Entrepreneurial learning journey: the deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr’s third solo album, Call The Comet, was released last week, with a North American and UK tour, culminating in Manchester on 18 November. It’s a bold and inspiring collection of tunes.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Marr formed The Smiths with the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. Marr gave the signature indie guitar sound to the band, nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold Marr, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described his sound as a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on the all-time classic This Charming Man.

Marr often tuned his guitar up a full step to F-sharp to accommodate Morrissey’s vocal range, and also used open tunings, and is known for creating sophisticated arpeggio melodies and chord progressions, applying open strings while chording to create chiming.

Call the Comet is easily his best and most confident work as a solo artist, deep and rich both musically and lyrically. It serves as a true testament to the idea that Marr has plenty to offer musically at this stage of his career, it clearly showcases his ever-present vitality with melody, or that gorgeous, liquid guitar playing.

Call the Comet carries songs that embody both Marr’s humaneness and his musicality, as the proud singer of expansive songs, which proclaim a more positive vision. Rather than wallow in the mire of the now, Marr dreams of a better tomorrow.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, and on his three solo albums to date, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those with melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks, none more so than There is a Light That Never Goes Out.

By the time Marr departed The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar.

He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups. All roads lead back to Johnny Marr, arguably Britain’s greatest guitar stylist.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? The same question can be asked of entrepreneurs, what gives them that edge, that spark of extraordinariness?

It’s not down to talent, yes there is a base level of skills, but fundamentally research shows it’s down to hard work and practice. Successful sports men and women have long understood the value of time and practice in improving their skills to uplift performance, and thus the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. Practice, as they say, makes perfect.

But this is a process. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking was reinforced by groundbreaking research in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – deliberate practice. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough.

Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentless focus and inventing new ways to improve, rooting out shortfalls. Results are the grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up.

As an entrepreneur, do you do this, reflect and seek to improve, or simply rely on energy, relentless effort and your natural life force? Imagine if you combine your motivation to do stuff whilst also focus on improving your skills? The research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

You have to do the same thing again and again and again to wire it into long-term muscle memory. Do you practice your sales skills, or do you just keep making the same mistakes? It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike.

Ericsson studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

Ericsson concluded that whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information. The best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket, or you pouring over your presentation deck. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, embracing feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s statement genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealing that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Olympian Matthew Syed picks up on this in his book Bounce, and argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in your field. Those that start their pursuit early have a head start and an advantage, plenty of time to bank those 10,000 hours.

Ericsson showed this in a study at the Academy of Music in Berlin on three groups of violinists. The first group had star pupils, the second good students and the third students who would probably never play professionally. The groups had all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.

However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours.

The journey to truly superior performance – music, sport or business – is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts.

So let’s look at the lessons to be shared from the research into the context of a startup founder, what are the common attributes, behaviours and qualities we can take from the research to help you become a high performing entrepreneur?

Discipline For entrepreneurs, to ‘make the main thing, the main thing’, is discipline to focus and not deviate. The game plan is simply consistency. Having the idea is one thing, having the discipline to make it happen is what matters most. Creating a repeatable, scalable sales process takes a startup into a business. Practice and develop your customer facing skills.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo; entrepreneurs have to keep a clear head. In the heat of the moment, they cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus or the lessons learned from customers. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead. Practice clear thinking.

Build muscle memory Muscle memory is equally important in business as it is in sport, especially when times are tough. Having weathered countless storms in the past, entrepreneurs rely on my muscle memory to kick in so, despite the loss, they maintain the mindset of growth and opportunity to go again and find new customers. Practice reflective thinking.

Patience Patience is as important as the ability to move quickly. Sometimes you may want to rush to talk to potential customers, but if you move too soon, you may not have a full understanding of the situation. It is important to make sure that when an opportunity arises, you are prepared for it, and attack it with great precision. Practice means preparation, not going off instinct and spontaneous action every time.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they make the most of 30-second breaks when the game stops. During those brief seconds, they enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. Practice grounding yourself, adrenalin gets you to the table, clam thinking closes the deal.

Many entrepreneurs say they enjoy the frantic nature of the day, it’s non-stop and you have to work fifteen hours. Nonsense. They are simply allowing themselves to get caught up in the heat of the moment and are missing opportunities for learning by not pausing for reflection.

As a result, they leave too much stuff to chance. Pausing to collect your thoughts will create habits and the ability to sense, anticipate and overcome those unexpected speed bumps and disruptions. You create the conditions for more success by practicing your craft. Johnny Marr just doesn’t turn up for a gig on the night, there is a sound check.

Many of the greatest entrepreneurs’ success are a result of constant effort for improvement, testing and refining – their own version of deliberate practice. For example, James Dyson, inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, spent five years and produced over 100 prototypes of his machine before success. Thomas Edison captured it in his quote I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

Deliberate practice is a mindset. For entrepreneurs, the goal is to practice and learn at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to getting familiar with his new tunes and seeing Johnny Marr in November, enjoying the results from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, an innovator, a musical entrepreneur. As Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Johnny Marr. The light that never goes out.

The deliberate practice of Johnny Marr

Johnny Marr has announced the release of his first solo album, The Messenger, on 25 February 2013 and a UK tour, playing Manchester on 22 March at The Ritz, reviving memories of The Smiths debut gig at that venue on October 4 1982. I first saw The Smiths in October 1983 at Sheffield at a free gig, I’ve still got the ticket somewhere.

Back in May 1982, the 18 year-old Johnny Marr formed The Smiths after seeking out the reclusive Stretford poet, Steven Morrissey. The Smiths were an indie guitar band with a sound nostalgically familiar yet jaw-dropping in its sharp newness. The tunes were giant, euphoric and instant, woven together with nimble flair by Marr’s guitar, and the maudlin poetic, story-telling lyrics of Morrissey.

Early critics undersold him, describing his style ‘Indie jingle and jangle’ when they might better have described the sound of Johnny Marr as that of a starry night in angry animation …or the echo of breaking glass raining down upon silver plated cobblestones…or the sound of kitchen cutlery bouncing off a gaffer-taped Telecaster – which, ridiculous as it sounds, is how Marr achieved some of the resonant clangs on This Charming Man.

Throughout The Smiths’ short five-year life, Marr continually challenged his skills as a guitar player. The biggest tunes were those that shocked with their melodic ingenuity and stopped you in your tracks How Soon Is Now? Still ill, You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby, This Charming Man, The Queen Is Dead and There is a Light That Never Goes Out. Paired with Morrissey’s generation-defining words of love and hate, wit and wisdom, sorrow and greater sorrow still, Marr was half of a truly influential British song writing partnership.

By the time Marr departed from The Smiths on 1 August 1987, they’d made four classic albums, none entering the charts lower than number two and released 17 singles – 70 songs in total and not one dud. Almost everything you remember musically from The Smiths happened on Marr’s guitar. He revolutionised and renewed the guitar’s role in popular music, his innovations lit the touch-paper for a full-scale renaissance of the instrument in British guitar groups…all roads lead back to The Smiths…all roads lead back to Johnny Marr.

But what makes Johnny Marr such a great guitar player? Natural talent, a born genius, hard work, experience? When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

It’s not down to talent. Successful sports figures and musicians have long understood the value of time and practice in perfecting their skills, and the importance of a practicing mind-set. Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits with desirable habits. But this is a process that must be practiced. Firstly you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition on this action with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

This thinking, around for some time, was reinforced by a groundbreaking paper published in 1993, in which cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson added a crucial tweak – Deliberate practice. It’s not a minor change. The difference between ineffective and effective practice means the difference between mediocrity and mastery. If you’re not practicing deliberately – whether it’s a foreign language, a musical instrument or any other new skill – you might as well not practice at all.

So how does deliberate practice work? Ericsson’s makes it clear that a dutiful daily commitment to practice is not enough. Long hours of practice are not enough, tinkering around on the piano or idly taking some moves on the chessboard is definitely not enough. Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. The secret of deliberate practice is relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation.

It sounds simple, even obvious, but it’s something most of us avoid. We’ve often achieved a level of competency that makes us feel good about ourselves. But what we don’t do is intentionally look for ways that we’re failing and hammer away at those flaws until they’re gone, then search for more ways we’re messing up. But research shows that’s exactly what distinguishes the good from the great. Without deliberate practice, even the most talented individuals will reach a plateau and stay there.

I know from may years of academic study myself, clumsy efforts to learn musical instruments and a passion for chess, that you have to do the same thing again and again and again to hardwire it into ‘long-term muscle memory, which I’ve found out is stored in the cerebellum. It is exactly the same long-term muscle memory we refer to when we say: It’s just like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it once you’ve hardwired it into the skill centre of the cerebellum through practice.

Leonardo da Vinci coined the word cerebellum in 1504 when he was making anatomical wax castings of the brain. The cerebellum is the size of a kiwi fruit and tucked under the much larger cerebrum in the base of your skull. The average cerebellum only weighs one-quarter of a pound but ounce-for-ounce packs a walloping punch. Although the cerebellum is only 10% of total brain volume it holds more than 50% of the brain’s neurons.

Anyway, back to Ericsson, he studied a vast array of expert performance before getting at the drivers of all expert performance. His first experiment involved training a person to hear and then repeat a random series of numbers. With the first subject, after about 20 hours of training, his digit span had risen from 7 to 20. He kept improving, and after about 200 hours of training he had risen to over 80 numbers.

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorising is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorise, those differences are swamped by how well each person encodes the information, and the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process he labelled deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — Johnny Marr laying a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, until his shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome – it supports Thomas Edison’s famous formula for genius: 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

So how does deliberate practice correlate with success? All the superb performers Ericsson investigated had practiced intensively, revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell supports this, saying that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? And, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our profession? Matthew Syed picks up on the 10,000-hour rule in his book Bounce, recalibrating it to 10 years but he also argues that all that practice is worthless unless it’s the right type of practice.

How long would it take to reach the 10,000-hour threshold? If one spends an average of 40 hours a week working on a chosen pursuit, that’s 2,000 hours a year. So it will take about five years to become a leader in the field. Those that start their pursuit as children have a head start and an advantage — plenty of time to get those 10,000 hours in, and Ericsson showed this.

One study conducted at the Academy of Music in Berlin was on three groups of violinists.  The first group had stars pupils, the second had good students and the third had students who would probably never play professionally. The groups started out at the age of 5 and in the beginning they all practiced roughly the same amount of time for the first few years.  Around eight years of age the difference in commitment to the craft started to become obvious.  Here are the numbers of hours per week and by age practiced by those who would go on to become stars:

  • 5 years old = 2-3 hours
  • 9 years old = 6 hours
  • 12 years old = 8 hours
  • 14 years old = 16 hours
  • 21 years old = 30 hours

Ericsson discovered that all the students, no matter what group they were in, had remarkably similar backgrounds and none deviated greatly from the standard pattern. They started playing at more-or-less the same age; they decided to become musicians at more-or-less the same age; they had on average 4.1 music teachers and so on. However, the one stand out difference was in the amount of practice time. By the age of 20, the top performers had practiced an average of 10,000 hours; the good violinists an average of 8,000 hours and the least able only 4,000 hours

Closer analysis of success stories prove that the element of innate talent plays a lesser role in achieving expert status than one might think. Neither did Ericsson find ordinary people who worked harder than anyone else, and yet never made it to the top.  In other words, he never found people worked hard and never made it. As Alexander Fleming remarked of his penicillin bacillus: It didn’t just stand up and say, ‘I produce penicillin’, you know. It was all that advance preparation with the Petri dishes. It’s blood, sweat and tears.

Finally, it also goes some way to explaining why England’s footballers don’t achieve more. We’ve only just introduced the Academy training system for our youngest, most capable players, whereas in Spain and Holland it’s been in place for years. Barcelona’s La Masia is founded on the principles of Ajax’s Toekomst Academy where youth teamers will have five contact hours a day, four days a week over up to 10 years. You do the maths. (Hint: it’s about 10,000 hours).

The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in deliberate practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.

So view expert performers not simply as domain-specific experts, but as experts in maintaining high levels of practice and improving performance. The goal is to practice at the edge of your current ability, remembering it is the quality of practice, not the amount of time, which is key. It’s about practice in your head too.

I’m looking forward to seeing Johnny Marr in March and admire the great new tunes resulting from his deliberate practice. He’s a guitar genius, as Noel Gallagher has identified: He’s a f****** wizard, even Johnny Marr can’t play what Johnny Marr can play. Is that deliberate?