I’ve read a couple of books on deliberate practice over the years; I was more or less convinced that there’s something important there, but I also have misgivings about it.

So it was interesting to read Range, to get a different take. Range acknowledges that deliberate practice does work, but it works best in certain specific domains, or even subdomains: e.g. it’s more important in golf than in many other sports, it’s more important in classical music than in other kinds of music.

One key domain differentiator is how feedback loops work. If you can get feedback that’s both quick and accurate, then deliberate practice can work very well: trying to drive a golf ball from a tee over and over again, trying to play specific passages in a piece of music that a composer has laid out for you. But if feedback cycles get longer, or if the accurate of the feedback is lower, then deliberate practice isn’t so effective: it’s hard to tell if you’re learning the right lessons.

Another factor that the book points out is that it’s important to find a fit between you and what you’re working on. Maybe you love music, so you want to play an instrument; but it can take a while to find out which instrument really clicks. And it’s better to spend a few years exploring and end up at the right instrument for you than to decide your instrument early at the expense of it not really feeling like a fit.

And the book also talks about the benefits of cross-fertilization. Ideas can come from anywhere, and the most impactful ones are disproportionately likely to come from unexpected directions.


It’s not an all or nothing, of course. Take learning guitar: there are lots of skills that fit the deliberate practice mold. Learning scales or doing chord transitions quickly and crisply are both unquestionably valuable skills to learn, and they have fast, accurate feedback loops.

But also: try out stuff. You have a huge number of musical genres available to you; even if you know what speaks to you, try out different genres, you’ll learn something from them. And try out different instruments, too: you’ll learn something about how songs are constructed from playing bass, you’ll learn something different from singing or playing drums or keys. And spend time both in more improvisational modes and playing composed music.


Nice to have some justification for my, uh, more scattershot approach to life and learning. Though, honestly, I don’t want to pretend that that really works out well for me: it’s not like being a (reasonably good) dilettante at music or learning some Tai Chi makes me a better programmer. Probably my mathematical background did help me in some oblique ways as a programmer, though, as does reading and thinking seriously about a fairly wide range of somewhat related books?

And, of course, as per my prior post, there’s more to life than becoming an expert, anyways.

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