It has been pounded into your head — if you want to be good at anything, you have to practice. But to be great, it takes more than just practice — it takes deliberate practice.
Here’s the difference:
- Practice is drawing.
- Deliberate practicing is drawing faces over and over until you’re good at it.
Deliberate practice is a structured, systematic approach to mastery and it requires focus, attention to detail, and grit.
And sometimes it requires practicing without practice.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Art of Practicing Without Practice
Leonardo da Vinci is the Renaissance Man. He is revered in disciplines from biology to paleontology to engineering and of course painting. But before he became one of the greatest minds to ever grace the planet, he was an illegitimate child.
As such, Leonardo da Vinci received very little formal education. Instead, he spent much of his time roaming the countryside venturing deep into the forests outside his town.
With his sheets of paper in hand, he would sit on a rock and begin to draw all that fascinated his young and curious eye — the insects and the flowers, the birds and the trees, and the rock formations that cascaded across the riverbank.
Becoming the Renaissance Man
As he drew, the more apparent it became to him that in order for him to fully capture these things on paper, he would have to focus intensely on the details.
He would have to focus on what the eye would often pass over.
His passion for the art then took on a new path. He would come to notice the way the flowers come into full bloom in the spring, the way they wilted in the winter, and his flowers would dance on paper.
As he grew older, this desire to capture the essence of what he drew exploded. He would go on to study anatomy in-depth, creating some of the most detailed drawings of human organs, muscles, and sinews for its time.
He would study the mechanical function of the skeleton and how it interacted with the muscular forces that encapsulated it — prefacing the modern science of biomechanics.
He would make scientific observation after scientific observation that were beyond his scope as an artist — and in the process, reveal the secret to imprinting emotion and movement onto a canvas.
Practicing without practice.
A Whole New World
Sometimes, on the road to mastery, what takes us to the next level can be seemingly unrelated to our craft.
Take writing for example. In writing, it pays to be a wordsmith. It pays to be able to twist and manipulate language such that the words come to life in the mind of the reader. However, in writing, it also pays to be a master psychologist.
In The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty writes:
To do his craft well, a white, middle-aged, native-born writer must be able to slip on the shoes of an elderly Hasidic Jew, or of an embittered black man, or of a performance artist with gelled foot-high hair.
Try as he might, but a writer cannot reach a deep understanding of his subject by putting pen to paper. He must venture out into the world and immerse himself into the culture of which he wishes to portray, see the sights and smell the smells, and converse with the people who hold the secrets to his story.
There is little writing involved in the process, but it makes all the difference.
Other times it is just more efficient to practice in a different discipline. For example, the first two weeks of basketball practice are hell weeks — in other words, conditioning.
Out of the entire two hours, an hour and thirty will be dedicated to running drills designed by sadists to beat the feeling out of your legs and squeeze the air out of your lungs. No basketball, no hoops, just sneakers squeaking on hardwood floor.
It is the best (depending on who you ask) way to whip players into basketball shape and the most effective. There is no competition.
The other method is for players to play themselves into shape, but it is ineffective. They will not get as much repetitions, both quantitative and qualitative, as they would in this brute force method.
And it is all about repetitions.
Improving Everywhere You Go
The examples I provided above are common, but if you keep an open mind and you can recognize how disciplines intersect, you can practice anywhere you go. With those attributes, this concept of practicing without practicing grows in magnitude as you can literally improve every second of the day.
From training soft skills such as your ability to focus to skills that are highly relevant to your discipline, with enough creativity it can be done.
One way I have used this concept was to improve my on-court awareness in basketball. It was my weakness. I was so focused on what I was doing with the ball that I could not pay attention to the other players on the floor. Time and time again, I would make the wrong decision.
I had to improve. But that came with some caveats:
- I had to be in real game situations which meant I had to play pickup basketball
- Pickup games where everyone is on my level are rare — players are too good and I won’t have enough time with the ball, players are below my level and the game becomes too easy
I had to find my solution elsewhere and I found that solution in one of the least likeliest places — driving.
The Karate Kid Method
Driving was the perfect solution to my problem. Like basketball, driving involves a lot of moving parts — pedestrians, cars, lights, and so on — so I trained myself to be able to keep tabs on all of these factors through my peripheral vision.
I began slow. First, I would try and figure out how many people were on the crosswalk and what they were wearing through my peripheral vision when I stopped at a red light.
Once I got good enough at that, I did it while driving. Slowly at first, but soon I was able to do it while driving 40-50 mph. Then I began to predict what pedestrians and cars would do based on their movements. Were they going to stop? turn left? turn right?
All of these things helped me on the court and I learned how NBA players like Magic Johnson seemed to have eyes on the back of their heads.
It was all in their peripheral vision. They would see something happen out the corner of their eyes and then make calculations in their head to see where and when the player was going to be open. Then they look away to draw attention elsewhere only to throw the pass when the time was right.
I was practicing all of this and I didn’t even know it. Wax on, wax off. With enough creativity and an open mind, even the mundane can be transformed into a learning experience.
“Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” — Leonardo da Vinci
In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin — chess prodigy turned Tai Chi Push Hands World Champion — credits his chess expertise as one of the main pillars that supported his meteoric rise to the top of Tai Chi Push Hands.
Phi “Zen Master” Jackson, who has eleven NBA championships under his belt, incorporated a practice of regular meditation into all of his basketball teams and players such as Kobe Bryant have gone on record praising the move, crediting meditation for reducing stress and increasing team performance.
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest painters and minds to ever grace the planet, was convinced of the bond between science and art, that the two depend on each other like the pages of a book and the binding that holds them together.
On paper these disciplines seem completely unrelated and at times complete antitheses to each other:
- chess is a mental sport, Tai Chi is a physical one
- basketball is about action, meditation is about inaction
- art is a right-brain endeavor, science is a left-brain endeavor
But like yin and yang, these opposites work to create a sense of balance. It is a form of deliberate practice where you focus on improving one skill or area at a time. And sometimes, on the road to mastery, it means walking through paths not taken, exploring the oft-beaten track and discovering what you need to do to get better.
Because that is what this is all about — mastery — and sometimes to reach mastery, you’ll have to practice without practicing.