“Great leaders are made, not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
– Vince Lombardi
“Good enough” did not catapult Michael Jordan to fame. Like an elite athlete, becoming a highly skilled professional of any type takes practice — a lot of it.
From concert halls to golf courses, the world’s superstars have risen to the top of their ranks by nurturing their talent with dedication and grueling training. With the same discipline and practice, you can become a superstar in your professional world as well.
Deep practice is a concept that involves perfecting a technique. Based on focused repetition, deep (or deliberate) practice relies on immediate, non-judgmental feedback. Each step of the technique must be performed flawlessly; if an error occurs at any point, the person must stop, make the correction and resume practice. Over and over again.
K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University was one of the pioneers in studying what it takes to become an expert based on deliberate practice. “When experts exhibit their superior performance in public their behavior looks so effortless and natural that we are tempted to attribute it to special talents,” he says.
In actuality, however, expert performance is really “an extreme case of skill acquisition” and the final result of deliberate, extended practice.
Moreover, Ericsson’s research found that experts are able to encode knowledge around key domain-related concepts in their brains. Therefore, they have a “rapid and reliable” retrieval system to access that information that is far superior to someone who is an amateur in the same area of specialty.
Myelin Connections Pave the Way for Mastering New Skills
Practice alone does not produce results. Neuroscience explains how the brain synthesizes training, so that, over time, new behaviors become automatic.
Research conducted at the University College London Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research in 2014 proved what many neuroscientists had suspected: Myelin, a fatty substance produced by the brain and spinal cord, plays a critical role in learning new skills.
Myelin provides a protective covering between the newly formed circuits in the brain. Because of this insulation, the brain can recall these patterns without having to re-learn them each time.
Lead researcher, Professor Bill Richardson, Director of the Institute, conducted a related study in which two groups of mice were challenged to run on a complex wheel with irregularly spaced rungs. One group of mice was given a drug that prevented them from producing new myelin, while the other was not.
After two hours of practice, the difference between the two groups’ abilities to navigate the wheel was notable. The group that were prevented from producing the myelin were unable to master the wheel, while the group that produced myelin could.
Executive Consulting Strategies: How to Incorporate Deep Practice to Become a Professional Superstar
- Target a specific skill — Identify a skill or behavior that you want to improve, change or develop that will make you a stronger professional. Analyze it so that you truly understand it. Perhaps you fly off the handle too easily and want to reign in your anger. “Anger management” becomes your targeted skill.
- Focus your awareness — When will you have the opportunity to exhibit the changed or new skill? If anger management is your targeted skill, what are your triggers? What situations tend to incite your anger?
- Envision the new skill— Mentally rehearse the new technique. Work through scenarios using the new skill. Using this example, how will it look and feel when your anger is under control?
- Change your physiology — In the split second that it normally takes for an automatic emotional reaction, STOP. Breathe. Take an alternative route. Engage the new skill or behavior — in this case, a calm, reasonable reaction.
- Monitor and evaluate — What is working well, and where do you need to improve your technique? Are there situations in which your reaction still needs to be improved? Do the wrong things slip out of your mouth at team meetings, for example? If so, perhaps you could rehearse potential responses. Working with an executive consultant can help you if you find yourself getting stuck in certain situations.
- Practice — Continue to refine your technique and practice the new skill repeatedly.
Mastery will become evident when you realize that you’ve adopted an improved way of doing things, eliciting a positive response from others. Your new response or behavior will become automatic, catapulting you to “superstar” status in your professional arena.
Have you engaged in deep practice to perfect a professional skill?