Mozart and the question of mastery
The first two decades of Mozart's legendary career weren't defined by musical breakthroughs and compositions seasoned by some mysterious divine spark. Instead, they followed “usual methods – copying, arranging, and imitating the works of others.”
His brilliance as a musician, according to author Geoff Colvin, has less to do with a fairy tale of extreme giftedness and more to do with elements that aren’t so lovely: a hard father who put his son through inordinate amounts of musical work from the age of 3, a career that cost him many of the joys of a “normal life,” and even a death that came too early as a result of his indiscretions.
Greatness comes with a cost. But that is a good thing. Because a cost, even a great one, can be attained by those who are willing to pay.
In this article, we are going to look at what it takes to become a great writer according to the principles laid out in Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated. This book is a treasure trove of resources, from the dozens of experts he uses as case studies (e.g., Tiger Woods, Jerry Rice, etc.), to the countless scientific studies he utilizes to support his research.
To accomplish this, we are going to dive into the following ideas present in his book:
- What is Deliberate Practice and what isn’t it?
- What specific elements should writers focus on for their deliberate practice?
- What three models of practice does Colvin cite and how can writers use them to improve their craft?
- What is the Cycle of Motivation and how does it work?
After that, we’ll cover a few more relevant ideas to support our mastery:
- Should we get more traditional schooling (BA in English, MFA, etc.) if we want to become experts in our field or craft?
- What is the hidden element of mastery (one that even the author almost overlooked and took for granted in his research)?
- What are the most common pitfalls aspiring masters and writers fall into on their journeys?
If you want to start taking your writing more seriously and need to know how to level up your skills, make sure you read until the very end of this post.
What is deliberate practice and why does it matter?
Mozart only became Mozart because of deliberate practice. His father, who literally wrote the book on music education at the time, created a world for his son which made practice a non-negotiable part of daily life.
The main reason Mozart was able to accomplish so much at such a young age was due to the fact that he was able to put in the amount of work most people take a lifetime to accrue before he was twenty years old.
Deliberate practice and time. These are the only two ingredients you need for extraordinary performance.
Barring any biological limitations physically or cognitively – anyone can accomplish anything. This is Colvin’s core thesis and one we will work with as the backbone for this article.
“What you believe about the source of great performance thus becomes the foundation of all you will ever achieve.” — Geoff Colvin
Deliberate practice, an idea advanced by researcher Anders Ericsson, is fundamentally different than what we normally think of when we imagine practicing. Deliberate practice is not simply doing the activity we want to improve over and over again until we get better.
Rather, in order to transform traditional practice into deliberate practice we have to get both specific and strategic about what we want to accomplish.
First, let’s look at the broad definition Geoff Colvin gives us in his book. Afterward, we will break down the individual pieces into five clear elements we can use for our training.
“[Deliberate practice] is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.” from Talent is Overrated
#1 Deliberate practice is designed.
The first element of deliberate practice is that it is intentionally designed by people who are invested in improving performance. For absolute beginners in any field, this means a teacher is required because a beginner won’t yet know how to break down the larger skill into its individual pieces.
The goal here is to create a process that systematically allows you to “stretch beyond current abilities” in very small, defined areas of performance.
In chess, there are set ways to open a match. One example of deliberate practice would be to spend one hour a day learning and practicing only opening moves. It may seem redundant and a little boring to never get past the first one or two moves of a game, but this is precisely the kind of designed work it takes to master any skill.
#2 Deliberate practice is repeatable.
Using the chess example above, we can highlight the next element of deliberate practice. Useful practice must aim at improving a particular skill in a method that allows for high volume.
How one defines “high volume” is up for debate, but author Geoff Colvin communicates the extreme dedication needed for mastery. Colvin writes, “Ted Williams, baseball’s greatest hitter, would practice hitting until his hands bled.” He also talks about Moe Norman, a golfer who is said to have hit over 800 golf balls a day in practice (over 4,000,000 in his career).
Furthermore, we have to be careful of not letting this repeatable activity fall into automatic movement. When we stop paying attention, we stop improving. The ideal difficulty level for this repeatable activity must fall within our learning zone – slightly outside of our current ability comfort zone, and a safe distance away from our panic zone.
#3 Deliberate practice requires feedback.
In many activities, feedback is clear and immediate: you miss the shot, you win the match, you lift the weight. "Difficulties arise when the results require interpretation," writes Colvin.
In music, it's not enough to simply play the correct notes. They also have to be played correctly. This is when a mentor or teacher becomes extremely valuable. Practice without feedback equates to time and energy invested with little to no improvement to show for it.
If the skill you are trying to build requires interpretation, find an outside (appropriately trained) person to offer it.
#4 Deliberate practice is mentally demanding.
At its core, deliberate practice is intentionally rewiring your brain. Colvin writes about myelin formation and how essential it is for top-tier performers in any field. (See endnotes for more on this topic.)
No matter the type of activity, “deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration.” This strain means there are also natural limitations to how much deliberate practice a person can fit into one day.
Research shows that 4 – 5 hours of deliberate practice is the maximum amount most experts can endure per day. Also, note that this is almost never accomplished in one sitting. The usual schedule consists of 60 – 90-minute sessions done 2 – 3 times per day, typically broken up by meals, exercise, or a nap.
#5 Deliberate practice is probably not fun.
I thought this was a strange point to add in, but as I continued reading Colvin's book, it became more valid. Passion is a core part of peak performance. Most high performers love the activity they've dedicated their lives to improving.
However, deliberate practice is not the same thing as engaging in the activity they love and this is a key point. Deliberate practice forces us to “seek out what we’re not good at” about the thing we enjoy. It requires a level of maturity about the activity few possess. Why would we want to ruin what we enjoy by highlighting the parts we can't stand?
We’ll cover more on this when we talk about the Cycle of Motivation. For now, keep in mind that true practice is altogether a different emotional experience than the activity itself.
In review, we’ve covered the five elements of deliberate practice (designed, repeatable, feedback-oriented, mentally demanding, emotionally-challenging) and why it matters for skill development.
Now, how can we apply these concepts to improving our writing skills and becoming the kinds of writers we look up to?
Applying deliberate practice to writing
The first step is to break down the overall skill of writing into its individual parts. As primarily a non-fiction author, my lens is going to vary slightly from those who focus on fiction or even other styles of non-fiction writing.
Colvin uses one relevant example in his book that we can build from: Benjamin Franklin. Colvin uses Franklin’s autobiography to help determine his approach to improving his writing skills. Together with this example, as well as some additional research and self-reflection, I defined eight distinct areas writers should focus on if they want to apply the principles of deliberate practice.
Words are to writers as ingredients are to chefs. The better ingredients you have access to, the more depth of flavor the final dish will possess.
Now, that doesn’t mean every writer should strive to use the most complicated or rare words they can find. Restraint is key. It’s about having access to the words when they are needed, as well as having a broad enough vocabulary to meet your reader where they are now.
I think the last time I memorized vocabulary words was for a foreign language class in graduate school. I don't know many adults who regularly practice adding new words to the repertoire, but this is a skill set I will be integrating into my regular writing practice.
How to deliberately practice vocabulary for writers:
Start with small goals and use the tools that are already available.
Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder is a great resource to begin with (and for under $4). Committing to building your vocabulary every day for 15 minutes or using three new words in your writing every week are both goals I am considering for this category.
If words are the ingredients, then grammar is the cooking style. It doesn’t matter how expensive your scallops may have been because if they’re overcooked or undercooked or over-seasoned – no one is going to want to eat them.
Grammar, style, punctuation. These are all integral to how we write, but how many writers focus on improving these particular skills?
The only test I ever failed in K-12 was a quiz on prepositions (I still remember the moment I received that test back like it was yesterday…it happened in third grade). Ever since then, I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with grammar. But if I want my writing to become everything it can be, then that needs to change.
How to deliberately practice grammar for writers:
The place I plan to start is by purchasing the workbook: The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Even after writing for so many years, I still feel like a novice when it comes to much of the craft talk.
That is why my default is to rely on trusted resources (books, courses, teachers), instead of trying to design my own improvement method. If there's an area you feel more confident in, feel free to create a deliberate practice that makes sense to you. Otherwise, use what’s already available.
As a non-fiction author, most of my content relies on solid research. My ability to collect great stories and interesting ideas are a critical element of my writing.
I fiercely admire authors like Ryan Holiday, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Heath brothers for their ability to pull from such a wide variety of sources to create a coherent theme, story, or argument.
For writers in other genres, your research may look different such as collecting information on the setting for your novel or fact-checking the scientific elements in your space opera (readers get serious about these things!).
Whatever your writing genre may be, improving your ability to collect, organize, and use sources is a vital skill every writer should possess.
How to deliberately practice research for writers:
To start, I highly recommend reading this article by Ryan Holiday and his commonplace book method for collecting and organizing sources.
I am decent at capturing interesting ideas and stories, but not so great at the organization part. My practice will consist of spending 60 – 90 minutes each week organizing the collection I already have into a system I can more readily use in my writing.
I believe the eighth wonder of the world are pantsers who are able to improvise their way into magnificent works of writing. Those outliers aside, most writers I know use some element of organization before they begin writing.
Whether you call that an outline, story beats, or something else entirely – the better you’re able to logically map out where you want to go, the easier it will be to get there.
How to deliberately practice outlining for writers:
This is a method I’ve actually been using for nearly a decade: outlining other people’s finished works. You can start simple. Find an article or blog post that you admire and spend 10-15 minutes outlining how the author got from the introduction to the conclusion. You can do this for essays, chapters, or even entire books.
I plan to start small and outline one chapter of a book I enjoy every week. That way, I’m slowly but consistently building my familiarity with how my favorite authors structure their work.
(5) Read great writing
The first piece of advice established writers give to aspiring writers is to "read great writing." Read more. Read everything. Read 2x/5x/10x as much as you write.
I think this is an essential part of the process when it comes to identifying and closing what Ira Glass calls “the gap.” We need to know what’s possible, what we’re aiming for, and what we ultimately want to sound like when we write.
How to deliberately practice reading for writers:
My favorite related practice is one I learned from C.S. Lewis many years ago. He was said to have a pattern to how he read: one new book, followed by one old book, then new, then old again, and so on.
Reading old books gives you a greater context for your thoughts and stories. How you define old is up to you (usually, books 50+ years old meet the criteria).
Also, I found that older books generally read slower because I am not as familiar with the language. They force me to pay attention. Then, when I go back to a modern book, I find myself noticing things I don’t think I would have if I was only reading current materials.
(6) Specific writing elements
When I was reading Colvin’s research on chess, I noticed a lot of similarities between how expert chess players play the game and how expert writers approach their craft. A Grand Master doesn’t just play chess, she breaks down the board into sections, and each stage into moves. While a chess board is just a collection of pieces and endless options in my mind, it’s a carefully constructed map in hers.
Chess consists of opening, attack, and defense moves or tactics. Masters practice hundreds or even thousands of situations over and over again until they understand how and when to use it.
Writers have similar pieces in their arsenal. A well-constructed introduction can make or break whether the reader continues. A sound conclusion is essential to ensuring that the reader feels satisfied with the ending. How to transition from one thought to another is a skill even the most advanced writers occasionally struggle with mastering.
Breaking down your writing into specific parts may sound like overkill to some. But no writer makes a living off of their first drafts. Think of this practice as strategic rewriting.
How to deliberately practice strategic rewriting for writers:
When working on a new project, try to break down your editing process into systematic stages of rewriting. Let's say you have a short, 1,000-word article you just finished the first draft on. In your next writing session, rewrite only the introduction from scratch. Next, do the same with only the conclusion.
Consider doing each 3 – 5 times and pay attention to what changes each time. Is your 5th attempt better than your first? Can you integrate elements from the 2nd and 3rd to create something better than all the rest?
It’s common for us to do this with shorter elements like headlines and titles, but how much better would our writing be if we took this extra step for large segments of our work?
(7) Idea Generation
James Altucher, the author of Choose Yourself, is famous for his strategy of coming up with ten ideas a day. It doesn't matter if the ideas are bad or silly or impossible. Write them down. Elaborate on the best ones. Combine the ideas that seem like total opposites (Altucher's term for this is "idea-sex").
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, ideas are the lifeblood of your writing. They don’t have to be wildly original or widely popular. All they need to be are ideas you have something to say about.
How to deliberately practice idea generation for writers:
I think Altucher's strategy is both simple and effective. Spend 10 – 15 minutes each day writing down as many ideas as you can think of related to the project you are working on at the moment.
Your ideas could be new blog post topics, book titles, character stories, or anything that stretches the creative muscle.
(8) Writing Output
“Execution is everything.” — John Doerr
At the end of the day, everything comes back to this: getting your butt in the chair and getting the words out of your head and onto the page. Writing a lot won’t automatically make you a better writer. But writing in such a way that integrates the deliberate practice elements we’ve covered so far will absolutely make you better.
Writing output is about developing the discipline to consistently deliver. It's about building the concentration necessary to communicate ideas that take thousands of words to convey (or tens of thousands in book-form). It’s also about time management. A writer who can barely produce 100 words a day will be hard-pressed to turn their skill into a career.
The output element can also include the editing and revising phase. I love to sit down and crank out 1,000 – 1,500 words in one sitting. What I don’t love is sitting down to edit, revise, and critique those same words. But the latter, less-enjoyable activity is what makes me a better writer.
How to deliberately practice output for writers:
By far, the most effective strategy I've used is the Pomodoro Technique. Set a 25-minute timer and write non-stop until it goes off. Once it does, stop where you are, even if you're in the middle of a sentence, walk away from the computer, and do something else until the 5-minute rest time finishes.
This act will build a tremendous amount of discipline so that when you sit down to write, you will actually write! Another resource I recommend is Chris Fox's book, 5000 Words Per Hour. The systems he’s used to publish hundreds of thousands of words for nearly a decade are tried and true and will help you increase your output no matter what level you’re currently at.
These eight areas represent the fundamental elements of great writing. Of course, these may vary depending on your subject, audience, and style. But I think any writer wanting to apply the method of deliberate practice to their work would benefit from starting with these few ideas.
3 Models of deliberate practice
Before we cover the Cycle of Motivation and how your practice routine can eventually become a self-perpetuating cycle of improvement, I wanted to introduce you to the three models Colvin cites in his book.
One of the difficulties the author dealt with in his book was figuring out how to apply the ideas of intentional skill-building to domains that weren't used to this line of thinking. Most people know how much practice it takes to become a great violinist. But what about a great singer? If any talent is an inborn gift, singing must be one of them. Or what about the hours of strength and conditioning required to become a top-tier athlete? Is there any correlation to what it takes to become a master sculptor?
To help address these questions, Colvin pulled out the most basic principles within each of the different disciplines so that outsiders could use his models and apply them to their skill acquisition. Thankfully, it looks like all three of his models apply to writing. Especially when paired with the eight dimensions we covered in the above section.
Model 1: The music model
The Music Model is performance-oriented. The person will usually take something that is already written down (e.g., music notes, a speech, etc.) and incrementally improve how the piece is made and how it is delivered.
This method sounds exactly like the editing and rewriting process. One of the best ways I've found to improve my writing is to read it aloud, sometimes with an audience. It allows me to catch errors my eyes would normally gloss over. And when I'm able to read it in front of a live audience, I can get a better sense of pacing, structure, and more. It only takes a few unnecessary sentences before the audience’s eyes begin to glaze over.
Use this model to think of your writing as a performance. Ask yourself, how would this be received? And, how can I make it more interesting, more logical, or more refined?
Model 2: The chess model
The Chess Model is all about situational feedback. Colvin compares this to the "case method" business schools and law schools use to train their students. The idea is that once you are exposed enough times to a particular type of situation, you will develop categories, recognize themes, and learn how to best move forward.
Similarly, this can apply to our writing. The exercise of outlining other people's work, practicing introductions and conclusions, or writing multiple pieces on the same topic are all examples of learning through situational repetition and feedback.
This model also pairs with mentorship or an academic program. Having an advanced teacher helping guide your moves can drastically shorten your learning time.
Model #3: The sports model
The Sports Model consists of two separate concentrations: conditioning and critical skill development. A quarterback has to practice his running speed as much as he needs to practice his throwing accuracy. Only doing one well won't get them very far.
For writers, conditioning could equate to vocabulary and grammar development. These are the tools we need to perform our job well. The critical skills part comes in with our specific genre: learning how to intertwine facts to create a great non-fiction book or shape grand story arcs to create gripping fiction.
Each model pushes us to look at our writing from a different angle; forcing us to confront both the areas we excel at and the areas we struggle within our craft. I also found that they can offer a sense of relief.
After a season of tight deadlines and high output, it can be gratifying to default back into a season of “conditioning” where you spend less time writing for “performance” sake and more time working on the individual elements of your art.
Furthermore, keeping all three models in mind when planning out where you would like to go with your writing can help ensure that you don’t neglect one of the essential pieces.
The cycle of motivation
How do we turn our deliberate practice into what Geoff Colvin calls, "a self-reinforcing cycle." In a section titled Self-Regulation, the author divided the process of deliberate practice into three sections: before "the work," during, and after. The separation was meant to help readers understand the goal of each phase.
However, I found his summary to be much more helpful. In it, he connected the entire process into a four-part structure I nicknamed The Cycle of Motivation. Here’s how it works:
Step 1 is to identify a specific goal you want to accomplish with your deliberate practice time. The goal must be process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented. For example, a writing goal might be to practice using a certain grammatical rule in your next writing piece.
For Step 2, you execute. Or as we call it, experiment. This is the time to make mistakes if needed. Get your pen to the page or fingers to the keyboard and start producing. The goal during this phase is self-observation or meta-cognition.
Pay attention to what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Is there something distracting you? Is there a reason why you keep repeating this mistake in your writing? Note these observations in a notebook or scrap paper and continue working.
In Step 3, we analyze the results. It’s time to take a step back from your work and put on your editor hat. A tool like Grammarly could help you in the initial stages if you’re working on spelling, vocabulary, or grammar. Pay attention to what you did right and wrong. Then go one step further. Why did it work? Why didn’t it?
Colvin writes that average performers simply avoid their mistakes while masters engage with them and even repeat them until they’re able to find a solution.
Finally, Step 4 is when you get clear about what changes you will make going forward. Using the information you gathered along the way, write out exactly how you are going to adapt your actions in the future. Don’t be vague – your mind needs specifics if it is going to change.
Create a new set of goals and allow the cycle to repeat itself.
So then, how is this a self-perpetuating cycle of motivation? Good question. The motivation comes from seeing and feeling your improvement.
As you are able to hit your stretch goals, the results you analyze will become more encouraging and more informative. Your adaptations will become more ambitious, and you’ll find yourself working for the sake of mastery rather than for the promise of an outcome.
When the joy of improving your skill becomes more important than what the skill can get for you, that is when you’ve locked into a self-perpetuating cycle of internal motivation. Discipline doesn't beat motivation. It creates it. And those who have both win.
School, choice, and patience
To close this article, I wanted to spend a few minutes answering related questions I think you’ll find helpful.
Should you get more schooling (e.g., MFA) in order to become an expert?
Colvin covers several examples in his book which support the idea that advanced schooling is essential to mastery. But he also shows a number of cases in which it wasn't.
For fields like math, physics, and other science-related skillsets, advanced schooling is almost non-negotiable. To advance the field of knowledge, you first have to cultivate a deep understanding of what has been done, why, and where the questions are headed next.
For fields like art, writing, and other creative endeavors – schooling may not be the best option. He writes, “in a wide range of fields, knowledge of the domain may bear little relation to years of schooling.” That is to say, mastery of domain knowledge is still essential, but getting academic degrees is not the best way to get that knowledge.
In my brief experience, I can vouch for his claim. In college, I briefly changed my major to English. I knew I wanted to better my writing skills and that seemed like the most logical way to do it. I'm sure it depends on the college and program you to enroll in, but my experience was not beneficial.
The focus was on critical analysis, historical studies, and very dry academic writing. I switched majors once I discovered that most of my favorite authors didn’t study writing skills. Instead, they focused on the subject they would one day write about in their books and other works.
When it comes to your craft, I think it's useful to ask yourself a few questions:
- How did the masters you look up to acquire their skills?
- What are the most time and resource-efficient ways to develop your skills?
- Are you learning from people who understand and support what you want to eventually do, or do they have a different priority in mind for your training?
What is the hidden element of mastery?
The book Talent is Overrated is primarily concerned with the questions of what and how when it comes to mastery. The author briefly touches on the subject of why with his discussions on Drudge Theory and Social Architecture. But I think there is something even more fundamental at play.
When people can choose what they want to do, mastery becomes much more likely. Colvin supports this point in his chapter on organizations, "Since intrinsic drives are strongest, people will work most passionately and effectively on projects they choose for themselves."
At one point or another, every person profiled made a conscious choice to pursue a specific skill. They chose practice over some other, likely more enjoyable, activity. And they chose to persevere day-in and day-out, for decades in many cases.
Choice and decision-making are topics I plan on writing about in much more depth, so if you’re interested make sure you are subscribed to the Icons & Ideas email list.
What advice would Geoff Colvin give to aspiring masters?
While reading his book, I handwrote over seven full pages of notes containing hundreds of direct quotes, citations, and questions. If I could summarize everything I gathered into three snippets, they would be:
- Be patient. The 10-year rule (or 10,000-hour rule) holds true in nearly every case of mastery. Also, a surefire way to sabotage your growth is to compare yourself to others too often and too early. Self-comparison should be your only focus during that first decade.
- Believe it is possible. Much of what we covered in this article and his book are about rewiring your brain. If you don't believe what you're trying to accomplish is possible, then all the work you're putting in is rendered null.
- Commit to the necessary sacrifices. I love the way Mark Manson puts it, “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich.” 99% of the journey towards mastery is going to be difficult. You’re going to have to delay the creature comforts that everyone else gets to enjoy. And you’re going to have to work a lot harder for a lot less for a long time. If you can’t stomach that reality, be honest with yourself and choose a path more aligned with what you truly want.
You are fully capable of accomplishing whatever it is you desire. It's science. Hard work, not talent, will be the only thing holding you back from your goals. Which is good news because you have 100% control over that factor.
Deliberate practice is difficult but doable. Whether you want to write the next great American novel, or grow a blog, or create a comic that goes viral. The responsibility is on you. Your actions today will decide who you get to be ten years from now.
Choose well, my friend.