Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? It’s a general rule of thumb for the average amount of practice time it takes someone to become a world-class performer in a given field.

In his research, Anders Ericsson found that elite performers practiced significantly more than their peers, logging on average around 10,000+ hours by the time they hit 20 years of age (his studies focused on musicians). Malcolm Gladwell later popularized this idea in his book, Outliers.

Ericsson and his colleagues made the primary case that innate abilities alone do not make someone an exceptional performer. Rather, prolonged practice, usually over a decade or more, was the differentiating factor between elite performers and average ones.

The importance of practice is something most people would agree with. Whether it’s a certain hour amount, or number of years, if you want to become exceptional in your field, you’ll need to practice — and practice a lot.

But that leads to a different question: What actually counts as practice?

What Counts As Practice?

Some people may hear of this general 10,000 hour concept and think they can readily become a world class performer in their field in a few years. The thinking is if you’re already working 40 hrs/week in a particular field, that adds up to around 2,000 hrs/year. Which means in five years, if you’re working full time on something, you’ll have over 10,000 hours in that area. (I’ve heard people say or write this very thing.) And although it’s true that you may ‘work’ 10,000 hours in a given field, that in itself does not guarantee you’ll be exceptional at anything.

Becoming an expert in your craft is not _just _about putting in the time — although that is important. It also depends on how well you use that time.

Ericsson’s research wasn’t just about some kind of generic, just-show-up kind of practice. Merely punching the time-clock didn’t count. Rather, it was deliberate practice — practice that was planned and intentional, with the goal of seeing demonstrable improvement in specific skills and outcomes — that made the difference.

Why Mere ‘Practice’ Falls Short

1. Practice Make Permanent, Not Perfect

As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Just repeating something over and over again doesn’t ensure that you’ll become an exceptional performer in your field, but it does mean you’ll reinforce whatever you’re already doing. So if you’re practicing something that is flawed, you’ll get better at repeating the flaw. If you practice mediocrity repeatedly, you’ll end up with more mediocrity.

If a golfer has a terrible swing, simply practicing that swing over and over will only make it more ingrained into his muscle memory. He may get good at doing it “his way,” but in the long run, sticking with his way may actually hold him back from achieving exceptional results.

2. Where Growth Comes From

Growth comes from reaching beyond where we currently are. If our muscles are never pushed, they will not get as strong as they could. If our minds are never stretched, they won’t be as sharp. In all the areas of our life, if we’re not facing challenges that push us to improve, it’s easy to grow stagnant and stay where we are.

Just practicing something, in itself, doesn’t guarantee that we’ll be stretched. It depends on what, and how, we’re practicing. And if we’re never stretched, we won’t grow.

Simply showing up won’t make us an expert. Investing the time is absolutely essential, but is not sufficient in itself. Mastery takes time, but it also takes pushing ourselves to continue to grow and develop. And this is where deliberate practice comes into play.

Deliberate Practice

Beyond just ‘putting in the time’, deliberate practice is about intentionally pursuing growth. It entails plotting out next steps to sharpen our skills, getting feedback so we know when we’re on the right track, and learning from others so we can go further than we would otherwise.

But how do we start? What does it look like to implement deliberate practice in areas we want to achieve mastery in?

1 . Create a Plan

Part of deliberate practice is having a plan. It requires being ‘deliberate,’ which entails thinking about what we’re doing. In practical terms, that means having a plan for how we will improve. What skills do I need to practice? What things will I need to learn? And most importantly, how will I know when I’m on the right track? Meaning, what feedback will I need? What benchmarks do I need to watch so I’ll know when I’m actually improving?

2. Stretch Yourself

Picking skills to practice that will actually stretch us is crucial. Even if we spend a lot of time practicing, but that time is never spent working towards something that is beyond our current grasp, we’ll continue to stay where we are. Identifying and pursuing goals that will challenge us helps us continue along the path of improvement.

3. Invest the Time

Although accruing a certain amount of hours isn’t the only thing that matter, it is true that spending time — large amounts of time — is part of becoming a master of your craft. There are no shortcuts; it takes time and dedication.

4. Get a Coach

The best athletes — including those in individual sports — have coaches. And although the athlete may be in better shape than the coach, the coach brings something the athlete needs: perspective. A coach has experience, they can see the bigger picture. They can offer feedback, something invaluable to continued growth, giving the athlete direction so he can perform at his peak.

In the pursuit of excellence, having others we can learn from, and who can point us in the right direction, is important. They can give us perspective, provide feedback, and help us see our next steps. And in so doing, they help us go further than we could on our own.

How Will You Practice?

Deliberate practice is not just about getting better at sports or music. It’s about growing in whatever field we want to excel in. It may be in areas of our work, or the arts, or a hobby — we can practice just about anything. In fact, everything we do today could be seen as practice, in that our actions today are slowly building habits for tomorrow.

The question isn’t, Will we practice? (we’re doing that in some form all the time) But, What will we practice? And more importantly, How will we practice? Will we be content to do stay where we are? Or will we choose to be deliberate, intentionally stretching ourselves as we aim to grow?

For those interested, here’s an interesting podcast on in deliberate practice and some of the research behind it.

Question: What area do you want to excel in? What are some ways you can deliberately practice in that area?