BEN FRIED: So on that subject, continuous improvement, you talk in the book about practice and the difference between– I think you use the words directed practice versus regular undirected practice. And it reminded me of in running there’s a phrase junk miles, which maybe indicate– I’ve never actually been a runner, so I can only hypothesize what it means. But I guess it means kind of running that doesn’t really contribute to your improved conditioning. And what is the difference between directed practice and undirected practice in this spirit of kaizen and self-improvement?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: So let’s keep running as actually the perfect example. So when I started to try to understand the science of achievement beyond bumper sticker wisdom– what do we really know as a science about experts and how they got that way– I quickly found myself at the doorstep of Anders Ericsson, who’s the world expert on world experts. He studies what experts do that make them different from the rest of us. It’s a great job. He goes to the sudoku tournaments and he studies World Cup soccer players. And he refers to it actually as deliberate practice.
And he would like to say that deliberate practice is different from anything else that we do in four important ways. And I’m going to come back to running as an example. But the first thing when you’re doing truly deliberate practice is that it’s extremely intentional. It’s problem solving something in particular. Not like I’m going to come into Google and be a better CEO, whatever it is. It’s like I’m going to say that the first 15 seconds of my presentations are going to be a little sharper I mean, it’s extremely, extremely precise. That’s the first thing, a very specific goal that you’re working on. And often it’s a weakness, not a strength.
Second is 100% focus. Or as some coaches would say– like Pete Carroll at the Seahawks– practicing with great effort. Third is feedback. Ideally, right away and ideally information rich. And fourth, the kind of refinement that you reflect on and you try the whole thing over again. In fact, these four things are incredibly straightforward. And you might wonder why only world class experts do it. But let’s come back to running.
So when I heard about this research on deliberate practice, I asked Anders, why is it that I have gone running pretty much every day for years and I’m not a second faster than I ever was? Isn’t that evidence that you’re wrong, that it’s not thousands and thousands of hours of practice? He started asking me questions like, well, when you go out for a run, do you have a goal, like a certain time? Or are you trying to run hills? No, no I’m taking the same route every time I go out around my neighborhood.
And he said, OK well, that’s great. What do you do when you’re running? I was like, well I listen to NPR and any other podcasts because I’m trying to distract myself. And he said well, that’s interesting. Because people who are trying to improve their running are actually concentrating on their running and their strides and their breathing. All right. And he said, so how are you getting feedback on your running? I mean, are you keeping your times? Are you measuring your heart rate? Do you have a coach who’s looking at your form? No. No. And no.
And then he said, are you going back every time when you run and thinking to yourself, what can I refine here? Before this next repetition what is there that I can do differently? No. And he said, well, then I can tell you why you’re not getting any better at running. And that is, those thousands of hours are not thousands of hours of deliberate practice. So I think this idea that we should be getting better at things, we can unpack that a little. It’s not just going out and trying hard. It’s actually trying hard in those four very specific ways.
BEN FRIED: So on the subject of deliberate practice and coaching, I thought it’s an interesting question. In the organization, do you have theories about what roles managers can play in helping people develop in the same way? Or do you have opinions on how professional development works in organizations versus how it should work?
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: One of the things that’s really important to know about human beings is that it’s not that we stop growing up when we’re 18. And if you look at the etymology of the word parent, the word parent really means to bring forth. So after we leave our own parents who’ve tried to bring forth our– we leap into other situations which frankly, are parenting situations.
I mean, I had teachers, I had professors. I still do, you know, mentors who, in a very authentic way, are parenting me. All right, now what does it really mean? What does it look like? I think that really, really great leaders do a couple of things. One is they model the character that they want other people to emulate. And there are two schools of thought about leadership.
Some people say the leader doesn’t really matter. Swap out one, put in the next one. Really culture’s going to happen without them. I’m in the other school of thought; I think that’s absolutely wrong. Everybody watches the leader. The leader sets the pace for the entire organization. And when the leader is nice to other people– You know, when I go and visit famous people like you, I watch them and I watch how they talk to the people who aren’t famous. I watch them when they order their food. Do they look the person in the eye? And all those little things are being watched by all the people who work for you.