memorising the city sprawl, to bus drivers, who have a set route and spend a lot less time grinding their cognitive gears.

The use of deliberate practice principles actually changed the brains of the taxi drivers. The hippocampus, the area responsible for memory, was significantly larger for the taxi driver cohort than our more passive bus drivers, controlling for other factors of course.

Let’s come back to that skill you have been holding on to. How can you apply deliberate practice principles to achieve your goal?

Luckily, you already have these skills. They are taught every Monday night here at Alder Park Bowling Club. All I am doing is applying the scientific method to these techniques – in that a testable hypothesis has been produced, and it is able to predict the acquisition of expertise.

The first step is to know your own skills. This requires an honest, critical assessment of where you currently stand. When you know this, try to acquire the aspect of the skill that is just out of your reach. Know your own boundaries, and consistently push them.

The second step is to dedicate the time. Deliberate practice is, by definition, exhausting. Most experts can only spend a few hours a day deliberately practicing.

Setting aside this time can add up to 700 hours of practice a year, and 7, 000 hours in a decade – a sizeable step towards that mythical 10, 000 hours.

The third step is to seek a coach or mentor. Someone who has done it before. Seek feedback from this person. The more immediate and the more honest the feedback, the more beneficial.

Take that skill and go forth. Practice critically, practice often, practice with feedback. Practice deliberately.

I look forward to returning to a room full of experts in 10, 000 hours time.


For those of you interested, here are some great resources on Deliberate Practice:

How I first heard about Ericsson and Deliberate Practice – Dubner and Crew at Freakonomics Radio: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/peak/

And from Ericsson and Pool themselves: http://peakthebook.com/index.html

Deliberate practice for doctors: https://lifeinthefastlane.com/mime/deliberate-practice/

The MRI study mentoned above, by Maguire et al: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hipo.20233/abstract