Towards mastery: deliberative practice, flow and personality traits

09 May 2011 // books

By now, you've probably come across the factoid that you need 10,000 hours of practice to master any activity (thanks Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers"). Although it's good that people are finally getting over the idea of a shortcut to success, this oft-quoted figure of 10000 hours does not really answer the question whether mastery is innate or acquired. After all, plenty of people have plodded away at activities for more than 10000 hours without getting to any recognizable level of mastery. It's a topic that I've read around a lot in and here I'd like to throw down some connections between practice, neural plasticity, flow and innate psychological traits.

Deliberative practice

In "Talent is Overrated," Geoff Colvin argues that it's not just any kind of practice that will lead it mastery, it's a type of practice that he calls deliberative practice. In one example taken from a study of piano students at a conservatory, Colvin found striking differences in the way good students practiced against mediocre ones. The very best students did not practice significantly more than mediocre students. The difference was in how they practiced. The best students worked on harder exercises that were just beyond their competences, and they only practiced when they were fresh, often in the mornings. These exercises required so much intense concentration that the students could only carry out around 2 or 3 hours of such practice a day. In contrast, the mediocre students practiced later in the day, and even at night, at times when they generally could not operate at peak concentration, the intensity of practice was much lower.

So what exactly is deliberative practice? Colvin defines it as an activity with a very well-defined end-goal, which should be difficult. The activity needs to be highly repeatable. There needs to be feedback on the quality of each repetition.

Colvin argues that mastery arises when a skill is moved from the short term memory of the beginner to the working long term memory. Once embedded in the working long term memory, the brain can short-cut the slow process of deliberation associated with juggling new rules stored in the short term memory. Indeed, the operation of working long term memory is akin to the snap judgements that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his "Blink".

Neural Plasticity

But perhaps a deeper look at this process is found in Norman Doidge's "The Brain that Changes Itself," which examines mechanisms involved in brain plasticity. After the massive growth spurt in the brain during the pre-teen years, in later life, the only time that the brain is primed to create new neural connections is when you learn a new activity or skill. The key ingredient in learning is that it requires your complete focused attention. This focused attention is a physiological process that uses a tremendous amount of resources, exhausting the body after an hour or two, which is probably an indication that the brain is undergoing a significant biochemical rearrangement.

I believe that the neurological rewiring that occurs during focused attention is the driving mechanism behind the deliberative practice of Geoff Colvin. Only focused attention can trigger the brain into the process of rewiring the brain. Self-reflection over the feedback seems to be the important element needed to move a skill from short term memory to the working long-term memory. Often, after I've practiced a new technique on my guitar, I get these weird sensations up and down my arm. This is probably a consequence of some kind of rewiring. The repetition of this self-awareness in deliberative practice results in the most effective rewiring, leading ultimately to a state of mastery where the activity can be done quickly, and without effort.

Doidge find that one important consequence of deliberative practice is that during the rewiring that goes on in the brain, the circuitry of the brain undergoes a general overhaul. The best antidote to brain deterioration diseases such as Alzheimer is to constantly undergo deliberative practice. However, as you master one activity, further practice will become too easy. So, in order to avoid mental atrophy, you need to be constantly challenged with new activities for the rest of your life.

Individual strengths

Still the key question remains: is the potential for mastery innate? Colvin would like to diminish the emphasis on talent and highlight the need for hard work. Even as he convincingly argues that mastery can never come without the requisite 10000 hours of deliberative practice, it still leaves open the question of how anyone can commit to 10000 hours of deliberative practice. The question changes then to a question of motivation. Since deliberative practice is by definition, not fun, the difficulty is how anyone can motivate themselves for 10000 hours of grueling deliberative practice?

The missing element is personality traits, a concept I first encountered in Marcus Buckingham's brilliant book on management "First, break all the rules". One of the key findings in that book is that different employees are, well, different (gasp!). It is a mistake to conceive of a "well-rounded" person, as such persons do not exist. Each person has a kaleidoscope of strengths and weaknesses. The very best managers in the world do not bother "fixing" anybody's weaknesses. Rather, they sculpt the job to exploit an employee's strengths. An organization rumbling at full capacity needs a wide complement of skills, which can only be provided by different people with their unique blend of traits. Trying to cajole all employees to perform in the same manner is a sign of a lazy if not incompetent manager.

But where the book excels is that it describes 35 distinct personality traits (the Clifton strengthsfinder scheme) that are important in the work place. These traits were identified through a long and rigorous analysis of employee behavior. I've found these traits to be excellent descriptors of thinking styles. For instance, in the Clifton scheme, analytical thinking is distinguished from strategic thinking. This was a new distinction for me, and it was insightful to realize that I am much more strategic than analytical, which helped me understand my own thinking preferences. Everybody's approach to work can then be defined by their 5 dominant Clifton traits. Although ostensibly related to the work environment, the traits can be used to illuminate other aspects of psychology. Indeed, the Clifton trait scheme represents a significant contribution to the field of positive psychology (which is the study of healthy as opposed to diseased psyches).

In Buckingham's follow-up book "Now, Discover Your Strengths," he explores the mechanisms behind personality traits, and argues that they are effectively innate by the time one reaches adulthood. As such, the kinds of activities that intrinsically gives us pleasure are circumscribed by the time you read this. As such, there are probably only a certain type of activities that we can derive intrinsic pleasure from. However, this is also good news, because if we are clear about our dominant personality traits, then we become much better at identifying the activities that give us pleasure.

There is one particular element in the definition of the Clifton personality traits that is pertinent to deliberative practice. In the definition of personality traits, Buckingham highlights the importance of intrinsic enjoyment. A personal strength is not necessarily what you are good at. Rather, it is a type of activity that gives you energy, or pleasure, when you do it. In contrast, an activity that you are good at, but drains you, is not a strength, but a weakness.

I'd like to make, then, one change to Colvin's definition of deliberative practice. Yes, deliberative practice is hard, and may seem to be unenjoyable. However, if that particular deliberative practice falls within one's dominant Clifton trait, then the deliberative practice becomes enjoyable, even invigorating. This occurs whether the person is a master in that activity or not. The matching of personality trait to the activity is thus the crucial element missing in Colvin's explanation of deliberative practice, as it will dictate whether deliberative practice can be continued for a long time. What is one person's hard work is another's play. If one engages in deliberative practice of an activity that is a Clifton strength, then the practice is intrinsically enjoyable, where it may even burst into quasi-mystical states of experience.

The joyful connection of flow

What is the joyful exuberance when someone exercises their talent to the full? The answer is a psychological state, first described by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, known as flow. As described by Csíkszentmihályi, the flow state has noetic features: a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness; a distorted sense of time; an absorption into the activity; an effortlessness of action; a lack of awareness of bodily needs. In short, the activity is intrinsically rewarding. Programming is definitely an activity that falls into one of my strengths. I remember recently when I went into a Berlin cafe at noon to work on a web-app. I got so involved into implementing this massive feature, that I spent 10 hours straight at the cafe, before I realized that the cafe was packing up, and I had to leave. Csíkszentmihályi has spent his life studying the flow state, and intimates that it may necessary for the highest level of work.

Yet, there is a disclaimer in the analytical studies of flow in that there is no recipe to induce flow. Still, Csíkszentmihályi describes certain pre-conditions for flow, and these are strikingly similar to Colvin's definition of deliberative practice: "1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task; 2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand; 3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state."

The thing missing from Csíkszentmihályi's account of flow is the same thing missing in Colvin's account of deliberative practice. And it is that flow can only come from activities that fit one's Clifton strengths. Indeed, one of the key definitions in the Clifton system is that strengths are not necessarily activities that are you good at, but rather activities that gives you energy. From here, we can see how a deliberative practice that lines up with your Clifton strength hooks into a virtuous cycle. Deliberate practice in such activities are experienced as innately enjoyable, which burst occasionally into noetic experiences of flow. During flow, the deliberative practice is experienced, not as unenjoyable hard work, but rather as joy itself. This joy brings one back to the deliberative practice, again and again, until the activity becomes an effortless part of your being.

Flow is such an unusual state that there must be something substantial going on in the neural circuitry. According to Doidge, it is focused attention that is the key driver for creating new neural connections. If this is the case, then during flow, where the attention is absolutely focused onto the task, the brain may have fallen into a state particularly open to neural rewiring.


Only activities oriented towards your strengths, structured into the form of deliberative practice can induce a sensation of flow. It is the intrinsic joy of flow that allows someone to return to a deliberative practice for the 10000 hours required to rewire the neural pathways, which moves the practice from short term memory into long-term working memory. Only then is mastery achieved.