Check out Alina Tugend’s column, Shortcuts in the April 9th edition of the New York Times. She discusses the ‘Nature v. Nurture’, ‘Talent v. Persistence’ arguments for success.
First, I found her discussion of practice, and in particularly “deliberate practice”, interesting. Deliberate practice is a useful term.
One of my pet peeves has always been listening to people who pontificate how long they have been involved with something as if the length of time at an activity warranted respect. We’ve all heard someone – who is not particularly good at the task – state, “I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years…”
My mental response is usually, “Well, if I had been doing it for as long as you have, and was still that bad, I’d want to consider an alternative career.”
The reason they are bad is not because they haven’t put the time in, but because they have not done ‘deliberate practice’. Tugend cites Professor Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice: “It involves spending hours a day in a highly structured activities to improve performance and overcome weakness.”
The key words, in my opinion, are ‘highly structured activities’ with the goal to ‘overcome weakness’. Sheer repetition is not enough.
The practice exercises must be well-conceived, targeted exercises designed to overcome specific weakness. Going back to one of my earlier posts, I find working slowly allows you to understand each component of the task at hand so that you can flag the weakness you need to correct.
One of my mentors, Ross Bertram – one of the great sleight-of-hand artists of the 20th century – often used a rhythm count to help him flag weakness. He would apply a musical count (1-2-3-4) to a series of sleights not to give him a mechanical rhythm to the piece, but to flag any stutter in the routine, one that his eye would gloss over, or for which his mind would provide a false justification such as, “no one would notice that”.
If his hands couldn’t keep pace with the fluid timing of the count, then he would focus on the point where the rhythm was broken, and fix it.
Second, I found Tugend’s comments about the optimum length of practice sessions interesting. It appears, for example, that four hours is about the maximum that anyone can practice in a day consistently to achieve great results. After that, the sessions can be counterproductive.
This certainly holds true from my experience.
So, I’ve always questioned the stories of certain performers who maintained a practice regime of 8-10 hours a day. It may sound great in a media kit but, if they really did so (which I doubt), it probably wasn’t very productive.
Third, Tugend flags the emotional and human cost of such dedication. The focus required to persevere day in and day out has a price. Relationships slide, and empathy – the EI (Emotional Intelligence) of the player or performer is often diminished.
There are certainly enough examples of artists, performers and athletes who have sacrificed all for their art, craft or sport. That’s why I dedicated the first volume of my biography on Dai Vernon – a man who sacrificed all for his art – to the children of magicians: “May you grown up and still believe in miracles.”
It’s also probably why, as I mentioned in that previous post, after I pointed out to my son Harrison, then age 14, that the Vernon biography was dedicated in essence to him and his brother, he said, “Dad, you should have written something else.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“You should have written,‘To my sons, Courtney and Harrison, who will never read this book.’ ”