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Applying deliberate practice to learning a new skill

… and testing my tolerance for being absolutely terrified

· Art Science Links,Creativity Tools

I’ve written a bit lately about pursing interests and curiosity in spite of our immediate doubts and insecurities about learning something new.

I love the quote from the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and refer back to it when I’m in the space of unknown. She said: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

And so, I’m at that point again as I learn a new skill of weaving and basketry.

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Having researched and written about creativity for a number of years now, I know that creativity can present as both the deliberate analytical thinking mode as well as the spontaneous insightful mode. In learning this new skill I was keen to test my approach and consider my whole brain and the distinct brain networks in play- the default mode network, the executive control network and the salience network.

Where do I start?

I went back to the research around the Creative Elements Model and specifically how we can expand our domain expertise, that is, the necessary skills, resources and raw materials that individuals can draw upon as they move through the creative process.

Let’s assume that I have the motivation to commence this learning. That along the way I recognise that I will make errors, the first attempts will look like crap and that my ego can cope with this. My growth mindset will enable me to push through this insecure state, acknowledge I’m using a new set of muscles and be comfortable being in a beginners space.

Then I consider the creative skills that are in play… these are articulated brilliantly by authors Drs Fred Mandell and Kathy Jordan from their research published in 'Becoming a Life Change Artist'. I've embraced these skills and practiced the associated behaviours over many years.


Then I look at the environment I’m located within and here I have no excuses having recently converted an unused space to a bespoke art studio.

Briefly, the seven creative skills are:

Preparation: Deliberately engaging in activities that help break us from our usual patterns of thought and feeling and prepare us for creative insight.

Seeing: Having the ability to discern new connections, gain fresh perspective, and stay alive to new possibilities.

Using context: Understanding how the varied environments in which we work and live influence our thoughts and behaviours, and using that knowledge to make changes in our lives.

Embracing uncertainty: Acting on the opportunities, sometimes hidden, presented by change and uncertainty.

Risk taking: Acting without certainty of outcome.

Collaboration: Engaging with others to help one make desired changes.

Discipline: Acting consistently whether or not one feels motivated.

What element remains?

I want to specifically explore further the role that deliberate practice will play in my development of this new craft and the skills required to improve. I’m cognisant that I’m not starting from a blank place, I have learnt over the years a number of technical and practical skills that enable me to undertake more tactile art endeavours. So while I’m not completely starting from scratch there are very specific new skills to learn.


I also recognise that my approach to learning something new is to totally jump into a research phase. Here I can discover who are field leaders, explore their work, writing and approaches and overall, see what’s possible.


That’s where I started, I asked colleagues about who was who in this area and was given a number of recommendations. This led me to YouTube, websites, online tutorials and finally an in person workshop.


And without sounding too ‘woohoo’, the universe presented a way to start through a weekend hands-on course. So that’s where I’m at, having just completed an inspiring immersion learning workshop. Here I learnt four specific foundational techniques, understanding what materials to explore, and meeting like-minded artists who are excited to be in the same place as me, a learner’s place.

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What's next?

Well that gets me back to the aim of this blog, to explore the value of deliberate practice. I know a creative advantage that comes from dedicated hard work, a supportive environment and many years of effective and deliberate practice. I also know that both my brain and environment are at play as I refine my skills over time. I also recognise that through deliberate practice I can reach a higher level of expertise and creative accomplishment.

The term ‘deliberate practice’ came into prominence as educators identified the critical factors that contributed to the success of elite performers. The work led by Professor Anders Ericsson, with contributions by over 100 leading scientists, researched expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains – surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting, and many others – and led to clear conclusions.

Deliberate practice requires considerable, specific and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even do at all. Research shows that it’s only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.

Professor Ericsson defined deliberate practice as characterised by:

  • well-defined and specific goals
  • focused and concentrated effort
  • high repetition of a specific activity in a learning zone
  • having a coach or mentor who can share best practice approaches
  • receiving feedback to ensure the practice isn’t reinforcing bad habits
  • getting out of one’s comfort zone.
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So that is my goal now, to undertake a plan that will enable me to build both my mental and physical muscles. Regular practice will lead me to change parts of the brain that are challenged by the techniques learnt. But the brain adapts to these changes by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.

Deliberate practice is a large concept and it would be too simplistic to say it can explain everything in regard to higher order creative achievements. What we do know is that it comes with intrinsic motivation, and studies show that as we become responsible for our own motivation, we’ll set goals to improve.

Practice increases the ability to learn, making it more rewarding, enabling us to continue with the investment that deliberate practice requires.

But if you want to become an expert, Professor Ericsson emphasises it takes time. His research showed that even the most gifted performers need a minimum of ten years (or 10,000 hours) of intense deliberate training before they are at an international level of expertise. In some fields the apprenticeship is longer: it now takes most elite musicians 15 to 25 years of steady practice, on average, before they succeed at the international level.

I don’t know how many hours this may take, but I know I have the elements in place to work to get to a creative outcome.

How about you? What can you apply deliberate practice too?

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Why weaving and basketry?


Specifically I also wanted to explore the research that shows that hand-based craft activities have a direct and quantifiable benefit through their meditative action, activating brain areas that correspond, and even contributing to a sense of calm and an improved emotional state. Yarn crafts such as knitting and crochet often incorporate mental challenges that assist to develop eye-to-hand coordination, fine motor dexterity and act to increase our attention spans. They also provide a space for mindfulness and, when undertaken in a group setting, can reinforce social connections.


For over a century, arts and crafts have been a core part of occupational therapy emerging after World War One in response to the post-traumatic stress disorders experienced by returned soldiers. Crafts like basket weaving were offered to shell-shocked soldiers both as a diversion therapy to take their minds off their pain and the associated negative thoughts, as well as skill development geared towards re-entering the civilian workforce.


Want to find out more?

A couple of references to assist:

  • Maria Simonelli (2021) The Creative Advantage- How the intersection of science and creativity reveals life’s ultimate advantage, Australia
  • Mandell, F & Jordan, K. (2010) Becoming a Life Change Artist: Seven creative skills to reinvent yourself at any stage of your life. Penguin Group, US
  • Ericsson, A.K, Prietula, M.J, Cokely, E.T. (2007). The Making of an Expert, Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from
  • Ericsson, A and Pool, R, (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Penguin Random House, UK