Deliberate Practice

Deliberate Practice
by Art Ticknor

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Everyone's looking for the way. The individual is like a heat-seeking missile, programmed to hit its target – the target being satisfaction of our desires. But as we satisfy specific desires we learn that the satisfaction has a limited shelf life, and we eventually recognize our longing for complete satisfaction.

missile seeking its target Richard Rose and Douglas Harding are examples of missiles that found their innermost targets. I had worked as a student of Rose for many years and then, after he was unable to function due to Alzheimer's disease, worked with three of his students who had hit their deepest targets. I met Harding at the suggestion of one of those students-become-teachers. Douglas was in his 90s and sitting in a wheelchair in his living room – still ambulatory but often using his wheelchair to move around his house – and his first words to me were: "Your job is not to become Douglas Harding or anyone else. It's to become your self – your true self."

Becoming your true self, or defining the self in Rose's terminology, is the way to complete and full satisfaction, as Gautama and Jesus and other buddhas and christs have testified throughout history. But how do you go about becoming your true self? Is it best to follow Gautama's path? Jesus's path? Rose's? Harding's? Some combination?

I read an article[1] by Geoff Colvin, which he excerpted from his book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. When investigating what separates high achievers from others, he found that studies of musicians, mathematicians, artists, swimmers, and so on, turned up few signs of precocious achievement before the individuals began intensive training. Researchers have, he wrote, converged on an explanation: deliberate practice – which, as I know from personal experience, is precisely what both Harding and Rose also recommended.

What is deliberate practice? Colvin tells us that it's a unique activity neither work nor play. It's practice that's designed to improve performance in a very specific area, continually stretching the individual just beyond current abilities.

In the world of golf, Tiger Woods naturally comes to mind. Tiger, who's notorious for the duration and discipline of effort to continually improve his game, sometimes drops golf balls in sand traps, steps on them, then practices hitting them from those practically impossible lies.

Deliberate practice involves more than just high repetition: it requires focus and concentration until mental exhaustion. Nathaniel Milstein, one of the virtuoso violinists of the 20th century, came from a family with no musical background. His parents decided to have him study violin at age 7 after they attended a concert by 11-year-old prodigy Jaffa Heifetz – to keep their high-spirited son from getting into trouble. As a young student Milstein asked his teacher, the renowned violinist Leopold Auer, if he was practicing enough. Auer replied that he could practice all day with his fingers but that an hour and a half of practicing with his mind was enough.

Deliberate practice continues to the point where the current effort breaks down – and then you find a solution to move on to the next step. But there's more: to be most effective, deliberate practice requires self-regulation before, during and after the practice.

piano playing Many people don't set any goals and don't pursue intentional practice. Others practice but set general goals, such as a "good outcome." What distinguishes top performers is that they set goals about the process of reaching the desired outcome.

During practice those high achievers employ self-observation. Endurance running is a painful endeavor, and most runners therefore try to put their attention on something else while they're running. Elite runners, however, focus intensely on the activity – counting breaths and strides in order to maintain certain ratios, for example. In purely mental activities, top achievers watch what's happening in their minds and ask themselves how it's going. Researchers refer to that as metacognition. "What's going on? Am I being hijacked by emotions? Do I need another strategy here? What should it be?" and so on.

After practice comes self-evaluation. Average performers are content with telling themselves they did okay, well, or poorly, but excellent performers judge specifics, just as they set their goals and strategies. Average performers then avoid unpleasant situations where they didn't perform well, whereas excellent performers adapt their actions and seek out those situations in order to improve performance.

Why do a small percentage of people put themselves through years of intensive daily work in order to become world-class great? Colvin points out that it reflects the answers to two deeply relevant questions. First, "What do you really want?" Deliberate practice is like an investment, where the costs come now and the payoff comes later if ever. The more we want something, the more likely we are to sustain the effort to accomplish it.

He phrases the second question in terms of belief: "What do you really believe?" If you don't believe that doing the work with intense focus for years on end will pay off in the future, he tells us, there's not much chance you'll do the work. I agree, but I'd state it in terms of faith rather than belief. I'd describe faith as a feeling, perhaps an intuitive feeling, that whatever created us – the Creative Principle in Hubert Benoit's terms[2] – hasn't abandoned us but is still operating within … and that our missile's innermost target is that inner reality. Hitting that target we become consciously aware of what we are at the core of our being. Our intuition may tell us, well before it occurs, that there's nothing we want more than that.

path in Dawes Arboretum The way is not so difficult, as Franklin Merrell-Wolff wrote so movingly after his self-realization[3] – which came about, by the way, more than two decades after his conscious search began. If your intuition leads you to follow Jesus's path, or Buddha's, or Rose's, Harding's, or Merrell-Wolff's, then by all means do so. Eventually they will all lead you to the same spot, where you can no longer rest on someone else's authority but have to see the truth for yourself. It may take a long time to reach that inflection point, with lots of goal setting, deliberate practice, and adaptive evaluation along the way.

When you finally tire of backward-and-forward, go within. You'll need to feel the way, but you'll have help.

[1] "Why Talent Is Overrated" by Geoff Colvin, October 27, 2008 Fortune magazine

[2] The Supreme Doctrine: Psychological Studies in Zen Thought, by Hubert Benoit. Now published under the title of Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine and, in a new translation, as The Light of Zen in the West.

[3] In Pathways Through to Space, now published as Experience and Philosophy. See "Seek Me First" in the July 2003 TAT Forum.

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