Friday, March 25, 2016

Mindset and Deliberate Practice

After learning more about deliberate practice in Ericsson, Krampe, andTesch-Romer’s article, that high performance is correlated more with effort than natural talent, it’s important to figure out the difference between a person who performs deliberate practice and one that does not.

This week, I read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. Dweck argues that the key contrast between these two groups of individuals is mindset. Some have a fixed mindset and some have a growth mindset. To differentiate between the two, a person with a fixed mindset believes their skills and performance to be static properties, and in the growth mindset, these qualities can be improved overtime as a direct result of effort and practice.

In a fixed mindset, you are born with a certain intelligence, specific athletic ability, etc. Try as you might, you’re stuck that way. As a result, fixed-minded individuals do not value practice. They also tend to be defensive. Within a mindset where improvement doesn’t exist, any criticism becomes a personal, permanent reflection of the person’s qualities and performance.  They avoid challenges; taking part in a difficult task might expose themselves to (highly exaggerated) outside judgment. “As a New York Times article points out, failure has been transformed from an action (I failed) to an identity (I am a failure)” (Dweck 33). To fail at a task or receive negative feedback necessarily devalues the fixed-minded individual.

In defense of their intelligence and ability, those with a severely fixed mindset can be self-destructive. “Everything I [Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg] was going through boiled down to fear. Fear of trying and failing. . . . If you go to an audition and don’t really try, if you’re not really prepared, if you didn’t work as hard as you could have and you don’t win, you have an excuse. . . . Nothing is harder than saying, ‘I gave it my all and it wasn’t good enough’ ” (Dweck 42). So to an extent, a fixed mindset can be comforting. This is likely why it’s so common.

While reading “Mindset,” I found countless examples of how the fixed mindset applies to myself. As a straight-A student through most of grade school, I was usually one of the smartest guys in the room. Not once did I study for a test which was something I took great pride in. Slowly and steadily, however, my grades began to slip. I took it personally but didn’t try to do anything about it. I certainly had enough excuses, though. Unfortunately for my childhood self, it took a few years of declining grades before I switched to a growth mindset. Until that point, I just accepted that I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room anymore. I stopped concerning myself with grades altogether; I wouldn’t look at test grades or report cards or essays that were returned with feedback. I didn’t want to acknowledge any more failures. If I had a growth mindset, this information could have been invaluable. More on that later.

In the growth mindset, you see the same situations quite differently. You see athleticism, intelligence, performance, etc. as something to improve on rather than accept as permanent. In the words of Michael Riordan, a teacher referred to in Dweck’s book, “Performance cannot be based on one assessment. You cannot determine the slope of a line given only one point” (28). High performance is something you achieve, not something you’re born into. The growth-minded don’t limit themselves to their current abilities and level of performance. They consider themselves to be in ongoing development.  

In contrast to the fixed mindset, growth-minded individuals seek challenges. To them, a challenge is an opportunity to learn and improve. A fixed-minded person would shy away from a challenge since it may lead to failure. A growth-minded person is willing to try their best despite exposing themselves to this risk. They see failure not as a reflection on permanent characteristics. It only means more effort is required.

In both Dweck’s “Mindset” and the Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer study on deliberate practice,
 the value of natural talent is minimized in achieving high performance. Dweck doesn’t use the term deliberate practice in her work, but there’s clearly an overlap with her ‘growth mindset.’ Effort is required to achieve high performance regardless of natural talent. Improvement is something that happens overtime. Both refer to the fact we consistently undervalue the effort it took for eminent performers to reach the level that they did.

The growth mindset does not necessarily sustain motivation entirely. Rather, it allows for the possibility of deliberate practice. It could be considered a prerequisite of sorts; a key difference between those that do practice and those that don’t. I don’t see this as a guarantee. Understanding that you can develop your abilities doesn’t mean you will. As the Ericsson article points out, “Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance” (368). Therefore, the benefit of practice has to outweigh the costs. Having a growth mindset is only part of the battle, and the resource, effort, and motivational constraints are the other parts. Dweck doesn’t argue that a growth-minded person will always try to achieve expert performance. However, she does imply that the growth mindset may lead to such an effort.

Eventually, my childhood self learned the value of hard work and effort. Switching to the growth mindset took time; in some areas it took more time and in other areas, less. Dweck points out that you may not have a growth mindset in every domain and in every part of life, and I agree. Academically, it took a long time to make this change, and until very recently, the fixed mindset would occasionally take over when I faced a particularly difficult task such as in computer science. Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve moved pretty firmly into the growth mindset.  I go out of my way to learn, and I’ve fortunately been able to sustain certain efforts for nearly one out of the minimum ten years of required deliberate practice. I am motivated to keep up the high level of effort. That is something I take great pride in.

While the growth mindset doesn’t hold all the answers to why we do or do not take part in deliberate practice, it may be the key to getting started. The resource, effort, and motivation constraints still play their part in the process, so it’s important to take the deliberate practice article into account. Regardless, mindsets may have a long-lasting impact on what our level of performance will be in the near and distant future.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Deliberate Practice

When we think about professional athletes or actors or singers, we often assume they must be unique. They must have been born with some special talent or gift or luck that separated them from the rest of civilization at some early age and set them on the path to stardom. However, this may be a false assumption.

That being said, for this week, I read “The Role of DeliberatePractice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer which argues against the belief that natural talent is the determining factor of high performance. Instead, ongoing, intense practice, also known as deliberate practice, is what enables certain people to reach this level; to be truly good at something, a person should expect to perform deliberate practice for at least ten years.

During those ten years, the individual should be intensely focused on progression in their domain. “Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further” (368). Eventually, with the right amount of time, effort, motivation, and focus, individuals can reach skill levels previously thought unattainable to them. There are some constraints on deliberate practice, though. One of which is referred to as the effort constraint.

A keys to success in deliberate practice is discovering and practicing with the optimal amount of effort. Too much effort can result in severely diminished or negative results. Ignoring the constraint can lead to physical problems in athletes and motivational issues in all domains. The effort constraint tends to be inflexible in the short-run but can and should gradually increase in the long-run as ability improves. It’s important to note that exceeding the effort constraint does not lead to higher levels of improvement. “Too rapid increases in the intensity of practice lead to 'overuse and overtraining,' . . . Bailey and Martin (1988) report many instances of successful 9- to 11-year-old children increasing their training to very high levels, only to experience motivational burnout and quit the domain altogether” (371). Children are expected to train only about an hour a day while higher-level practice can require over fifty hours a week in domain-related activities.

Two other constraints on deliberate practice are resource and motivation. The former relates to costs in time and money; if parents can’t afford to buy their child a violin, it’s going to be difficult for the child to get a hold of one. The resource constraint can be a result of external factors. The latter relates to achieving short-term performance goals and seeing actual improvement over time.

Motivation can be exceedingly hard to sustain over long periods of time. The motivational constraint is a result of the fact that “deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice” (371). That is to say ten years worth of non-pleasurable practice must be completed in order to achieve high performance. Therefore, choosing the right domain is a must. It takes massive amounts of willpower and perseverance to practice something for the ten-year minimum. Considering certain domains have age as a factor, such as for athletes, the pressure to achieve is being put on children who may rather be at leisure than, for example, practicing the violin.

To help prove the theory of deliberate practice, the article includes a study of three groups of violinists: the best students, good students, and a third group comprised of students who will likely become music teachers rather than particularly great musicians. The results of the study conclude that the best students reached their current level by practicing harder, practicing longer, taking less leisure time, and getting plenty of sleep (including naps). In addition, they also tended to be more structured, organized, and knowledgeable about their daily schedule. A second study included in the article on pianists confirmed the first study’s results (373-387).

There is one caveat to deliberate practice. Different people, especially children, may or may not struggle with the motivation constraint. Some individuals will want to practice and some may not. Whether this propensity to practice is inherited from the parents or is a result of environmental factors is a question proposed by the authors at the end of the article. Furthermore, a few other concerns, such as early guidance, the resource constraint, and the health of the individual are necessary considerations for whether or not a person will commence and sustain practice (400).

Regardless of the time and effort that is required of an individual to achieve expert performance, it’s uplifting to know that we may not be predestined to average levels of skillfulness. While there are some additional concerns, as stated above, they do not entirely detract from the implication that deliberate practice, rather than luck of the draw, is the ultimate deciding factor.