William Liao

February 2, 2022

deliberate effort

In one of my most memorable piano lessons, my teacher sat in the back corner of the room and asked me to practice as if she weren't there.

For the next five minutes, I played the same 4–to 5 lines of music repeatedly.

Curious about my approach, my teacher asked me: "what's going through your mind as you replay these lines?"

My honest and abundantly naive response: "I don't know, I just figured that's how you practice — you play the music over and over again."

My teacher's eyes visibly brightened as I spoke upon recognizing that I had just walked into the teaching moment that she had set up all along.

She responded by sharing the difference between "effort" and "deliberate effort" with me.

Deliberate effort, in her words, "involves a clear goal and methodology. To practice with deliberate effort is to be specific about what you want to improve and how."

A concrete example might be that you want to play a line of music faster — that's the goal. Your methodology to achieve that outcome might be to start playing the line of music at a slightly uncomfortable pace until it becomes comfortable, increasing the tempo until it becomes slightly uncomfortable again, and then repeating that process until you achieve the desired tempo.

In contrast, effort of the non-deliberate kind is marked by the distinct absence of a goal and method. It's doing for the sake of doing which, more often than not, translates into lackluster results.

I quickly realized in that lesson that what I thought was practice wasn't really practice at all, which helped explain why I was making so little progress on the piano pieces I was learning.

In my reflection, I find that the wisdom of this lesson directly translates to basically every area of life.

Having a "bias towards action" is often touted as an essential ingredient for success but in practice, this concept is also capable of causing harm, creating anxious energy in the minds of individuals who think they should be doing more but don't know what to do.

Distilled in a sentence, the wisdom of my piano instructor might sound something like this: "to make meaningful progress, act not for its own sake but only when it's justified."