Intentional Practice

Those are two of my favorite words. “Intentional” and “practice.”

I like “intentional” because it implies focus, logic, strategic planning. And yes — as I’m wont to say — intention is overrated. But that has more to do with intended outcomes — you can’t always know what’s going to result from your intentions (and often the coolest results are the things you didn’t expect). This much is almost always true, though: if you aren’t intentional about how you go about your business, nothing is likely to come from it.

That goes double for “practice” (a word I love not just because of its connection to work but because of its connection to disciplines of all kinds, not least spiritual ones). This BBC sports commentator agrees, and he even wrote a book about it. 

Piggybacking on Malcolm Gladwell‘s concept of the “10,000 Hour Rule” — i.e., extraordinary success in any endeavor requires (literally) 10,000 hours of practice — the BBC guy (AKA, Matthew Syed to his friends, his mom, and probably most of the rest of the free world, for that matter) emphasizes that it’s not just a lot of willy-nilly practice that does the trick. You gotta be focused like a laser beam. It has to be intentional practice. And no amount of talent replaces it.  

Here’s a particularly interesting pull quote from the interview link:

Vigeland: I think one of the practical applications here, you say the talent myth is disempowering because it causes individuals to give up if they don’t make early progress. And your answer to that is again, look, don’t worry about it, just keep practicing.

SYED: Yeah, in fact a brilliant psychologist, Carol Dweck from Stanford, has done some terrific research in this area. She took 400 fifth graders and gave them some simple puzzles. And afterwards half of them were praised for intelligence, for talent — you must be really smart at this. The other half were praised for effort. Gosh, you must have worked really hard. Then she gave them some more difficult tasks to complete. Those who were praised for talent, for intelligence, when they come across these really difficult challenges and started struggling, they thought, oh my goodness, I don’t want to lose that smart label. And it actually zapped their ability to persevere on the task. Those who were praised for effort, when they came across this really difficult problem they thought great, I can demonstrate now how hardworking I am. And they really ratcheted up their enthusiasm, kept going. So what Dweck argues very convincingly is that we must praise young people in any educational scenario for their effort and not for their talent, and try to embed what she calls the growth mindset.

All of which boils down to another word I like a lot. I like it so much I taped it up on the back wall of the classroom, by the map and the flag and the dollar bill and the window.


That’s an especially, well, trying thing for me to ask of you at the beginning of May, as things wind down. I know that. But sprinting to the finish line doesn’t just help you in the here and now. It’s a chance for you to practice intentionally and thereby reap benefits well on down the line.

UPDATE (08.06.10): Hey! If you just leave the post up here long enough, it makes sense again. Or, in this case, it makes even more sense than it did when you first posted it! Awesome. But yes. There’s no excuse for you now. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is this: TRY.

Try is such an excellent word because it implies both effort and experimentation, and both of those things are absolutely necessary for any kind of creative self expression. In fact, I’m starting to think that’s pretty much all you need.

2 thoughts on “Intentional Practice

  1. amber holloway May 6, 2010 / 9:24 pm

    i appreciate the fact that you take the time to do the creative writing teacher’s version of a coah’s pep talk.
    i am not happy to say that even if i add that 10 at the end of the proverbial 110%, i’ll probably still be running at about eighty. but, i am going to try, for the sake of the american dollar, the american flag, and the color yellow.
    also, your intentional unintentionalness made me laugh.

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