Deliberate Practice and Dreams of Sushi

Deliberate practice has been en vogue on the internet for a few years – but it’s been a popular idea for hundreds of years. I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi recently (it’s free on Amazon Prime), and it’s one of the best testaments to deliberate practice I’ve seen.

The movie focuses on the lives of an elderly man and his two sons, who are all sushi chefs. Although the film covers, at various points, the family relationship, sushi preparation, fish markets, apprenticeship, and the environment, the heart of the film is an ode to dedication, routine, and deliberate practice. Jiro is 85 years old, and in many ways he lives in a way I wouldn’t want to – he admits he wasn’t a good father – but he also works constantly to become a better chef. It’s his explicit stated goal to get better at has profession, every day – even after 75 years of study. So, he lives every day following the same pattern, leaving energy to focus on cooking skills. He loves his work – and his dedication has paid off: he’s considered the best sushi chef in the world.

The enemy of deliberate practice is not “no practice,” but rather “mindless routine.” It’s so easy to fall into a routine – and then you learn nothing. Even the littlest things can make a difference. For instance, I frequently export displays in Linux – almost daily at work. Basically, this means that you’re showing the display of one machine on a different machine (to oversimplify). You sometimes need to check which machine will be doing the displaying. I always ran the command env | grep DISPLAY – searching the environment for DISPLAY. But this is imprecise. Recently I saw a shell script and realized (to my chagrin) that I could just do echo $DISPLAY instead. It’s only a few characters shorter, but it’s just correct. It’s simply better than what I was doing before. And yet, I’d never really thought about a better way to find the display – for probably two years! I had something that worked, after all. This is a terrible attitude, but even if you recognize that, it’s still a common trap to fall into.

Deliberate Practice

What’s the most important part of acquiring a new skill? Practice.

It’s that simple. I’m 100% convinced that someone can become very good at anything if they commit to daily practice, and their practice is in some sense deliberate – they don’t just mess around but always explore something new or have a purpose to their practice.

Starting Out

A few months ago, I came across a vivid example of the power of practice. It’s a fellow who committed to sketching or painting every day. Starting from a totally average artist, he quickly became competent (after about a 6 months to a year of practice) and then after a longer time, was able to portray things photorealistically.

This was someone who started drawing in his twenties, and started without any appreciable skill. But he had a passion, and he had dedication, and he had focus — and that was enough.

One Year In

I’ve found that when something grabs my fancy, I’ll spend a lot of my time immersing myself in studying the culture of learning that – whether it’s physical fitness or an instrument or a language. More time, in fact, than actually practicing whatever it is.

Once you start obsessing over the culture, you then start obsessing over efficiency: “If I focus on supersets and negative reps when lifting, maybe I’ll get stronger 3% faster than if I follow another program!” This is a worthless mindset for a beginner. Search out an expert and have them give you a basic program, and then resolve to follow that for 6 months. This will get you infinitely more results than obsessing for three weeks and then losing interest. If you want to get healthy, follow a simple multi-joint lifting program (bench press, squats, deadlifts), do some jogging, stop eating junk food, and you’ll be much healthier in 6 months. If you enjoy it, then you can begin to tweak, optimize and experiment.


You can tie this to material objects, too. My philosophy towards buying, in a nutshell, is that if you’re already using something almost daily, then replace it with something top-of-the-line, but if you’re trying something new, look in the super-budget price range. Don’t invest a lot of money/time on something that doesn’t have a huge impact on results – that goes for adjusting practice parameters, or the build quality of something you have no experience with.

If you want to learn to play guitar, buy a $100 guitar, not a $1000 one. If you want to learn to kayak, get a crappy kayak, or even rent one. This will save a ton of money in the long run. 90% of the things I try, I’m just not that passionate about. And that’s fine, as long as I haven’t sunk money into them. Once you find that you really do love something (and have spent a lot of time on it), and not just the idea of something, then go ahead and upgrade guilt-free. Besides, you’ll have a better idea of what’s important to you, which you wouldn’t have had as a novice.