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The problem with deliberate practice

Posted in the following categories: Creativity, Personal Development

Peter was tired of playing the electric guitar.

His band had been on tour for 10 years. He had been strumming the same melodies on the same instrument for a decade.

So he traded his electric guitar for an acoustic mandolin, an instrument he had never played. He set up a musical sandbox, playing around with scales, trying new chords, and creating new riffs—all with the playful mindset of a curious child.

One of the riffs struck a chord with Peter (pun intended). During band practice, he played everyone the new riff on the mandolin.

The rest of the band loved it. The drummer and the bass player quickly joined Peter’s sandbox and added more oomph to the acoustic melody.

The final player to join the game was the lead singer, Michael. As the band played the melody, he picked up his dictaphone and began walking around the room in a meditative state. The lyrics slowly poured out of him.

Oh life. 

Is bigger. 

It’s bigger than you, and you are not me.

As he improvised lyrics, Michael had no predetermined outcome in mind. He didn’t go into the practice session thinking, “This is the song I’m going to write today.” To him, this was a good sign. The lyrics “just kind of flew out of me,” Michael explained.

The song was recorded and eventually released in February 1991. It became a massive hit. It won two Grammys, and the album sold more than 18 million copies.

The song, as you may have guessed, is Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

The secret to this creation story was the band’s ability to infuse play into their practice.

You’ve probably heard of the term “deliberate practice” and the 10,000-hour rule. Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, the 10,000-hour rule says excelling at any skill requires roughly 10,000 hours of practice. The goal is to practice in a deliberate way, get immediate feedback, and iterate and improve over time.

Deliberate practice is terrific for honing a specific skill that can be performed the same way over and over again. That’s how you fine-tune your golf swing, hit the right notes on your guitar, and play a great opening move in a game of chess.

But deliberate practice isn’t enough to play the game of life. Life is a game of incomplete information. You can’t see all the pieces on the board. What’s more, just when you thought you mastered the game, the rules, the board, and the pieces all suddenly change.

When we don’t infuse deliberate play into deliberate practice, we can’t adjust to the changes life throws at us or play ourselves into new opportunities. Instead, we perform the same choreographed dance, explore only well-trodden paths, and avoid games we don’t know how to play. As a result, we remain stagnant.

Unlocking your full potential often demands bending established practices, not reinforcing them.

It requires cultivating openness, not just focus.

It requires diversifying what you do, what you read, and who you talk to.

It requires deliberate play, not rote application.

Looking back, the best parts of my book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist, were written in a state of deliberate play. I’d start fiddling with words, sentences, and paragraphs, with no attachment to a predetermined conclusion. I’d pick up random books from my bookshelf and incorporate fun examples on how stand-up comedians, three-star Michelin restaurants, and world-class athletes all thought like a rocket scientist. Looking back, my playful inner child is the laid-back astronaut on the book cover—launching off into space with his feet up on a desk.

We often don’t allow ourselves to play because we assume playing means we’re not working. But it’s quite the opposite. Play and work are complements, not competitors. Play opens a portal to creativity. Only by taking a playful attitude toward our work can we reimagine the status quo and find a better path forward.

When you start strumming the strings of your own life, make sure you incorporate the same playful mindset that created Losing My Religion.

Because that’s you in the corner.

And that’s you in the spotlight.

Playing this game of life.

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