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Deliberate Performance; Why Just Choosing to Focus Is Not Enough

| “Deliberate practice is never wasted effort. Remember, your efforts compound over time.”

In the last episode, Pick Your Hard, I explained that it’s hard to be excellent, but it’s also hard to be mediocre. So either way, you need to pick your hard. And if your goal is to become excellent, then you’ll have to focus effectively on doing great work.

But what if you try to focus on doing that great work and it isn’t working? How do you stay motivated? Well, listen to this episode to discover all about it!


  • Negative side-effects of lack of focus (that you need to know about)
  • The reasons why just choosing to focus will not always work
  • What to do when a focused effort is not bringing the results you want
  • Two time-tested and proven steps to help you master anything
  • A lesson you can learn from professional musicians & other successful people

     And so much more.


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Welcome to the Ivy League Prep Academy podcast, where we help you make a meaningful impact in your communities and get accepted to your dream university. Becoming the person that Ivy League schools recruit is more enjoyable and meaningful than you ever imagined. Come find out why our in my previous episode Pick Your Hard, I explained it's hard to be excellent, but it's also hard to be mediocre, right? Just like it's hard to get into shape, it's also hard to be out of shape and have that lifestyle.

So either way, you need to pick your hard. Stretching outside of your comfort zone is hard. And feeling frustrated and bored when life is stagnant, when life lacks growth, it's hard.

So you need to pick your hard. And if you haven't listened to it yet, I encourage you to go back and listen to that episode together with this one, because I'm going to continue that conversation. Just to summarize, we talked about how you do need to pick your hard, whether you choose to be excellent or whether you choose to be mediocre, whether you choose to get outside of your comfort zone, or whether you choose to stay inside your comfort zone.

But I took it one step further and I argued that actually, mediocrity is harder than excellence. I think this is true in work and in school, in music and in sports, in really any field. Why? Just briefly again, listen to the entire podcast for the full story.

But briefly, there's a virtuous cycle that occurs when you choose to be excellent. Because when you make that choice, you also focus. And when you focus, you start to experience improvement.

You see that greater improvement, which is exciting, right? It leads to growth, which is motivating because you start experiencing mastery. And that feeling of mastery, the thrill of mastery, inspires you to go back and work even more and focus even more. Meanwhile, the opposite is also true, right? Whether you're learning a musical instrument or developing some other skill, or whether you're working full time or studying in school, it's hard to focus and get the most out of your focused attention.

But it's even harder to perform those same tasks without focused effort because you never experience the thrill of mastery. It takes longer to complete tasks and oftentimes you stay miserable, right? You're avoiding these tasks or you're living life. You're making choices that are not based on the inspiration of improvement and the motivation of experiencing mastery.

And so you make different choices. And often it leads to a disengaged life. And that can feel miserable, and you feel miserable or sad or disengaged throughout the entire day.

And then by the end of the day, you're very likely to continue making poor choices because you're probably going to want to escape into unhealthy amounts of social media, for example, or television, or video games, or even drugs, whatever your escape method is. Well, this unhealthy amount of entertainment can easily keep you up very late at night, which means you start the next day frantic. In the morning, you're sleep deprived.

And actually, throughout the entire day, you're sleep deprived and almost guarantee another miserable day. And so this vicious cycle will continue until you bottom out and eventually decide you want a better life. And then you realize that the pain of focused effort is better than the pain of continuing with mediocrity or continuing to try to escape from life.

All right, I highly encourage you to listen to the entire episode, but some of you are thinking, after you've finished listening to that, you're thinking, well, what about that time when I focused diligently but didn't see any results? What about all of the hard work I put into learning a new skill or accomplishing an important task? Like, for example, maybe I started learning a new language or a new musical instrument, but eventually I saw no progress, even after working hard and focusing. And how many of you might have started something like this but quit because the learning itself was so miserable even when you were focused? So what about that? What about people who begin and work diligently and stay focused but don't see the results that they're looking for? So it almost feels like, yeah, this advice is really good to get into the virtuous cycle of mastery and get into that virtuous cycle, that seems like a great strategy, except when it isn't. Except when it doesn't work.

And so I'd like to introduce and explain the best I can why this happens and what we can do about it. Now, these ideas that I'm sharing are ideas that have worked in my personal life and have worked with students and professionals that I've coached and helped. But these are not my original ideas.

In fact, I'm going to lean heavily on James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits. But even James Clear is explicit that he has learned from books and from other researchers for hundreds of years. So these ideas go way back, but they're very, very relevant today, and I've experienced them personally, which is why I want to share them with you on the podcast and help you with this.

So from James Clear's book Atomic Habits, he says quote, we often expect progress to be linear. At the very least, we hope it will come quickly. In reality, the results of our efforts are often delayed.

It is not until months or years later that we realize the true value of the previous work we have done. This can result in a valley of disappointment where people feel discouraged after putting in weeks or months of hard work without experiencing any results. However, this work was not wasted.

It was simply being stored. It is not until much later that the full value of the previous efforts is revealed. I have experienced this time and time again in my own life, and I've seen it happen among students.

This is such a valuable perspective and understanding to have. Because if it's important to you to develop a skill, or if it's important to you to complete a task, the best thing you can do is approach this with full presence, with deliberate practice, with deliberate performance, and focus your mind and body on the task at hand. Rather than distract yourself and try to entertain yourself or disengage from the task or disengage from the learning.

And yes, that requires some endurance. If you're not used to this perspective, if you're not used to putting in lots of focused effort without seeing immediate returns and immediate results, then it can be very, very frustrating. Because like he said, progress is not linear.

There's this entire stage where we have to lay the foundation, our brain, our muscle memory, everything that's engaged in performing this task or learning this new skill needs to develop the framework and needs to develop the foundation and the context in order to begin making connections. After weeks or months or even years in this valley of disappointment where our focused effort does not appear to be creating results in our lives, suddenly enough connections are made in our minds, in our bodies, that we're able to achieve mastery very quickly. And suddenly our performance just shoots up in the air like a parabola, right? Like exponential growth.

And it is exciting. However, in order to get to that point, we have to lay the foundation. We have to lay the foundation.

So there's two things that I want to emphasize to everyone who's listening. The first is to come into your practice deciding that this is going to take some time. And so when your focused effort does not appear to be giving you the results that you want, don't feel discouraged.

That is not the time to feel discouraged. What you should be feeling instead is proud of yourself for staying focused throughout the time that you agreed that you would stay focused, right? You're not worrying about your results at this point, you're worrying about the process. And as long as you stay focused, you stay intentional throughout your practice, then you can be proud of your work and proud of your effort.

And just know that you're storing away this foundational context, the foundation that your brain and your body needs in order to go exponential. Once the timing is right, once enough connections can be made. There's an example that I want to share with you from music.

Actually, many great musicians recommend that if you're learning a new piece, you should repeat the most challenging sections of the song until you master them and then you move on to the easier sections of the song. Similarly, when I need to memorize passages either in my first language or in a foreign language, I begin with the end of the passage. No matter how long it is, it could be a 20 minutes passage I need to memorize a 20 minutes speech and I'll still begin if I need to memorize it word for word.

I'll begin with the last paragraph with the conclusion and then move towards the front so that as I speak, when I'm presenting, I get more and more comfortable because I've practiced the ending more than the beginning. Anyway, here in musicians have this great recommendation that if you're learning a challenging song, begin with the most challenging sections of the song until you master them, and then you can move on to the easier sections. In particular, virtuoso violinist Nathan Milstein says, quote, practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration.

Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked my professor how many hours I should practice and he told me, it doesn't really matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. But if you practice with your head, 2 hours is plenty.

Another excellent example comes from Benjamin Franklin. When he was a teenager, Benjamin Franklin was criticized by his father for his poor writing abilities. And Ben took his father's advice seriously and he vowed to improve his writing skills.

This wasn't really a skill for him at that time. So what he did is he began to very intentionally he began to find publications written by the best authors of his day and he would look through those articles line by line and write down the meaning of each sentence. And then he rewrote each article in his own words and compared his version to the original every time.

He says he discovered some of his own faults and corrected them. And eventually Franklin realized his vocabulary held him back from better writing. So he began focusing intensely on that area.

So both of these examples have something in common. One, they have the correct perspective that you're not going to immediately see results from your focused effort and therefore don't expect it. Allow yourself the grace.

Allow yourself some time before you expect the returns to come. When they come, boy, they will surprise you and it will just be amazing. But the second thing that we learn here is that deliberate practice follows this pattern.

Break the overall process down into parts and be strategic. Identify your weaknesses. Identify the challenges of developing this skill or accomplishing this task and approach them strategically.

Work harder on the things that are more difficult to accomplish. Do those things first. Give yourself the grace of time, knowing that you're not going to master things right away, but stay focused and proud of yourself for approaching each practice with intention and putting your whole mind and your whole soul into this.

Now, this isn't to say that the valley of disappointment this time period when you're putting in focused effort, but you're not seeing the results that you want, isn't a tough place to be. It is. And it's easy to think that all the work we're putting in is futile and insane, but it isn't right.

Remember, the Valley of Disappointment is a tough place to be in, and that's why most people quit. That's why most people do not achieve excellence. That's why most people do not accomplish the things that the elite performers are accomplishing.

It is difficult, but it's not futile and it's not insane. The work you put in while you're in the valley is exactly what gives you the ability to move out of it and enjoy the fruits of your labor later on. Deliberate practice is never wasted effort.

Remember, your efforts compound over time, and this is especially true with skill development. So, yes, it is difficult to move past the Valley of Disappointment. But guess what? As you learn more about your insufficiencies, as you learn more about your own weaknesses, you can find peace with that and be more strategic about how you move yourself out of the Valley of Disappointment.

And if you want to learn more about this, go find your hero. Talk to someone who is absolutely elite in what they do. Find someone who is at the top of their game.

Whether it's an Er doc or whether it's an elite musician, or an elite athlete or a language master or chess master. Find someone who is at the top of their game and ask them what it takes to get there. Once you've spent enough time with them, you will realize that they spent months or years in the Valley of Disappointment before they came out of it.

So it is difficult. But you know what? It is so worth it. You know you can do this.

And I believe in you. So go and make your impact.