The 3 Types of Practice: How Efficient Is Your Learning?

10,000 Hours Isn’t The Most Important Thing In Anders Ericsson’s Work

The most well-known thing that comes out of Anders Ericsson’s work research is the often-quoted 10,000 Hours Rule: the amount of deliberate practice it takes to reach world-class mastery in something.

The 10,000 Hours Rule is also often attributed, incorrectly, to Malcolm Gladwell . All he did was write about Ericsson’s research – but the hypothesis actually comes from Anders Ericsson .

I actually hate the 10,000 Hour Rule. Partially because of the over-attribution to Gladwell (and don’t get me wrong, I’m a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I love his books), but mainly because I think in talking about this number so much, 10,000… 10,000 hours!!… most people miss what I think is really the most important part of Ericsson’s research. And that is the effectiveness of DELIBERATE PRACTICE.

It’s not bullshit practice we’re talking about. It’s not spending a lot of time doing something just to spend time doing something. It’s deliberate practice.


Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson

Forget the 10,000 hours part. Too many people focus on that. Jerry Rice and Tiger Woods aren’t great just because they spent more working at their crafts than everyone else. Hell, they probably didn’t. They became great because of how HARD they practiced. Deliberately.

I’m still playing with it and tweaking it my life and learning how to apply deliberate practice to new skills and new projects I want to improve and accomplish. But in order to paint the picture of what deliberate practice is, I also want to point out a couple of other styles of practice to you and show you why you need all three, but also why deliberate practice is the most important.

Three Important Types of Practice

So, lets talk about this for a minute. The three types of practice are: deliberate practice, ambient practice, and synthetic practice.

Let me try to define them for you, and then break them down with a couple of examples.

Ambient practice – would just be picking up the skill naturally, over time, as it comes to you. Through your habitat. Through your environment and normal behavior, you would just pick it up. Yes, its effective and it does happen – but, it takes forever.

Deliberate practice – being very deliberate in what you want to improve and focusing on practicing the skill in a setting equal to or very close to the actual performance setting of the skill. Because doing so, provides you with instant and direct feedback, which you can then use to instantly learn from and make adjustments and improve.

Synthetic practicethe next best thing when deliberate practice is not always possible. Usually this is due to deliberate practice between very expensive in resources in some way (money, time). In synthetic practice, unlike deliberate practice, the performance setting is merely synthesized. So, you are not practicing in the actual performance setting but in the best synthetic you can possibly create. Feedback is not as good, as direct, or as instant as it would be in deliberate practice.

The curious case of the natural.
Of course, if you implement something you probably pick it up a bit and your ambient practice would actually become a bit more deliberate, even if still mainly ambient. I like to think of this as “the curious case of the natural”. I’m very much on the nurture side in the whole nature vs. nurture argument. And, I think this basically describes the “natural” that fools everybody on the nature side. He’s just naturally good at math. He’s just naturally good at learning languages. etcetera… No. I don’t think so. The “natural” is fooling you. For some reason he was curiously more interested in the subject at hand than most, early on. And his interest lead him to be a little more deliberate in his practice than everybody else. Thus, he can become naturally better than the rest of this ambient practicing peers.

Illustrating These Differences With An Example

Here’s a simplified example: Johnny plays basketball and wants to be a better 3-point shooter.

The skill he’s working on is his 3-point shooting.

Deliberate practice – His best deliberate practice would be to deliberately work on his 3-point shot during the actual games. He would deliberately aim to shoot 3-pointers during the games, focus on them rather than other areas of his game, analyze the feedback instantly, and make corrections going forward. This is the best practice available. It is during the performance setting (an actual game) and the feedback is instant: are the shots going in or not?

However, it is also resourcefully expensive. Games don’t occur all of the time and due to the other players on the court and time they possess the ball, Johnny would have a lot of downtime during the course of the game where he would not be able to deliberately practice is 3-point shot. Also, if his instant feedback shows that he still needs a lot of work, he may not get it instantly, as his feedback to his teammates may be to stop passing him the ball, and his coach may take him out of the game.

Synthetic practice – Johnny works at his 3-point shot for a couple of hours every day and tries to simulate game time situations as best as possible. He does this using a partner (friend, coach, or teammate). He practices rolling off of picks and shooting a 3, shooting off of the dribble, catching and shooting, having his partner run out at him to simulate defenders, etc.

Ambient practice – Johnny just keeps playing basketball. Occasionally he shoots 3 pointers, but he doesn’t put much effort into improving his shot deliberately. Over the years he does improve slightly, because he plays enough. But his shot barely improves. And it takes years.

The curious case of the natural:
While aiming to improve his 3-point shot, Johnny enlists the help of his friend Teddy. Teddy is the best 3-point shooter he knows and has such a natural and pure shot. Teddy’s story is this: when he was 5 years old, he was playing a game of pick up basketball against some older kids and through sheer dumb luck he made a amazing long distance 3-pointer that nobody expected him to make. His teammates congratulated him and his opponents looked stunned. He liked that feeling and enjoyed the praise so much that he sought out to receive it again. He deliberately aimed to be the guy that made 3-pointers and damage his opponents for leaving him open. He did this over and over and over time he became a better 3-point shooter than everyone else. Now, he’s a natural. Even he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t a good shooter. It was always that way.


Don’t worry. They can’t catch me..

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