Deliberate Practice: why you should try to make things harder, rather than easier, for yourself.


The easy road

Sounds counterintuitive, right?  Surely you should go through life ultimately trying to make things easier for yourself? To make yourself more comfortable, financially more secure, with more time to relax? Shouldn’t you be searching for your “passion” and utilising your innate talents – so that your work does not seem arduous, but instead feels straightforward, absorbing and fulfilling?


Follow your passion, or let passion follow you?

Cal Newport, a Professor of Computer Science and author of self-help books, thinks otherwise. 


You’ve probably seen those inspirational quotes on social media – “Make your passion your paycheck” and similar motivational one-liners. In his book, So Good they Can’t Ignore You, Cal points out that true talent and passion – and the ability to make a living from them, are extremely rare. He cites a 2002 study where Canadian students were asked about their passions. Although 84% of them identified themselves as having passions, only 4% of these passions involved work or education – the remainder were hobbies and sports, like hockey, dance and reading. Of course, it’s admirable to have passions like these – and some people will manage to make their careers from sport, or creative arts – but the majority of us will not. So what if your passion is yoga, but your job is in corporate law? What do you do then? 


“Don’t follow your passion, let it follow you in your quest to become really good at what you do”. – Cal Newport


Career as craft

Newport contends that it’s not the activity itself, but the effort and time applied, that leads to success and job satisfaction. So – if you want corporate law to become your passion, the key is to treat your job as a craft, where you strive to gain skills, and you keep on striving to get better.


Deliberate Practice

This idea of continuous and intentional striving is known as Deliberate Practice, a phrase that was coined by Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson. (This great article in the Harvard Business Review is a fascinating summary of Ericsson’s research.) 


As he says: 

“The differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.” 


It’s hard…

According To Ericsson, expertise is about quality, rather than quantity. It comes from ‘how’ you practise your work, rather than the number of times you repeat tasks. Deliberate Practice requires you to concentrate on developing specific skills and sub-skills which – and this is the important bit – “go beyond your current capabilities”.  It’s about stretching yourself, challenging yourself, and deliberately making your experiences uncomfortable and difficult for yourself.  Expertise and success do not come from innate talent or passion, but from effort, failure and learning. (Check out my blog here on why you should set yourself up for failure).


Why Deliberate Practice matters – especially for women.

Studies have shown that women are particularly averse to failure – only applying for jobs when they feel 100% qualified for them, as opposed to men who are happy to apply when only 60% qualified. Research also shows that women are more likely to be harshly judged for failures in male dominated professions – so no wonder we are reticent! Adopting deliberate practice then, is not about becoming brilliant at something so that you are 100% qualified and confident in your abilities, but rather that you become used to testing yourself in areas that you don’t feel confident; that you try and fail repeatedly, and in doing so, build both expertise – and, crucially, resilience. 


Make things harder for yourself.

Think of the things you do, or the skills you currently have and how you can stretch these in little ways. To give you an easy example – my son Max is a good footballer and has been honing his skills at kicking goals over lockdown. This is all great of course, – but how can he avoid plateauing at his newly-achieved skill? By deliberately making the task harder for himself – for example by kicking blindfolded or by making the goal smaller.  It is so tempting to keep on doing what you can do confidently and well – but real achievement and progress comes from making yourself do what is hard. 


Similarly, when I do speaking engagements – although becoming a public speaker in itself was a big achievement for me, I still try to challenge myself a little every time I do them. Carrying out engagements through Zoom has challenged me in the simultaneous use of technology and speaking skills, and even when I do talks on a familiar subject (for example – Imposter Syndrome) – I always try to iterate and evolve my presentations. There is always something to learn, and something to be gained. So – remember, don’t deny yourself the chance to realise true expertise and resilience through fear of failure. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity to learn. 


Take these steps towards Deliberate Practice:



  • Get SMART. Deliberate Practice means taking small intentional steps of development to help you improve overall. Be specific by setting small goals and push the boundaries of your skills and knowledge, little by little.


  • Get uncomfortable. Stretching yourself is how you progress – you need to feel a certain amount of discomfort and fear. Keep trying – if one approach fails, try others until you feel you are improving.


  • Get consistent. Practice makes perfect and deliberate practice means intentionally putting in regular, prolonged effort in order to progress. 


  • Get feedback. You need feedback both from within yourself and outside observers/teachers to identify where you need to improve and to gauge your progress. 


  • Get rest. Deliberate Practice is hard and intense. It requires concentration and effort. Put in that effort – then relax! Recharge your batteries for your next day’s practice. 


True passion comes from work that is challenging and fulfilling, that aligns with your values and enables you to progress. Take the hard road rather than the easy one, and passion will come, whatever your career. 


If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like my podcast – tune in here or email me for more information about my Having it all coaching course.