Have you ever wondered what makes the difference between a virtuoso like Ray Charles and the guy putting in his piano set at your local Holiday Inn this Wednesday evening?
Luck aside, Malcolm Gladwell would probably explain it as the 10,000 hour rule, a concept based on the research of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at Florida State University. The idea is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of focused practice to achieve mastery in a given field. That number is, of course, an estimate, but there's no way around the need for putting in a lot of time.
Gladwell chronicles the early history of the Beatles and how their tireless hours playing German dive bars like the Cave gave them the necessary chops to hit it big in the rest of the world.
On the other hand, there are countless bands playing long sets in cheap hotels and bars all over, logging their 10,000 hours without ever scratching the surface of what the Beatles achieved. Other than a lack of distinctive haircuts, what's the difference?
Let's return to famed scientist Daniel Kahneman's description of your brain's two major processes: system 1 (reflexive and emotional) and system 2 (methodical and analytical).
The beauty of your system 1 brain is that it's always looking to preserve your precious mental energy for a later emergency.
When it comes to practice, the Holy Grail of learning, system 1 is both your ally and your enemy. Performing the same actions over and over means running through the same neural circuitry. To expend less effort, system 1 insulates those circuits with myelin. The more myelin, the stronger and faster those signals. When everything goes right, we call this skill.
But that same love of shortcuts can cause problems. System 1 is—and this is important—not interested in perfection. Its motto might be best described as, "If it works okay, good enough." If system 1 could sponsor a product, that product would be duct tape—and not even the sticky kind. It's all about the quick fix, not long-term improvement.
In short, if you want to refine a skill, you're going to have to practice tricking your system 1 brain. Author Daniel Coyle describes this idea as "deep practice":
1. Break whatever it is you're learning into smaller increments. Tackling something as a whole is overwhelming and can lead to frustration and failure.
2. Work each chunk carefully and slow down to guarantee you've fully mastered each section before moving on to the next one. Otherwise, you'll bake mistakes right into your reps.
3. Push yourself to the edge of your ability. Growth generally involves a little mental pain.
4. Find an expert who can give you feedback about what you're doing right, and the steps you can take to improve.
Using deep practice might not make you the next Mirror Ball trophy winner on Dancing with the Stars, but at the very least, it will make your next gig at the Holiday Inn go a little smoother.
Hey, it worked for Billy Joel.