How to Succeed at Anything

March 10, 2009

(Or, Notes on “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”)

The good news: Talent is meaningless. You can be world-class at anything.

The bad news: The formula requires absolute commitment: 3-4 hours daily of pleasureless, intense practice, and fifty to eighty hours a week of total domain-related time… for a decade. You must always get a full-night’s sleep. And you can’t catch up to anyone who’s got a head start.

Annotated selections from the paper follow.

Experts’ memory for representative stimuli from their domain is vastly superior to that of lesser experts.

Novel programmer interview technique: Show the programmer a program. Give them a moment or two to study it. Take it away. Take a short break. Ask them to reproduce it.

Adults perform at a level far from their maximal level even for tasks they frequently carry out… “It is that we have too many other improvements to make, or do not know how to direct our practice, or do not really care enough about improving, or some mixture of these three conditions.”

“Do your best” is hard advice to follow.

When Tchaikovsky asked two of the greatest violinists of his day to play his violin concerto, they refused, deeming the score unplayable. Today, elite violinists consider this concerto part of the standard repertory.

“World-class” is a moving target. World records are broken by performers with more resources available for more practice.

To make an eminent achievement, one must first achieve the level of an expert and then in addition surpass the achievements of already recognized eminent people and make innovative contributions to the domain.

The 10-year rule

It takes normal individuals approximately a decade to acquire [their adult vocabulary.]

The time between chess players’ first learning the rules of chess and attaining international international chess master status was 11.7 years for those who learned chess rules late (after age 11).

J.R. Hayes confirmed that 10 years’ experience is necessary in another domain, musical composition.

Simon and Chase’s “10-year fule” is supported by data from a wide range of domains: Music, mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. Long periods of necessary preparation can also be inferred for writers and scientists.

In many other domains, the highest level of expert performance is displayed by individuals with more than 10 years of experience: evaluation of livestock, diagnosis of X-rays, and medical diagnosis.


Motivation and perseverance are necessary for attainment of eminent performance.

On Practice

The  relation between acquired performance and the amount of practice and experience was found to be weak to moderate in the earlier review. We propose that the reason for this comparatively weak relation is that the current definition of practice is vague… we must analyze the types of activities commonly called practice.

We want to distinguish activities invented with the primary purpose of attaining and improving skills from other types of everyday activities, in which learning may be an indirect result. On the basis of several thousand years of education, along with more recent laboratory research on learning and skill acquisition, a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered. The most cited condition concerns the subjects’ motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

There is no activity in the common education of programmers that matches the description above.

In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects. Hence mere repetition of an activity will not automatically lead to improvement in, especially, accuracy of performance.

Studies show that providing a motivated individual with repeated exposure to a task does not ensure that the highest levels of performance will be attained. Assessment of subjects’ methods shows that inadequate strategies often account for the lack of improvement.

How many times do programmers receive feedback on their programs? A few times per semester for a student, then once per code review in industry?

As the complexity of a desired skill increases beyond the simple structure of most laboratory tasks, the logically possible methods to correctly and incorrectly perform the task by subjects increase as well. To assure effective learning, subjects ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualized diagnosis of errors, informative feedback, and remedial part training. The instructor has to organize the sequence of appropriate training tasks and monitor improvement to decide when transitions to more complex and challenging tasks are appropriate. Although it is possible to generate curricula and use group instruction, it is generally recognized that individualized supervision by a teacher is superior.

Tutoring yields better performance by two standard deviations—the average tutored student performed at the 98th percentile of students taught with the conventional method.

Close supervision is rare. Most feedback for students comes from overworked TAs who take a quick read through a program.

How much would the software industry earn and save if its programmers were two standard deviations better? Is there a positive ROI on tutoring?

Given the cost of individualized instruction, the teacher designs practice activities that the individual can engage in between meetings with the teacher. We call these practice activities deliberate practice and distinguish them from other activities, such as playful interaction, paid work, and observation of others, that individuals can pursue in the domain.

What is deliberate practice for programmers?

You can’t practice on the job

Individuals given a new job are often given some period of apprenticeship or supervised activity during which they are supposed to acquire an acceptable level of reliable performance. Thereafter individuals are expected to give their best performance in work activities and hence individuals rely on previously well-entrenched methods rather than exploring alternative methods with unknown reliability. The costs of mistakes or failures to meet deadlines are generally great, which discourages learning and acquisition of new and possibly better methods during the time of work.

The workplace is unsuitable for learning advanced programming skills. That leaves undergraduate programs. Yet, a low GPA is the (severe) consequence of failure on most undergraduate programming projects. Small wonder undergraduates are reluctant to try new techniques and tools such as unit testing, formal specification, debuggers, and IDEs.

Hard Work

Recent analyses… reveal an enjoyable state of “flow”… an enjoyable state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity. This state of diffused attention is almost antithetical to focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action.

We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.

A necessary precondition for practice… is that the individual be fully attentive to his playing so that he or she will notice areas of potential improvement and avoid errors… Practice without such concentration is even detrimental to improvement of performance.

Practice Time is Everything

There is a complete correspondence between the skill level of the groups and their accumulation of practice time.

At the age of 18 the expert pianists had accumulated 7,606 hr of practice, which is reliably different from the 1,606 hr of practice accumulated by the amateurs.

During the diary week experts were fully engaged in music and spent close to 60 hr on music-related activities.

We’re a very immature field compared to others like music. How many CS graduates had even started programming at 18? And yet we’re the ones programming the rockets, robots and reactors.

Talent is Practice in Disguise

Given that acquired skill resulting from prior accumulated practice cannot be observed, it could easily be incorrectly attributed to native talent.

Years of intensive preparation under the supervision of a master invariably precede the attainment of international recognition.

The real innate difference are in practice precursors

In fact, within our framework we would expect that several “personality” factors, such as individual differences in activity levels and emotionality may differentially predispose individuals toward deliberate practice as well as allow these individuals to sustain very high levels of it for extended periods.

Intelligence necessary but not sufficient

“high but not the highest intelligence, combined with the greatest degree of persistence, will achieve greater eminence than the highest degree of intelligence with somewhat less persistence.”

How to succeed wildly at anything

We view elite performance as the product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice.



56 Responses to “How to Succeed at Anything”

  1. Chunky_Bacon Says:

    Great article, could have used a link to the original work: The summary was excellent!

  2. gjoez Says:

    I stumbled upon this blog and this post was exactly what I needed today (and everyday for that matter).


  3. Chintan Says:

    I too like gjoez stumbled upon this blog through wordpress ..Very nicely article, Thanks

  4. Brock Says:

    We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.

    I think this claim is incorrect. Decades of research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi indicate that the “flow” mind state leads to both present happiness and the highest level of expertise over the long term. There are numerous case studies supporting this, from modern mechanical-machine experts to hunter gatherers (the hunters are in a flow mind-state and also continue to improve in hunting efficiency over a period of 15 years, whereafter they plateau).

    Also, the entire philosophy of Taoism is based on this claim being wrong.

    Note that there are different sorts of happiness however, and that “flow state” does not feel the same way as “it’s my birthday!” happiness, so perhaps the researchers are confused by that.

  5. you’re telling me i have at least 9 more years before i succeed in getting an office window?

  6. […] How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School. Tags: Depression, Failure, Goals, Success « Russians Left Afghanistan […]

  7. Dean Says:

    To MyLifeInaCube:

    You are a programmer; where the rubber meets the road… you will never have an office window.

  8. sherrabell Says:

    Like others, I stumbled upon this via WordPress…just setting up my new blog. Reminded me of a Malcolm Gladwell presentation I heard last Fall promoting his newest book, Outliers. Thanks for sparking some ideas to chew on today. Thanks also to Chunky_Bacon for including and inspiring the link! Easy to download original source material is always a great gift!

  9. Aesc Says:

    I quite like this.

  10. sarahbereza Says:

    interesting…guess I’ve got a few more years to go 🙂

  11. can’t i just sleep with someone who will give me everything? sigh.

  12. tanveer Says:

    This is nice and appreciated effort.

  13. tanveer Says:

    I really love this.

  14. rch8 Says:

    Interesting reading. Food for thought…,

  15. sodavino Says:

    I am not a programmer, grad student, nor expert in any field considered to be ‘highly academic’. However, a number of points here positively prescribe diligence, discipline, and perseverance as the foundations for successful practice in any field. Good post!

  16. redneckarts Says:

    I’m a painter, with a few students. I always said ten years, eight hours a day kids, at least, and they’d laugh. thanks for this.

  17. Osarrah Says:

    This begs the question: What exactly do I care enough about being amazing at to devote 10 years of my life to? The answer for me is simple, contentment with not being amazing. Interesting post. It makes me feel less lazy for not being a “master” of anything.

  18. clementkon Says:

    I will stumble this article in my blogg too, it’s a nice article.

    But sadly it’s too long for me for reading this

    NICE We love it.

  19. chd Says:

    So you need repetitive, but innovative practice, for a very long time, with a very high level of commitment, always pushing the limits. This should be terribly hard… or should it?

    (The aforementioned activity is called “play”, excerised by… well, every child before we send them to school, and it’s quite effective. Not a surprise that hackers and children have so much common. Btw read this, it’s worth it:

  20. onemorning85 Says:

    Enjoyed reading this. It encouraged me to practice my writing.

    ❤ Lauren

  21. Mr. Foo Says:

    > The workplace is unsuitable for learning advanced
    > programming skills. That leaves undergraduate
    > programs.

    This is the most insane thing I’ve ever read about the practice of programming. The workplace is GREAT for learning advanced programming skills; most managers (and all good ones) encourage their programmers to continue learning (Steven Covey calls this “sharpening the saw”); spending time learning is a sign of a GREAT programmer; and a programmer who spends no time developing his skills is potentially making a mistake.

  22. pete Says:

    Sometimes there is a higher power at work that can help someone succeed, in baseball terminology this would be called the natural.

    Practice, determination and hard work over a large period of time play a major role. Great article post.

  23. Sergio Says:

    Quite interesting. The key role of Hard Work at the fullfilment of any kind goal is out of discussion.

    Congratulations for this post.


    Sergio (revista Raf-tulum)

  24. Programmers get feedback when:

    * Their program works.

    * Their program does what it is meant to do and doesn’t crash.

    * Other people use their program.

    * 6 months later they can read their own source code and make improvements to the program.

    These kinds of feedback are objective, and probably more useful than the subjective opinion of some other allegedly “expert” programmer.

  25. ifatree Says:

    I both agree with everything you quote, and yet disagree with every way you apply it to computer science. I could talk with you at length about each section, but in general I have to say it seems like “you’re doing it wrong”.

    >“Do your best” is hard advice to follow.

    only because it’s hardly advice at all. it’s like “don’t forget to breathe” – you do it regardless of whether someone tells you to or not. the “best” you do IS the best you could do (given current circumstances and motivations), otherwise you would have done better by definition.

    >There is no activity in the common education of programmers that matches the description above.

    try: “compiling”. it fits the intent – it is your immediate feedback as to whether you should redo the last step or go to finding the next step. what you’re practicing isn’t producing “vending machine code” or “rocket guidance code” but just “compilable code”. how you use the skill of writing compilable code is up to you.

    > The workplace is unsuitable for learning advanced programming skills.

    oh really? maybe your workplace…

    > That leaves undergraduate programs.

    nope, it leaves “outside work”, which can include college or *gasp* self-education. check your venn diagrams and get back to me. everyone i’ve ever asked who’s had work, college, and self-taught computer learning experiences will tell you college is by far the least useful for anything advanced.

    > We’re a very immature field compared to others like music. And yet we’re the ones programming the rockets, robots and reactors.

    we program them using Math, mostly, which has been around almost as long as Music. the CS just translates the Math into machine code. it’s definitely the Math running those processes; the CS is secondary.

    > How many CS graduates had even started programming at 18?

    only the ones who wanted to be experts before the age of 30. 😉 i started at about 5, personally, 25 or so years ago (but took quite an extended break from 6-12 before getting into PCs).

  26. theactionblogger Says:

    Good post.

  27. maryrestaino Says:

    Good article but slightly long.

  28. multilinguists Says:

    Excellent Excellent Excellent!

    Helps with my studies for language acquistions (

    Also, thank you Chunky_Bacon for the pdf full version & source of the study.

  29. cball30 Says:

    Very motivating post. One of these quotes should be read on a daily basis 😀

  30. […] How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School […]

  31. zuanette350 Says:

    I believe if you put your mind to it you can do or be whatever/whoever you want.

  32. arkie12 Says:

    Things to consider when looking for ways to get ahead, expand your mind, and, utimately, your world.

  33. ratu intan Says:

    that was awsome… very easy to follow..

  34. […] How to Succeed at Anything (Or, Notes on “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”) The good news: […] […]

  35. […] We all dream about becoming expert scientists, orators, musicians, businessmen – whatever floats your boat really. If you give your life over to a practice, given ten years of intense dedication, we can reach guru status. We can really succeed at anything […]

  36. photohand Says:

    I think you are confused. Talent and luck are short-cuts on the way to success. The greatest musicians and artists are not the most professional ones.

  37. […] How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School […]

  38. Amy-Lynn Says:

    Back in the early eighties my college drawing instructor told us that we had to commit to 10,000 hours of mindful practice in order to become master draughtsmen. After all these years, there’s still no alternate path or shortcut to accomplishment. Practice still makes perfect. As if distraction and sloth ever had a chance.

  39. Ling Ling Says:

    Thanks for this article! Really opened my eyes to the effort I need to put in to become an expert/successful in something. Looks like I still have a long way to go. *sigh*

  40. Rougebuddha Says:

    Oh now you tell me!

  41. […] I jest about this applying to me but if you enjoy reading about the path to success in the elite world (of anything, be it sport, music, mathmatics, science, etc), read this piece from the blog Aran at Grad School : How to Succeed at Anything. […]

  42. […] Как стать мастером своего дела? Все дело в практике, How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School […]

  43. […] How to Succeed at Anything – “The good news: Talent is meaningless. You can be world-class at anything.” […]

  44. Ryan Conlon Says:

    Good Post, You have a great title – We need more information like this

  45. I’m at 7000h of singing =p getting there, slowly but surely

  46. […] the strength of the evidence, at least at some level. But unfortunately, real expertise requires a great deal of time and effort to acquire, no matter how smart you […]

  47. Я вот думаю, а где Вы материал взяли для этой статьи? Неужели из головы? 🙂

  48. С Днем тестировщика! С праздником!

  49. deakaz Says:

    Excellent advice, that’s why I don’t really agree with university. Motivation is probably the highest factor when it comes to success.

  50. […] How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School (tags: article) […]

  51. […] How to Succeed at Anything « Aran at Grad School (tags: programming productivity learning psychology) […]

  52. […] This technique guarantees personal growth. Need more convincing? Read more here: How to Succeed at Anything. […]

  53. jesusmansbestfriend Says:

    i have thought long and hard about what makes success in any field a reality and this study realy explains alot of what i have found to lead you to the door of success one of the most important things though that i have found is love true love that takes over your mind heart and body i have tried to be the best at running i wanted to be so fast in fact the fastest human i spent 4 years of my life going to the park 5 days of the week and just sprinting so fast and so hard no weights no supplements just sprinting at least 30 sprints each time i went to the park this is what i learned and listen so closely to what i say ”it is much better to be happy than to be a fool and live a life unhappy” you only have one life i know everyone wants to dosomething great but i learned that in my heart i was just selfish greedy evil i suffered alot for my want of glory i found i wasnt doing this for love i found lessons that i will never forget in my whole life. please listen to a fool of what use is anything if you do not feel love for it do not be selfish do not listen to the greed in your heart we all have this but some people are humble and when you find love your life will never be the same

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