Ballet is a dazzling art form. Dancers defy gravity as they leap and pirouette across the stage. Every movement is precise; every gesture considered.
The world’s most accomplished dancers also make the craft look effortless -- like we could all replicate their grace and athleticism. But every day, long before the curtain rises, ballet dancers return to the barre and perform a series of familiar exercises. These movements are more than a warm-up; they’re a form of deliberate practice.
From ballet to chess to writing, researchers have long asked several important questions: Is talent innate or can it be acquired over time? How long does it take to become a master of your craft? What do highly-skilled people do differently from the rest of us?
It’s tempting to think dancers -- and other top performers -- possess superhuman abilities, but they all have something else in common.
The myth of 10,000 hours.
In Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell argues that standout performers have all spent 10,000 hours in practice. The hard work required to reach this number, combined with unique opportunities, fuels their success, expertise and accomplishment.
For example, the Beatles logged tens of thousands of hours performing in Hamburg before they achieved global fame. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates gained unprecedented access to a computer lab in eighth grade, which allowed him to master programming long before computers became mainstream tools.
Gladwell’s “ten-thousand-hour-rule” draws from the research of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor who studies peak performance. Ericsson, however, does not agree with Gladwell’s conclusions.
“The rule is irresistibly appealing,” Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool wrote in a 2016 Salon editorial. “It’s easy to remember, for one thing. And it satisfies the human desire to discover a simple cause-and-effect relationship: just put in ten thousand hours of practice at anything, and you will become a master.”
Reaching expert status isn’t a simple numbers game, says Ericsson. What distinguishes principal dancers and virtuoso violinists from the rest of us is how they spend those hours. They engage in deliberate practice, “which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them -- and any sort of activity that might be labeled 'practice,'" Ericsson wrote.
Deliberate practice is focused, goal-driven, and designed to address specific weaknesses and make targeted improvements. It emphasizes quality over quantity. And it’s hard work.
The role of talent.
We often assume that talent is a natural-born gift. Either you have an aptitude for math, or you’ll struggle with numbers for the long run. But Ericsson believes that only a few genetically predetermined traits -- such as body size and height -- influence our potential. Your NBA dream might be a fantasy if you stand just 5'6", but in fields where physical characteristics don’t come into play, “talent” doesn’t limit our chance to reach elite status.
Shaping and believing in our own potential is an empowering idea. But does that mean we’re all just a few positive affirmations away from becoming the next Bill Gates? Not exactly.
According to Zach Hambrick, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, “working memory capacity” -- which is closely related to intelligence -- often separates the good from the great. As Hambrick told Business Insider in 2018, “I don’t think there’s any downside to believing in the power of practice. I do think there is a possible downside to sort of thinking that anybody can accomplish anything with no limits.”
Regardless of how we feel about this controversial topic, we do know that no one achieves true mastery without sustained effort and strategic practice.
Quality beats quantity.
Repeated practice typically produces middle-of-the-road results. After a quick spike, our progress stalls, plateaus, and then hits a wall. Once we achieve basic competence, those basic abilities become a reflex. That’s why cooking the same recipes or doing the same workout, year after year, won’t land us on Top Chef or on the cover of a fitness magazine.
Repetition ensures maintenance, not development. And baseline skills are fine for many areas of our lives. But if you’re an entrepreneur building a business around your expertise, or working to stand out in a global market, you have to push beyond your comfort zone.
Payal Kadakia, for example, started ClassPass in 2011 after struggling to find an inspiring, after-work dance class in New York City. Kadakia began her dance career at age three and founded Sa Dance Company in 2009. She trained diligently throughout her life, then translated her discipline and expertise into a business that now employs more than 300 people.
As Kadakia’s story demonstrates, continual improvement doesn’t happen on auto-pilot. To stretch our potential, we need to keep taking apart our skills and re-assembling them into something better. We have to find the edge of our abilities, and then see what lies beyond.
The five-hour rule.
Entrepreneur Michael Simmons spent a year exploring the personal histories of business leaders including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Warren Buffett, to discover how they engage in deliberate practice. Despite their busy schedules, many of these leaders set aside about five hours a week to practice and learn. It’s a pattern he calls the “five-hour rule.”
These consistent, intense study periods have fueled both today’s top leaders and other accomplished figures throughout history. For example, Benjamin Franklin had a strict daily schedule that delineated time for learning, reflection and reading. Theodore Roosevelt devoted several hours each day to intense study. He established this habit at university and maintained it throughout his U.S. presidency.
While the five-hour rule might feel more approachable than 10,000 hours, it’s not always easy. That’s because deliberate practice takes discipline. It’s structured, thoughtful, and strategic. Repeatedly performing the skills we’ve already mastered is satisfying, but that kind of practice doesn’t make us better.
Instead, deliberate practice demands engagement. Like a rubber band, you have to stretch yourself and commit to the process -- and you have to do it every day. It shouldn’t feel comfortable. If you reached a new milestone yesterday, you need to set a tougher target today.
Four steps to deliberate practice.
Mastering new skills isn’t always fun. I’ve learned this lesson firsthand during the 12 years (and counting) I’ve spent building my company, JotForm. Many experiences have tested my resolve. I've often been frustrated with the product, and fed up with myself. But a commitment to growth and learning has enabled me to play the long game. I know what’s possible with consistent, deliberate practice.
Focused practice also means pushing through resistance and creating smart systems to support you. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, here’s how to get the ball rolling.
1. Set small, realistic goals.
Momentum demands clarity. Setting specific goals can help us to stay motivated and inspired. A fuzzy goal, like “improve my writing” or “learn about marketing” isn’t compelling enough to propel you beyond your current abilities. Also, vague, lofty targets can be intimidating.
Small steps are the foundation of deliberate practice. Assess your current skills and decide how to push your limits, little by little, until you see meaningful change. We may have heard it before, but few people actually break big goals down into achievable steps.
For example, if improving your company culture is the long-term goal, then a medium-term goal might be to reduce staff turnover by 10 percent. What small steps will you take to get there? You could develop a candid staff survey, create monthly challenges or establish team shadowing opportunities. The possibilities are endless, but they should be small and specific.
Whatever you’re trying to accomplish, identify your key areas for change. Write them down and make a checklist. Creating tangible goals will encourage action.
2. Stay the course.
Sustained effort can be frustrating and uncomfortable -- and that’s the whole point. Deliberate practice asks us to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gains. It’s a dilemma that applies to everything from daily exercise to funding a startup.
When people ask how I grew my business from a side project to a company of 130 employees, without any outside investment, they often want me to talk about passion or share inspiring stories. But I’ve never been passionate about forms. I am excited, however, about overcoming challenges, building a strong team and serving customers who are doing great things in the world.
True entrepreneurs show up and do the work -- even as competitors come and go. They keep their eyes up and aren’t derailed by short-term temptations. Improvement happens when you notice frustration and boredom, but take action anyway. Commit to your daily hour of deliberate practice, and protect it at all costs. Over time, this action becomes habit. You don’t decide to practice; you just do it (to take a page from the famous Nike slogan). And that’s where the magic happens.
3. Measure your progress.
Be methodical and track your practice. It’s the only way to understand both your challenges and your growth. For example, if you’re trying to shift the culture, how many employees are you truly connecting with each month? How are staff retention rates changing over time? What are you learning about corporate culture each week?
Seeking regular feedback from experts and trusted peers can also be helpful, especially when combined with honest self-assessment. Gauge what’s working and what’s not. Record, measure, shift and repeat.
4. Recharge your batteries.
Focused study requires our full, undivided attention. That’s why it can only be sustained for short periods of time. Experts say most creative knowledge workers shouldn’t log more than 3-5 hours per day -- and that’s for “proper brainwork,” like writing or coding or analyzing legal texts. For deliberate practice, try to stick to an hour per day. Set an alarm and stop when the time is up.
Cutting a practice session short might seem counter-intuitive, but we need to recharge in order to solidify new skills and knowledge. Extreme focus is a mental workout, and we need to counteract the intensity of deliberate practice with deep rest. It’s a truth that top athletes, founders, and ballet dancers understand intimately.
Practice deliberately, give it all you have, then enjoy some well-deserved rest. Your business -- and your brain -- will be stronger for it.