Deliberate practice

The essential key to exceptional performance

By Nick Lebredo, Ph.D., CFE, CPA, CMA
nick-lebredo-80x80   Career Connection: Building your professional future

Concentrate on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Be a visionary, not a detail-oriented drudge. Do what you love, veer from monotony. We constantly hear these platitudes. But are we listening to the truth? Should we do more for our careers and lives?

“Strengths-based” leadership seminars have become very popular. These professional training events are mostly based on the popular 2007 business bestseller “StrengthsFinder,” by Tom Rath (Gallup Press). Readers of the book are provided with an access code that allows them to take an online assessment that reveals and classifies their strengths across 34 broad themes. 

Is it important that we know our strengths? Most of us would wholeheartedly agree. Your strengths largely determine the activities you find enjoyable and where you feel you can make the greatest impact or contribution. For example, if you feel at home in a highly structured environment and gravitate toward repetitive and cyclical positions such as bookkeeping, tax or financial statement preparation, you might want to be an accountant. If you’re highly curious and inquisitive and enjoy interacting with others, an auditing career might be a good fit. If you’re more creative and prefer less predictability you might prefer managerial, law enforcement or investigative positions. By combining your strengths you may position yourself as a successful Certified Fraud Examiner who could become an educator or consultant. The combinations and opportunities for integrating our strengths are varied and exciting. However, an implication of the strengths-based research is that we spend too much time lamenting over our limitations rather than celebrating our strengths. Notwithstanding the significant benefits of discovering our strengths, is that the real key to performance improvement? Are managers, mentors and peers doing us a disservice when they point out our shortfalls? Are we off track when we focus on our shortcomings? Is “deficit-oriented” thinking misguided and really the problem? 


Another body of research suggests that overlooking one’s weaknesses or limitations to primarily focus on strengths may be good for our self-esteem, but it isn’t the path to higher performance. (See “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” by K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer in the July 1993 issue of Psychological Review.) 

We can only speculate on why this latter research hasn’t received the same level of attention as strengths-based research. One possibility is that it just isn’t as pleasant to think about the investment required to achieve a higher level of performance. Regrettably, our culture has, in many respects, become superficial. We prefer to put a positive spin on everything we do versus critically examining where we need to improve and take action. 

To some, leadership has become more about marketing than execution. And yet, research (and common sense) tells us we can only address future performance improvements by examining our limitations and shortcomings rather than patting ourselves on the back for what we may have the ability to do but haven’t yet done. Our performance is ultimately dependent on our actions rather than merely taking inventory of our potential strengths. To be clear, this important point isn’t lost in the follow-up “StrengthsFinder 2.0,” in which Rath defines a true strength as talent multiplied by investment. (See page 20 in the book.) But the investment part of the equation is often glossed over in training seminars. 


So, what is “deliberate practice” and why is it so vital to improving performance? In an equally compelling but considerably less-acclaimed 2010 book, “Talent is overrated: What really separates world-class performers from everybody else,” by Geoff Colvin (Portfolio Trade), deliberate practice necessitates that we isolate areas of our lives that need improvement and incessantly devote ourselves to developing greater levels of mastery. Much of the insightful ideas from this interesting read are derived from the previously mentioned work of Ericsson et al. The research findings suggest that those seeking exceptional performance in fraud examination, accounting and business can benefit from the deliberative practice mindset that outstanding musicians, chess players, athletes and entertainers use. How can we use the deliberative practice mindset to improve performance?

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