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Deliberate Practice in the Pursuit of Excellence

Posted by Louise Barnfield on July 24, 2009

Tiger Woods at the driving range at Augusta National

Tiger Woods at the driving range at Augusta National

Many years ago a neighbor’s son, whom I shall call he-who-shall-remain-nameless, was frequently the butt of jokes within my family for being phenomenally ‘bright’ (academically-speaking) and stupendously useless, at one and the same time. His parents delighted in boasting that his IQ was off the charts, yet he was socially and practically inept. Although he sailed through exams in his early years, he did not live up to his potential, and turned out to be [pause to select a suitably charitable phrase] somewhat of a disappointment.

There have been plenty of studies regarding the correlation between IQ and job performance. However, while IQ is evidently a helpful predictor of future achievements, it does not negate the need for commitment, motivation, and application.

I feel rather sorry for he-who-shall-remain-nameless; I believe he was done a great disservice by his parents, as he felt he was so intelligent he didn’t need to apply himself to anything. However, as individuals we ultimately own responsibility for whether we make use of the abilities we are given, and seize the opportunity to practice them.

So, I was interested to read an article in this month’s issue of Talent Management magazine highlighting the achievements of certain high school students, and the schedule of study and practice that prepares them to compete in California’s Academic Decathlon. The article Human Performance discusses the ‘value of deliberate practice’ and also the implications for the workplace.

This may not be radical new thinking, but it provides talent management personnel with some persuasive arguments when seeking executive support for, say, providing a stimulating environment, creating increasingly challenging opportunities, reinforcing deliberate practice, and “rewarding successes until the successes become their own rewards”. Organizations that provide environments and opportunities that both challenge and interest their workers, and encourage deliberate practice, will be rewarded by increased commitment and motivation, as well as a higher level of expertise.

Sadly, this comes too late for he-who-shall-remain-nameless, who continues to meander aimlessly through life having wasted a superior level of natural ability that I freely acknowledge I never had, and very much envied.

9 Responses to “Deliberate Practice in the Pursuit of Excellence”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Oh – what a delight! A Friday afternoon post by Louise with a vivid story! Thanks for the smiles πŸ™‚

  2. Tim Walker said

    Good stuff, Louise. As you’ll know from the link in the post, I’m fascinated by deliberate practice, and in particular by ways that companies might encourage it. My fear is that many (most?) companies will see it as a non-starter, since it implies years of hard work by practitioners before mastery is achieved. (In other words, why invest so much in developing employees who probably won’t be around that long?)

    Do you see ways around this problem?

    • Bethesda shipyards had a position “sub chassiss welder,” that took years to develop only to be scarfed up by smaller contractors. This welder performs an amazing weld taking 12 hours, non-stop to weld the sections of the submarine body together. It used to take 5 or 6 years to reach this level of proficiency. The changed the program, creating three levels of welder, ending with the chassiss weld. Three years for each level. By the time the 9th year rolled around, those special welders were also “welded” to Bethesda, and the turnover stopped.

  3. Louise Barnfield said

    Thanks for responding,Tim. I do agree that it might not be easy to persuade companies to invest without proof of the potential gain, but I think it’s more a case of encouraging individuals to make this additional effort for their own benefit. I omitted to link to Meg’s excellent earlier post, https://talentedapps.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/pondering-greatness-and-deliberate-practice/, which makes some good points in this regard.
    Companies merely(!) need to be persuaded to provide the opportunities, challenges and reward systems to encourage their workers. With so much concern about the dwindling workforce, organizations are already looking for ways to differentiate themselves from run-of-the-mill employers, so perhaps that’s one way to sell this idea.
    It’s true that companies then run the risk of losing those experts, but what goes around comes around. Workers will move on, regardless, so eventually, as the practice (or should I say deliberate practice) spreads, this can only be for the benefit of all.
    Don’t give up! πŸ™‚

  4. Meg Bear said

    Louise I’m with Amy, such a delight to see another post from you! I also grew up knowing kids who had amazing potential as far as IQ goes and did very very little with their gifts. I some how wonder, about the general work ethic.

    Of course, now that I am raising my own intelligent girls I’m completely paranoid about this topic. Wasted potential is one of the saddest things in my book and hard work one of the most admirable. I wonder if I can beat a work ethic into them? (joke!)

  5. Louise Barnfield said

    Knowing you as I do, Meg, I can assure you without any question you have absolutely no fears on that score! You know the phrase: ‘Like mother, like daughter’!! πŸ™‚

  6. […] been arranged together in 6 clusters. In the first cluster, Louise Barnfield writes of the need for deliberate practice to pursue excellence. In similar vein and in her own distinctive style, Laurie Ruettimann speaks of […]

  7. Jon Ingham said


    I’ve only just come across your post from the carnival. I do read Talented Apps regularly, but this can mean gaps of a few weeks here and there.

    Anyway, great post, and I do think it’s fairly radical new thinking.

    I’ve often noted how strange it is that we very rarely practice anything in organisations, whereas if you think about anything else we do, whether it’s learning a language, playing a musical instrument, doing a sport,…, we get better through practice.

    We need to do more of it within our organisations too.


    • Louise Barnfield said

      Thanks for stopping by, Jon, glad you agree!…and thanks for your shout out on your blog too, much appreciated. πŸ™‚
      Since I too find it difficult to keep up with the various blogs in my reader, I really appreciate the Carnival for catching me up on a selection of excellent posts I might otherwise miss, including yours! (Pity about the typo in your name though!) πŸ˜‰

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