Deliberate Practice and Grit as Drivers of Productivity

In my recent post Self-Improvement Month: Math Refresher I touched upon how to become more productive and making use of tools like a to-do list – with a stretch goal and a distinct plan of how to achieve it – to structure one’s daily routine. For this I was inspired by the Freakonomics series on self-improvement. Today’s post is again inspired by the radio’s self-improvement series. In particular, I want to talk about how (1) deliberate practice and (2) grit might help improve one’s productivity.

In all aspects of life – from sports and music to work – we can observe that some people are more productive than others. Some people excel at what they are doing while others simply do not. But why is this the case? There are two contrasting views on why some people reach higher levels of productivity or performance than other people. On the one hand, it can be argued that these people have an innate talent or ability which allows them to excel at everything they do. On the other hand, it can be argued that these people have engaged in so-called deliberate practice which is superior to normal practice to excel at what they are doing. While the former view differentiates between people, the latter view assumes that anyone can excel with the help of high levels of practice over a sustained period. (You might have heard about the 10,000 hour rule.)

Because talent is more or less inherited, I want to focus on deliberate practice as a driver of productivity in the first part of the post. This term was coined by Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. In his research Ericsson has shown that high performers have become experts in their field, because they are engaging in deliberate practice. In comparison to less efficient practice methods, deliberate practice generally consists of:

  • High levels of practice over a sustained period,
  • Learning the skills necessary for high performance step by step through smaller tasks in structured day-to-day practice,
  • Practice at steadily rising levels of difficulty and
  • Individualised supervision and immediate feedback from a teacher (Mayer, 2008).

While individualised supervision can partly be substituted by pre-defined curricula and group instruction, it remains superior and the most effective way of learning (Anders Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, 1993).

However, while the aspects mentioned above are necessary, they are not sufficient for deliberate practice. There are four further constraints which govern whether an individual is able to engage in deliberate practice. Firstly, there is the time constraint which limits the time and energy individuals can spent on practice rather than other commitments like work, school or family life. Second, there is a resource constraint. An individual needs access to appropriate training material and facilities as well as a supportive teacher who can coach the student in a manner which encourages deliberate practice. Third, there is a motivational constraint. Motivation is key to perseverance, because there are most often no immediate but long-term rewards for practice which might not be obvious to the learner in the short-run in daily practice. Fourth, there is the effort constraint. Individuals that engage in deliberate practice recognise the need for breaks and therefore limit daily practice to a healthy and sustainable level (Anders Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer, 1993).

Given that these four constraints are met, K. Anders Ericsson argues that anyone can excel in life through deliberate practice. The high performers that we observe in society have benefited from such optimal conditions for learning and have mastered how they learn best.

After having talked about deliberate practice as one of the two main determinants of performance (the other being innate talent), let’s take a closer look at why these high performers are able to commit to such a high intensity of practice. As noted before, deliberate practice is not always enjoyable. It might even be painful in the day-to-day exercises (in sports for example) in order to reap long-term results. Still, high performers are able to commit to deliberate practice over a sustained time period and that is where grit comes into play. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has studied grit extensively in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She defines grit “as passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews and Kelly, 2007, p.1087). Hence grit can probably be seen as a lever for deliberate practice as well as a driver of productivity. It enables individuals to engage in such intensive and not always enjoyable levels of practice in order to become a high performer. Furthermore, grit is associated with success outcomes beyond that explained by IQ, with higher attainments in the level of education and less career changes (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews and Kelly, 2007).

So, in order to become more productive two helpful ingredients are deliberate practice and grit. But is there a way to have more grit in life in case you are not a gritty person?

According to Duckworth any individual can learn to have more grit. This is because genius is “something that you can accomplish yourself as opposed to something that is given to you” she says in her interview with Stephen J. Dubner (Freakonomics, 2016). Her argument links back to the earlier discussion about whether it is innate ability or practice which determines one’s performance in life. Similar to K. Anders Ericsson, Angela Duckworth argues that it is not natural ability which determines one’s level of performance, but individuals can actively accomplish greatness through deliberate effort.

In her research Duckworth found that gritty people do not primarily differ in their character but rather in their behaviour (which can be learned or taught). Her research revealed that gritty people are different in four ways, namely (1) interest, (2) practice, (3) purpose and (4) hope. These four traits enable perseverance and passion for long-term goals. While interest, purpose and hope are new ideas, one can see that the concept of (deliberate) practice also plays a key role in having more grit in life. Hence, there is probably a two-way relationship between grid and deliberate practice.

Let’s look at all four traits in more detail. Interest or even stronger – passion – comes first. Gritty people have acquired high levels of interest in one particular thing. It is like an intrinsic motivator which drives their passion for becoming knowledgeable or an expert in a particular field. However, Duckworth acknowledges that not every individual is striving for becoming an expert in one field. She differentiates between dilettantes and experts. While the former strives for novelty, the latter “substitutes nuance for novelty” (Duckworth in Freakonomics, 2016). In the second stage, once people have become interested in a certain thing, it is about the right kind of practice. Gritty people practice in a very methodical way where this practice is more similar to labour. This is why the first stage of developing passion is crucial. Gritty people can engage in this labouring kind of practice due to their extremely well-developed interest. In the third stage, gritty people develop a beyond-the-self purpose. This means that the real purpose of their work or hobby does not stem from selfish interests but from its positive impact on others or the connectedness to other people (for example team sports). The fourth trait of hope governs all three stages of interest, practice and purpose, because it allows gritty people to remain optimistic even when being confronted with challenges or experiencing setbacks (Freakonomics, 2016).

In sum, deliberate practice and grit are two ingredients for becoming more productive and improve one’s performance in life. Deliberate practice, as coined by K. Anders Ericsson, differs greatly from less efficient ways of practice and allows anyone to excel in life if the four constraints (time, resources, motivation, efforts) are met. Grit is “a passion or perseverance for long-term goals” and enables individuals to become a genius through their own efforts rather than innate ability. Thereby gritty people are characterised by extreme high levels of interest in one particular thing, intensive practice, beyond-the-self purpose and hope. Overall, according to these concepts productivity and performance are more driven by the deliberate efforts of individuals rather than a natural talent. Given that there is a supportive external environment (resources etc.) any individual can improve and excel. This should be good news for anyone attempting to improve their skills!

In case that the grit concept sounds plausible to you, you might want to actually go ahead and calculate your own grit score. For this Angela Duckworth has published her 12-item grit scale here. On her website there is also a shortened interactive version if are short of time.

Thanks for reading today’s post,

Jasse


Anders Ericsson, K., Krampe, R.Th., and Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C. Matthews, M.D., and Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Freakonomics, (2016, 4 May). How to Get More Grit in Your Life. Retrieved from: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/grit/

Mayer, R.E. (2008). Learning and Instruction (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

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