There’s one part of deliberate practice that can be hard to understand, and it’s the last piece. We’ve already talked about the first three parts of deliberate practice: how you need a clear goal, how you need absolute focus, and how you also need immediate feedback. The last piece of deliberate practice is desired difficulty.
Desired difficulty is really two different things. The first and simplest is that you have to desire difficulty. If you want to deliberately practice, you have to deliberately introduce difficulty into your life. That is, you have to try and stretch yourself. You’re not trying to repeat the same easy action over and over again. You’re trying to repeat a progressively harder action over and over again.
Learning in general is really just a process of doing hard things over and over again. The repetition of a difficult task will make it easier over time. That is, if you are able to learn how to do it, and even if you’re not deliberately practicing, if you do something enough times, you will start to get better. You can tell the difference between somebody who is picking up a bat for the first time, and somebody who has swung a bat a thousand times. And that gap just continues to widen.
Which is why, when you see a baseball player in the major leagues step up to the plate, and get ready to swing the bat, you know that they’re going to be good at it. Because that person has probably swung a bat ten thousand times, or maybe even a hundred thousand times.
When we’re learning, it’s important to understand that while we desire difficulty, too hard is just as bad as too easy. Desire difficulty means that we don’t just want to introduce difficulty into our practice, but we want to fine-tune it. It has to be at a desired level. Because if it’s not at a desired level, it’s going to be too hard, or it’s going to be too easy, and it will ruin your attempts to practice.
It’s very rare that we think about writing in terms of how easy it is, or how hard it is. Just like any other skill that we acquire, writing exists on a continuum. On the one end, you have very simple. See, spot, run. On the other hand, you have very complex. That’s where Shakespeare lives. And your ability to write probably falls somewhere in between. I know mine certainly does.
While there’s nothing wrong with simple, I am trying to get my writing closer to Shakespeare, and further away from books designed to teach you how to read. It’s important that I understand where I am in that spectrum.
Sometimes I’ll sit down to write a passage, and it will be really, really hard. It’ll take me dozens of attempts to figure out the right wording. Occasionally, I’ll stare at a sentence, and realize that I just don’t have the wherewithal to bend it into the shape I want it to be in. And I’ll have to leave it. I’ll literally have to say, okay, I’ll come back to this later. And I’ll leave it, and I’ll go and do something else, and then I’ll come back and try again.
There have been entire books that I had an idea for, and then realized, I am not a good enough writer to write this. I’m not going to be able to produce the result that I want, the feeling for the reader that I’m aiming for. I had to sit them aside. I had to put the idea on the shelf, and say, I’ll come back to it later when I’m a better writer, when I’m better at dialogue, when I’m better at description, when I’m better at weaving a plot, when I can focus a little bit better on my initial ideas.
There are all sorts of sub-skills within writing, and chances are, like me, you’re good at some of them, and less good at others. Deliberate practice is all about understanding exactly where you are, being honest with where you have strength and where you have shortcomings, and then tuning the difficulty of what you’re practicing so that you can improve in those areas where you’re weak.
On a practical level, one of the things that I really like to do is I like to pick things to practice that are adjacent to something I’m already good at. That can make it a lot easier to know when you’ve reached an acceptable skill level. See, if I’m really good at writing dialogue, but I’m not so good at naturally including dialogue, tags, and action, then I’ll know that I’ve reached an acceptable level when my tags and action during a scene where there’s a lot of talking is as easy to write as my dialogue.
One of the ways that you can tell if something is easy or not is not just how much mental energy it expends, but how quickly you can do it. If you find yourself speeding up and slowing down in your writing, that’s a clear indication that you have strengths and you have weaknesses. So pay attention to that.
If you’re writing through a scene, and you come to a bit of action, and boom, you just fly, that’s a good indication that you’re good at writing action. If, on the other hand, you’ve been flying along in your manuscript, writing all sorts of dialogue and interpersonal conflict, and then you get to a scene with some pivotal action, and you just slow to a crawl, and it’s agonizing to try to get the words out, that’s a clear indication that you need to work on that.
If there are things about your writing that you really enjoy, that’s good, and it probably means they’re a strength for you. Deliberate practice is something that we do for the sake of improving, not for enjoyment. And so, figuring out the places where you don’t enjoy your writing is the best place to start. But that doesn’t mean that you should hate it. Instead, pick really, really small steps. The smaller the goal that you’re trying to work on, the more palatable it will be when it’s hard. But make sure that they’re difficult enough that they’re actually giving you a challenge, that they’re actually stretching you.
Deliberate practice isn’t something that happens very quickly, but if you take it one step at a time, you will definitely reach the top.
YouTube Video Link: https://youtu.be/2H6QMFTnV3M
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