THE USUAL APPROACH
Let’s begin by looking at the way people typically learn a new skill—driving a
car, playing the piano, performing long division, drawing a human figure,
writing code, or pretty much anything, really. For the sake of having a specific
example, let’s suppose you are learning to play tennis.
You’ve seen tennis matches played on television, and it looks like fun, or
maybe you have some friends who play tennis and want you to join them. So
you buy a couple of tennis outfits, court shoes, maybe a sweatband, and a racket
and some balls. Now you’re committed, but you don’t know the first thing about
actually playing tennis—you don’t even know how to hold the racket—so you
pay for some lessons from a tennis coach or maybe you just ask one of your
friends to show you the basics. After those initial lessons you know enough to go
out on your own and practice. You’ll probably spend some time working on your
serve, and you practice hitting the ball against a wall over and over again until
you’re pretty sure you can hold your own in a game against a wall. After that
you go back to your coach or your friend for another lesson, and then you
practice some more, and then another lesson, more practice, and after a while
you’ve reached the point where you feel competent enough to play against other
people. You’re still not very good, but your friends are patient, and everyone has
a good time. You keep practicing on your own and getting a lesson every now
and then, and over time the really embarrassing mistakes—like swinging and
missing the ball completely or hitting the ball very solidly straight into your
doubles partner’s back—become more and more rare. You get better with the
various strokes, even the backhand, and occasionally, when everything comes
together just so, you even end up hitting the ball like a pro (or so you tell
yourself). You have reached a comfort level at which you can just go out and
have fun playing the game. You pretty much know what you’re doing, and the
strokes have become automatic. You don’t have to think too much about any of
it. So you play weekend after weekend with your friends, enjoying the game and
the exercise. You have become a tennis player. That is, you have “learned” tennis
in the traditional sense, where the goal is to reach a point at which everything
becomes automatic and an acceptable performance is possible with relatively
little thought, so that you can just relax and enjoy the game.
At this point, even if you’re not completely satisfied with your level of play,
your improvement stalls. You have mastered the easy stuff.
But, as you quickly discover, you still have weaknesses that don’t disappear
no matter how often you play with your friends. Perhaps, for example, every
time you use a backstroke to hit a ball that is coming in chest-high with a bit of
spin, you miss the shot. You know this, and the cagier of your opponents have
noticed this too, so it is frustrating. However, because it doesn’t happen very
often and you never know when it’s coming, you never get a chance to
consciously work on it, so you keep missing the shot in exactly the same way as
you manage to hit other shots—automatically.
We all follow pretty much the same pattern with any skill we learn, from
baking a pie to writing a descriptive paragraph. We start off with a general idea
of what we want to do, get some instruction from a teacher or a coach or a book
or a website, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become
automatic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For much of what we do in life,
it’s perfectly fine to reach a middling level of performance and just leave it like
that. If all you want to do is to safely drive your car from point A to point B or to
play the piano well enough to plink out “Für Elise,” then this approach to
learning is all you need.
But there is one very important thing to understand here: once you have
reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance—your
driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies—you have stopped improving.
People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving
or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it
they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless. They
assume that someone who has been driving for twenty years must be a better
driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been
practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has
been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years
must be better than one who has been teaching for five.
But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches
that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of
“practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or
the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the
one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated
abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
So what do you do if you’re not satisfied with this automated level of
performance? What if you are a teacher with ten years in the classroom and you
want to do something to better engage your students and get your lessons across
more effectively? A weekend golfer and you would like to move beyond your
eighteen handicap? An advertising copywriter and you want to add a little wow
to your words?
This is the same situation that Steve Faloon found himself in after just a
couple of sessions. At that point he had become comfortable with the task of
hearing a string of digits, holding them in his memory, and repeating them back
to me, and he was performing about as well as could be expected, given what is
known about the limitations of short-term memory. He could have just kept
doing what he was doing and maxing out at eight or nine digits, session after
session. But he didn’t, because he was participating in an experiment in which he
was constantly being challenged to remember just one more digit than the last
time, and because he was naturally the sort of guy who liked this sort of
challenge, Steve pushed himself to get better.
The approach that he took, which we will call “purposeful practice,” turned
out to be incredibly successful for him. It isn’t always so successful, as we shall
see, but it is more effective than the usual just-enough method—and it is a step
toward deliberate practice, which is our ultimate goal.
Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we
might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly,
and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.
Steve Oare, a specialist in music education at Wichita State University, once
offered the following imaginary conversation between a music instructor and a
young music student. It’s the sort of conversation about practice that music
instructors have all the time. In this case a teacher is trying to figure out why a
young student has not been improving:
TEACHER: Your practice sheet says that you practice an hour a day, but
your playing test was only a C. Can you explain why?
STUDENT: I don’t know what happened! I could play the test last night!
TEACHER: How many times did you play it?
STUDENT: Ten or twenty.
TEACHER: How many times did you play it correctly?
STUDENT: Umm, I dunno . . . Once or twice . . .
TEACHER: Hmm . . . How did you practice it?
STUDENT: I dunno. I just played it.
This is naive practice in a nutshell: I just played it. I just swung the bat and
tried to hit the ball. I just listened to the numbers and tried to remember them. I
just read the math problems and tried to solve them.
Purposeful practice is, as the term implies, much more purposeful, thoughtful,
and focused than this sort of naive practice. In particular, it has the following
Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. Our hypothetical music
student would have been much more successful with a practice goal something
like this: “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a
mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge
whether the practice session had been a success.
In Steve’s case there was no long-range goal because none of us knew how
many digits one could possibly memorize, but he had a very specific short-term
goal: to remember more digits than he had the previous session. As a distance
runner, Steve was very competitive, even if he was only competing with himself,
and he brought that attitude to the experiment. From the very beginning Steve
was pushing each day to increase the number of digits he could remember.
Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach
a longer-term goal. If you’re a weekend golfer and you want to decrease your
handicap by five strokes, that’s fine for an overall purpose, but it is not a welldefined,
specific goal that can be used effectively for your practice. Break it
down and make a plan: What exactly do you need to do to slice five strokes off
your handicap? One goal might be to increase the number of drives landing in
the fairway. That’s a reasonably specific goal, but you need to break it down
even more: What exactly will you do to increase the number of successful
drives? You will need to figure out why so many of your drives are not landing
in the fairway and address that by, for instance, working to reduce your tendency
to hook the ball. How do you do that? An instructor can give you advice on how
to change your swing motion in specific ways. And so on. The key thing is to
take that general goal—get better—and turn it into something specific that you
can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.
Purposeful practice is focused. Unlike the music student that Oare described,
Steve Faloon was focused on his task from the very beginning, and his focus
grew as the experiment went along and he was memorizing longer and longer
strings of digits. You can get a sense of this focus by listening to the tape of
session 115, which came about halfway through the study. Steve had regularly
been remembering strings of close to forty digits, but forty itself was not
something he could yet do with any consistency, and he really wanted to reach
forty regularly on this day. We began with thirty-five digits, which was easy for
him, and he started pumping himself up as the strings increased in length. Before
I read the thirty-nine-digit string, he gave himself an excited pep talk, seemingly
conscious of nothing but the approaching task: “We have a big day here! . . . I
haven’t missed one yet, have I? No! . . . This will be a banner day!” He was
silent during the forty seconds it took me to read out the numbers, but then, as he
carefully went over the digits in his head, remembering various groups of them
and the order in which they appeared, he could barely contain himself. He hit the
table loudly a number of times, and he clapped a lot, apparently in celebration of
remembering this or that group of digits or where they went in the string. Once
he blurted out, “Absolutely right! I’m certain!” And when he finally spit the
digits back at me, he was indeed right, so we moved on to forty. Again, the pep
talk: “Now this is the big one! If I get past this one, it’s all over! I have to get
past this one!” Again the silence as I read the digits, and then the excited noises
and exclamations as he cogitated. “Wow! . . . Come on now! . . . All right! . . .
Go!” He got that one right as well, and the session indeed became one in which
he regularly hit forty digits, although no more.
Now, not everyone will focus by hollering and pounding on a table, but
Steve’s performance illustrates a key insight from the study of effective practice:
You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.
Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are
doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong. In Oare’s example
the music student got belated feedback at school with a C on the performance
test, but there seems to have been no feedback during practice—no one listening
and pointing out mistakes, with the student seemingly clueless about whether
there were errors in the practice. (“How many times did you play it correctly?”
“Umm, I dunno . . . Once or twice . . .”)
In our memory study, Steve got simple, direct feedback after every attempt—
correct or incorrect, success or failure. He always knew where he stood. But
perhaps the more important feedback was something that he did himself. He paid
close attention to which aspects of a string of digits caused him problems. If he’d
gotten the string wrong, he usually knew exactly why and which digits he had
messed up on. Even if he got the string correct, he could report to me afterward
which digits had given him trouble and which had been no problem. By
recognizing where his weaknesses were, he could switch his focus appropriately
and come up with new memorization techniques that would address those
Generally speaking, no matter what you’re trying to do, you need feedback to
identify exactly where and how you are falling short. Without feedback—either
from yourself or from outside observers—you cannot figure out what you need
to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.
Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps
the most important part of purposeful practice. Oare’s music student shows no
sign of ever pushing himself beyond what was familiar and comfortable. Instead,
the student’s words seem to imply a rather desultory attempt at practice, with no
effort to do more than what was already easy for him. That approach just doesn’t
Our memory experiment was set up to keep Steve from getting too
comfortable. As he increased his memory capacity, I would challenge him with
longer and longer strings of digits so that he was always close to his capacity. In
particular, by increasing the number of digits each time he got a string right, and
decreasing the number when he got it wrong, I kept the number of digits right
around what he was capable of doing while always pushing him to remember
just one more digit.
This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push
yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. The amateur pianist
who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but who for the
past thirty years has been playing the same set of songs in exactly the same way
over and over again may have accumulated ten thousand hours of “practice”
during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was thirty years
ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse.
We have especially strong evidence of this phenomenon as it applies to
physicians. Research on many specialties shows that doctors who have been in
practice for twenty or thirty years do worse on certain objective measures of
performance than those who are just two or three years out of medical school. It
turns out that most of what doctors do in their day-to-day practice does nothing
to improve or even maintain their abilities; little of it challenges them or pushes
them out of their comfort zones. For that reason, I participated in a consensus
conference in 2015 to identify new types of continuing medical education that
will challenge doctors and help them maintain and improve their skills. We will
discuss this in detail in chapter 5.
Perhaps my favorite example of this lesson is the case of Ben Franklin’s chess
skills. Franklin was America’s first famous genius. He was a scientist who made
his reputation with his studies of electricity, a popular writer and publisher of
Poor Richard’s Almanack, the founder of the first public lending library in
America, an accomplished diplomat, and the inventor of, among other things,
bifocals, the lightning rod, and the Franklin stove. But his greatest passion was
chess. He was one of the first chess players in America, and he was a participant
in the earliest game of chess known to have been played here. He played chess
for more than fifty years, and as he got older he spent more and more time on it.
While in Europe he played with François-André Danican Philidor, the best chess
player of the time. And despite his well-known advice to be early to bed and
early to rise, Franklin regularly played from around 6:00 p.m. until sunrise.
So Ben Franklin was brilliant, and he spent thousands of hours playing chess,
sometimes against the best players of the time. Did that make him a great chess
player? No. He was above average, but he never got good enough to compare
with Europe’s better players, much less the best. This failing was a source of
great frustration to him, but he had no idea why he couldn’t get any better. Today
we understand: he never pushed himself, never got out of his comfort zone,
never put in the hours of purposeful practice it would take to improve. He was
like the pianist playing the same songs the same way for thirty years. That is a
recipe for stagnation, not improvement.
Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you
couldn’t do before. Sometimes you may find it relatively easy to accomplish that
new thing, and then you keep pushing on. But sometimes you run into something
that stops you cold and it seems like you’ll never be able to do it. Finding ways
around these barriers is one of the hidden keys to purposeful practice.
Generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” It is a
technique issue, in other words. In Steve’s case, one barrier came when he hit
twenty-two digits. He was grouping them into four four-digit groups, which he
used various mnemonic tricks to remember, plus a six-digit rehearsal group at
the end that he would repeat over and over to himself until he could remember it
by the sound of the numbers. But he couldn’t figure out how to get past twentytwo
digits, because when he tried to hold five four-digit groups in his head, he
became confused about their order. He eventually hit upon the idea of using both
three-digit groups and four-digit groups, a breakthrough that eventually allowed
him to work up to using four four-digit groups, four three-digit groups, and a sixdigit
rehearsal group, for a maximum of thirty-four digits. Then, once he reached
that limit, he had to develop another technique. This was a regular pattern
throughout the entire memory study: Steve would improve up to a point, get
stuck, look around for a different approach that could help him get past the
barrier, find it, and then improve steadily until another barrier arose.
The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction,
which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is
already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest
ways to overcome them.
And sometimes it turns out that a barrier is more psychological than anything
else. The famous violin teacher Dorothy DeLay once described the time that one
of her students came to her to help increase his speed on a particular piece that
he was scheduled to play at a music festival. He could not play it fast enough, he
told her. How fast, she asked, would you like to play it? He answered that he
wanted to play it as fast as Itzhak Perlman, the world-famous violinist. So
DeLay first got a recording of Perlman playing the piece and timed it. Then she
set a metronome to a slow speed and had her student play the piece at that pace,
which was well within his abilities. She had him play it again and again, each
time speeding up the metronome a bit. And each time he nailed it. Finally, after
he had gone through the piece flawlessly once more, she showed him the setting
on the metronome: He had actually played it faster than Perlman.
Bill Chase and I used a similar technique with Steve a couple of times when
he had hit a barrier and thought he might not be able to improve further. Once, I
slowed down the rate at which I read the digits just a bit, and the extra time made
it possible for Steve to remember significantly more digits. This convinced him
that the problem was not the number of digits but rather how quickly he was
encoding the digits—that is, coming up with mnemonics for the various groups
of digits that made up the entire string—and that he could improve his
performance if he could just speed up the time he took to commit the digits to
Another time, I gave Steve strings that were ten digits longer than any of the
ones he had managed to remember up to that point. He surprised himself by
remembering most of the digits in those strings—and, in particular, remembering
more total digits than he had ever done before, even though he wasn’t perfect.
This convinced him that it was indeed possible to remember longer strings of
digits. He realized his problem was not that he had reached the limit of his
memory, but rather that he was messing up on one or two groups of digits in the
entire string. He decided that the key to moving on was to encode the small
groups of digits more carefully, and he began improving again.
Whenever you’re trying to improve at something, you will run into such
obstacles—points at which it seems impossible to progress, or at least where you
have no idea what you should do in order to improve. This is natural. What is not
natural is a true dead-stop obstacle, one that is impossible to get around, over, or
through. In all of my years of research, I have found it is surprisingly rare to get
clear evidence in any field that a person has reached some immutable limit on
performance. Instead, I’ve found that people more often just give up and stop
trying to improve.
One caveat here is that while it is always possible to keep going and keep
improving, it is not always easy. Maintaining the focus and the effort required by
purposeful practice is hard work, and it is generally not fun. So the issue of
motivation inevitably comes up: Why do some people engage in this sort of
practice? What keeps them going? We will return to these vital questions again
and again throughout the book.
In Steve’s case, there were several factors at work. First, he was getting paid.
But he could have always shown up for the sessions and not tried particularly
hard and still have gotten paid, so while that may have been part of his
motivation, it was certainly not all of it. Why did he push himself so hard to
improve? From talking to him, I believe that a large part of it was that once he
started to see improvement after the first few sessions, he really enjoyed seeing
his memory scores go up. It felt good, and he wanted to keep feeling that way.
Also, after he reached a certain level in his memorization abilities, he became
something of a celebrity; stories about him appeared in newspapers and
magazines, and he made a number of appearances on television, including the
Today show. This provided another type of positive feedback. Generally
speaking, meaningful positive feedback is one of the crucial factors in
maintaining motivation. It can be internal feedback, such as the satisfaction of
seeing yourself improve at something, or external feedback provided by others,
but it makes a huge difference in whether a person will be able to maintain the
consistent effort necessary to improve through purposeful practice.
One other factor was that Steve liked to challenge himself. This was clear
from his record as a cross-country and track runner. Everyone who knew him
would tell you that he trained as hard as anyone but that his motivation was
simply to improve his own performance, not necessarily to win races.
Furthermore, from years of running he knew what it meant to train regularly,
week after week, month after month, and it seems unlikely that the task of
working on his memory three times a week for an hour each time seemed
particularly daunting, given that he regularly went for three-hour runs. Later,
after finishing the memory work with Steve and a couple of other students, I
made it a point to recruit only subjects who had trained extensively as athletes,
dancers, musicians, or singers. None of them ever quit on me.
So here we have purposeful practice in a nutshell: Get outside your comfort
zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals,
and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your
This recipe is an excellent start for anyone who wishes to improve—but it is
still just a start.