Deliberate Practice

4 minutes reading time

How do you become good, or great, at anything? It takes more than just reading something. Thinking is a start. Action is necessary. You need to do. All the time, every day.

Daphne Gray-Grant wrote:

“Understand that 10,000 hours — alone — will not turn you into a great writer. Author Malcolm Gladwell did the world a disservice when he suggested that 10,000 hours of work was all you needed to become an expert at something. Sheer time is never enough. If you want to improve, you need deliberate practice.”

While Gladwell1 later clarified the number of hours wasn’t the point, merely a lot of time is required, her point still stands. Simply spending time on something won’t get you to mastery. In certain fields, such as athletics, a natural talent can get you quite far. But for most areas of study, there is no substitute for what K. Anders Ericsson defined as deliberate practice2.

In simple terms, do you have 10 years of experience or have you had same 1 year of experience repeated for 10 years?

In my field of software development, beginners quickly level up as they gain skills in coding, but once they have achieved a certain level their skill acquisition tends to level off and they never improve to greater levels. This is because they have mastered the basics and fall into doing the same kind of work day-in, day-out so there’s no further learning or improvement. To gain that next level you have to deliberately practice. One method is by doing code katas. Take a simple problem and then use it practice a particular technique. Solve the problem any way you know how so that you can understand the problem space and solution. Then in subsequent practices of the same problem you are able to expend the effort on the specific skill or technique you are trying to master. For example, solve it using functional programming, then solve it using object-oriented techniques.

This idea is nothing new, it came from martial arts katas.

Elite musicians do similar, they concentrate on practising only the hardest parts of the songs they need to play. Most musicians will play and practice the whole song through, over and over. At an intermediate level, you’re already good enough to play the simpler, easy parts so you’re not learning anything new.

According to Ericsson, there are two components to deliberate practice.

  1. Tightly focused attention on the skill or idea you’re trying to master
  2. You receive feedback so you can correct your approach

So far we’ve talked about the first part but the second part is also necessary to achieve mastery.

In my kettlebell training, I tackle the first part by breaking down the exercises into its constituent parts. I practice a single movement or do a particular drill which incorporates it. For example, you can split the Turkish Get-Up into several small stages. Each part can be isolated and refined to drill the movement.

The second part is achieved with my personal trainer. Beyond motivation, he provides feedback and guidance to correct my form so that I perform the exercises for the most benefit while staying injury-free. This becomes a virtuous cycle. Weak points are identified and then drilled, perfecting form and technique, then identifying the next weak point and so on. Since I started working with a trainer I have seen much greater gains in my fitness.

How can we apply this to stoicism?

It feels harder because it’s in the mind and much is about shifting your mindset. It takes much more than reading quotes from past Stoics; you have to think harder thoughts that might be uncomfortable, and you have to live it. Harder but not impossible.

First, set deliberate intentions in the morning that you will practice during the day. Create prompts or other reminders to help you follow through on them. Then, at the end of the day reflect in your journal on how successful you were. Identify areas where you could have done better and use those as starting points to practice more deliberately.

For example, in my own life I have resolved to be slower to anger with my children when they’ve done something wrong, or more often - don’t do as they’re asked. I’ve set out my intentions to avoid shouting and instead try to view the situation from their perspective before sharing my thoughts in a calm and clear way. On days when I fail, at the end of the day, I look back and think through what happened and why I didn’t follow through with my intentions. From that reflection, I try to identify the impediments or reasons as objectively as possible so I can course-correct for next time.

Engage your senses

If you can bring your senses into the mix too you’ll more effectively absorb the lessons. These can be small, simple things such as taking cold showers. I’m not a complete masochist so I try and end my shower with a burst of cold water, increasing the length of time I can stand it. When I’m under the cold water, I take deep breaths to remain composed and repeat this little mantra to myself, ”this too shall pass”.

A few other things you could try that Stoics have done through the ages:

  • Wear old, dirty clothes out and about
  • Live rougher
  • Sleep on the floor
  • Going out in cold weather without a jacket
  • Fasting
  • Go without something for a week (perhaps the internet?)

Finally, to gain all the benefits of deliberate practice we must try to get feedback. Self-reflection plays a part but if we can get feedback from others then we can be challenged and opened up to new insights that are harder to find on your own. You can find like-minded people in places like Reddit or Daily Stoic Life to discuss and provide feedback for each other.

Do let me know if you have, or come up with, other exercises that can help train your mind in Stoic practices.


  1. Malcolm Gladwell Explains ‘The 10,000 Hour Rule’

  2. “The role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” Psychological Review 100.3 (1993): 363-406. Ericsson, K.A., R.T. Krampe, and C. Tesco-Römer.


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