The Deliberate Practice of Love

You know that “10,000 hour rule” that Malcolm Gladwell popularized based on Anders Ericsson’s research? Ericsson eloquently explained why Gladwell got it very wrong in a Salon article. I enjoyed that, because I get annoyed with Gladwell’s particular version of pop-psych (also, to be fair, I’m envious at his ability to write).

But the really important takeaway from this was not about time, but rather the quality of the work:

a very specific sort of practice referred to as “deliberate practice” which involves constantly pushing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone, following training activities designed by an expert to develop specific abilities, and using feedback to identify weaknesses and work on them

It’s related to that old saying about experience: some people have twenty year’s experience, and other people have one year of experience twenty times. That’s usually portrayed in a negative light, but think about it: if someone learns to be happy in one year, and chooses to do that twenty times, who are we to say they’re doing anything wrong?

Deliberate practice is notable in the experts and superstars of the world particularly because it is a rare thing to see. And there’s a reason for that.

Deliberate Practice Sucks

Seriously. Look at the criteria Ericsson lays out:

  • “Pushing oneself” – there’s pressure.
  • “beyond one’s comfort zone” – literally uncomfortable pressure
  • “training activities” – which are never as fun as actually doing the thing you’re trying to get good at.
  • “designed by an expert” – now we have an outside judge
  • “identify weaknesses” – whose job is to tell us what we’re doing wrong
  • “and work on them.” – great, so now we get to dwell on those problems.

Why on earth would anyone put themselves through that kind of process on purpose? Oh, and it gets even less appealing: guess what happens when you work on those weaknesses and turn them into strengths? That oh-so-helpful expert identifies another weakness and it starts all over!

When does it stop? Never. Ericsson says as much in his essay:

As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop.

There is no finish line. If you want to do this deliberate practice thing, sure, you’ll get better. But if you’re looking for a point where you can say “OK, I’m done”, that just ain’t part of the system, bub.

Love Stinks

It’s possible that you, dear reader, have the perfect relationship. It’s possible that there is nothing that needs to be worked on, that you and your partner(s) live in complete harmony and accord.

But I doubt it. I think that you, like every other human, have room for improvement. Or someone else in your life has room for improvement, and you would tell them except that you’re not sure how to do that without hurting their feelings and guess what you’ve just identified a weakness you get to work on: honest and non-hurtful communication! Well done!

The thing is: don’t expect it to be fun. It’s going to be messy, because we’re not really that good, as humans, at dealing with the messiness of love and sex and relationships. The proof of that, to me, lies in the fact that as modes of communication have become more effective and commonplace, relationships have become more complicated.

Grandpa didn’t have to worry about Grandma misreading a text message or getting jealous of a former lover loving a Facebook post. Was that because there was no jealousy or miscommunication back then? No, of course not — it was because there were simply some things that One Does Not Talk About, and it was left at that.

We’re bad at this. And that’s ok. It’s also ok to sometimes be tired of “deliberate practice” and just go back to the “same old practice” that you’ve enjoyed before. It’s important to take breaks, to get back to the reasons you enjoyed your partner in the first place.

But it’s also worth trying to make the practice of your love deliberate. To work on the parts that are difficult, and push yourself into uncomfortable vulnerability with the guidance of experts like Brené Brown, Esther Perel, Emily Nagoski, Leo Buscaglia, or Thomas Moore.

There is no finish line. But you — and the ones you love — are worth the effort.

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