Greater Achievement Through ‘Deliberate Practice'

Michael Jordan had talent, but didn’t become arguably the best basketball player without hours of hard work, deliberately practicing the skills that made him great.

Michael Jordan had talent, but didn’t become arguably the best basketball player without hours of hard work, deliberately practicing the skills that made him great.

Experience can be overrated. Talent can be irrelevant. Mindless repetition is a waste of time. Deliberate practice Is the key to improvement and, ultimately, real achievement.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson contends anyone can improve their performance by practicing and mastering specific skills, preferably with expert coaching. He has become known worldwide for his theory that requires people to step outside their comfort zone to master new skills. Ericsson calls it the “New Science of Expertise."

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell embraced Ericsson’s concept with his 10,000 hours of practice rule.

Ericsson says there is nothing magic about 10,000 hours of practice. It’s more important, he says, to identify areas that need improvement and practice specific skills that lead to mastery. Think of a NBA player enhancing his offensive skill set by mastering a 3-point jump shot.

Deliberate practice has a wide span of applicability – from musicians to medical doctors. And, yes, to the world of public affairs, too.

An obvious application in public affairs is the use of social and digital media. Old-time practitioners still rely on their previous experience, much of which they accumulated before the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Their previous experience isn’t invalid; it just may be dated.

Social and digital media will continue to be strange, newfangled things unless public affairs practitioners get out of their own way and learn how online engagement works. Social and digital media aren’t always the solution to a public affairs challenge, but they often are a key element in a public affairs strategy.

The coaching a public affairs pro may need is not from another grizzled veteran, but from a kid – maybe a grandkid. Younger people have grown up with this technology and use it fluently, if at times fatuously.

New tricks don’t always mean new technology. In a world where people are bombarded by media, personal contact has taken on new, richer meaning. You are developing a new residential community or building a new water plant and neighbors are fearful and, in some cases, outright hostile. All the Facebook posts and gleaming fact sheets you could spin up wouldn’t make as much difference to those upset neighbors as going to their house or community center to talk with them directly.

Remote control outreach is easier and involves fewer bruises to the ego. In the long run, making direct contact may take longer, but can wind up being a lot cheaper. As people learn the facts and you make concessions to address the most pressing and legitimate concerns, fears fall away. There are fewer obstacles to moving forward. Some opponents might even become advocates.

Learning to play the violin or become a chess champion takes a modicum of talent, Ericsson concedes. But mostly it takes intentional practice. Michael Jordan had talent, but he became one of the best basketball players in history by relentlessly honing his skills. You could say Jordan worked his way to greatness.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson argues anyone can improve by deliberately practicing skills that enhance their performance.

Psychologist Anders Ericsson argues anyone can improve by deliberately practicing skills that enhance their performance.

The notion of continuous improvement connects well with Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice. You don’t just through the motions; you break through barriers that allow you to reach a higher level of achievement. If Michael Jordan can deliberately practice his way to greatness, the rest of us can reach our own level of greatness following his example. And that includes professionals working in the public affairs space.

Clients should appreciate professionals with experience, but they may want to hire experienced professionals who are still learning their craft by deliberately practicing new skills..

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.