Why Practice Matters

In his book Outliers, writer Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that the only thing standing between you and becoming an expert at something–anything–is 10,000 hours of practice. While this idea may oversimplify the process by excluding the impacts of genetics and environmental factors, it does point to something that I see repeatedly in my life and work, and which is being explored in intriguing ways by a wide range of disciplines:

Practice matters. Repetition, trial and error and dogged commitment are what change habits, build skills and develop new ways of being.

As Daniel Goleman explores in a recent article, engaging consciously in this way with our habitual responses involves rewiring the basal ganglia, the part of the brain involved in routine behaviors. With practice, our brains can effectively unlearn old habits and learn new ones in their place. Goleman outlines  five key steps to this process:

1) Familiarize yourself with the self-defeating habit.

2) Be mindful. Monitor your behavior –thoughts, feelings, actions – from a neutral, “witness” awareness.

3) Remember the alternatives – think of a better way to handle the situation.

4) Choose something better – e.g., what you say or do that would be helpful instead of self-defeating.

5) Do this at every naturally occurring opportunity.

Time-Flies-Neal-FowlerSo why is it so difficult, and what about those 10,000 hours? While I haven’t measured myself, I am certain that changing our ways of being is no small feat, and that while a five-step process seems simple enough, it is complicated by several other factors. In my own personal journey and in supporting others in changing, I have seen that growth takes commitment, strength, and tenacity. In my next blog post I will explore some of the challenges we are up against as we try to improve ourselves and bring our best selves to bear.

I would love to hear from you about how you engage with the process of change. What has worked for you? What has been difficult? How do you practice?


This post was published first on July 16, 2013 on the Global Round Table Leadership Blog.