Practice to Become Great

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. Adapted from モPractice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,ヤ by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi (Jossey-Bass, 2012).

By Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi.

The 80/20 rule, commonly cited among economists to explain a wide variety of events, is sometimes known as the “law of the vital few.” It’s a pattern that holds true again and again: 80 percent of results turn out to come from 20 percent of the sources. Your business digs into the data and finds that 80 percent of its profits come from 20 percent of its customers. Or in seeking to understand those high-value customers, the company finds that 80 percent of the useful information comes from 20 percent of the data points. Even though you spend a ton of money gathering the rest of the data, it doesn’t actually help you that much.

The law of the vital few relates to practice, as well. It tells you that if you wanted to be great, you would focus more on practicing the 20 percent of things that most create value than the other 80 percent of things you could plausibly spend time on. You’d practice that 20 percent of things obsessively—80 percent of the time, some would argue—eschewing new things of lower value and becoming, metaphorically (or literally), the football team that runs five plays so well that even when everyone in the stadium knows they’re going to use them, they still net 12 yards, or six points. With practice you’ll get stronger results if you spend your time practicing fewer things—well, the most important things—better.

One of the most counterintuitive but valuable things we’ve realized about practice is that the value of practicing something increases once you’ve mastered it. Most people say, when participants get to proficiency, “Good, they know how to do that. Now let’s move on.” But if you are practicing one of those most important skills—one of the 20 percent of skills that drive 80 percent of results—don’t stop when your participants “know how to do it.” Your goal with these 20 percent skills is excellence, not mere proficiency. Keep going so that what you develop is automaticity, fluidity, and even, as we’ll discuss later, creativity.

Being great at the most important things is more important than being good at more things that are merely useful. Xavi Hernandez, one of the top soccer midfielders in the world, makes this point in an interview in England’s Guardian. Xavi describes a single practice activity that both characterizes Spanish soccer and explains its dominance. “It’s all about rondos,” he says, referring to a game in which four or five players pass a ball rapidly around the outside of a square and one or two players pursue the ball. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is.”

To be the best in the world and to develop a competitive advantage, be alert for the times when it would be more productive to say, when participants learn something in an especially valuable type of practice, “Good, let’s keep practicing this until we’re truly great.”

So how do you find the 20 percent of the things that are the most important to practice? You may know these things already from experience. If so, great. If not, data can be an excellent source of insight. What do your customers tell you they appreciate? What do your employees say makes them value their managers? What procedures in the operating room are most common—or are most likely to lead to errors, which could be eliminated?

If clear data are not available, consider harnessing the wisdom of crowds. We’re stealing the phrase here from the book of the same name by New Yorker financial columnist James Surowiecki, who points out that, under the right circumstances, pooling the wisdom of a group of relatively well-informed, or even partially informed, individuals almost always outperforms the knowledge of an expert. Surowiecki cites case after case where aggregating information yielded positive outcomes; for example, a missing submarine is found in the midst of thousands of square miles of open seas by averaging the guesses of multiple experts as to where each thought it was likely to be located. No individual was close, but the average of all individual opinions was stunningly accurate.

If you’re struggling to identify your 20 percent of things—if you don’t know what the five most important things for a budding saxophonist to practice are—assemble a group of relatively informed people and ask them to name their top five. Using the five most frequently cited ideas as your answer won’t be perfect, but it will be darned good, and good will allow you to begin practicing each topic to excellence. The goal is not to be good at basic skills and then move on. The goal, again, is to be great at the most important things.

Using the 80/20 rule effectively will cause you to do more planning in advance—you can’t decide on Friday at 2 p.m. what you’ll do for professional development that afternoon with your teachers; you can’t decide each afternoon while driving to your daughter’s basketball practice what you’ll do at practice that day. You have to build a map of your training and goals from the outset. And you have to design extremely high-quality activities for your 20 percenters—high-quality activities for each that get progressively more complex.

On the other hand, once you’ve done this work you’ll no longer waste time preparing a smorgasbord of activities that you’ll use once and discard. You invest more time in developing high-quality activities that you refine and reuse, over and over. In the end, this may save you work. Plus, your participants will get the benefit of practice at a smaller cost: The first time, you have to explain how to do it in methodical detail, and people have to struggle to learn the activity. After a couple of times through, though, you just say “Rondo. Go.” Your downtime is next to nothing.

Practice the 20

  • Identify the 20 percent of things you could practice that will deliver 80 percent of the value.
  • Practice the highest-priority things more than everything else combined.
  • Keep practicing them: The value of practice begins at mastery!
  • Save time by planning better in advance.
  • Engage participants by repeating productive drills with minor variations instead of constantly introducing new ones.

Adapted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, Katie Yezzi. Copyright 2012 by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. For more information, visit

Doug Lemov is the author of “Teach Like A Champion,” his first book based on his study of top teachers in high-poverty public schools. He trains educators as part of his work at Uncommon Schools, the nonprofit school management organization he helped found. Lemov is coauthor of “Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better,” a new book on the importance of practice. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Hamilton College, a Master of Arts from Indiana University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

Erica Woolway is the chief academic officer for the Taxonomy of Effective Teaching Practices at Uncommon Schools. She began her career in education through Teach for America in 2001. Woolway holds a B.A. in Psychology from Duke University, an Ed.M. in School Counseling from Teachers College, and an M.A. in School Leadership from National Lewis University.

Katie Yezzi is the founding principal of Troy Prep Elementary School in New York. Previously, Yezzi taught for eight years at the middle and high school levels. A graduate of New Leaders for New Schools, a national program dedicated to training urban school principals, Yezzi earned her B.A. degree in American Civilization and her Master of Arts in Teaching English from Brown University.

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