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Intensely Focused Practice

talent1When we observe someone who has truly mastered their craft, whether it’s a writer, athlete, musician, or business person, we tend to assume they achieved that level of mastery through a combination of two ways:

1. They worked really, really hard.
2. They were born with some level of natural talent.

However, in Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin, the argument is made that neither of those two routes is the most effective way to achieve mastery of a subject. Instead, Colvin argues, deliberate practice is what separates the champs from the chumps.

Particularly germane to this website, Colvin uses Benjamin Franklin’s writing regimen as an example of deliberate practice. After his father suggested Franklin improve his writing skills, he enacted on the following routine:
–He took published sentences and made notes on the meaning of each one. Later, he would review those notes and try to write a sentence of his one that expressed the same points and meaning as the original. He then reviewed his versions with the published version.
–He rewrote published essays in verse, figuring that experience in poetry would enhance his vocabulary. Then, after he had forgotten the pieces, he would take the “versified” text and convert it back to prose. And he would compare his prose versions to the published version.
–On a separate slip of paper, he wrote notes on each sentence in a published essay. He then would jumble up all those scraps. Later, after he had forgotten the original essay, he would retrieve the pile of notes and try to put them in the correct order, attempt to write his own piece based on those notes, and then compare his version with the published one.

“Significantly, he did not try to become a better essay writer by sitting down and writing essays,” Colvin writes. “Instead, like a top-ranked athlete or musician, he worked over and over on those specific aspects that needed improvement.”

vaiI recently came across another example of such intensely focused practice. Guitar virtuoso Steve Vai recently gave a class and peppered his lecture with memories of “practicing just one single note for hours.” Whereas most people sit down and try to bang out “Smoke on the Water” as they learn to play guitar, Vai focused in on the smallest techniques and studied them exhaustively. Then, as he mastered each technique, he started to bolt them onto each other and string them together.

So as writers, the point that we should take away is to look at the way we go about pursuing our craft. Simple sweat, the argument goes, won’t get you there. Nor will defeatist attidues towards natural skill that allows us to shrug and say, “I don’t have what it takes to be a Faulkner.” Instead, we should break down the tasks of our writing into their smallest components and go about practicing them in a detailed and focused way. And then we should evaluate the results objectively and critically.