Badass Deliberate Practice

If you’ve been awake for the last decade, you’ve probably heard someone say the phrase “ten thousand hours.”

It’s the half-understood pop takeaway from a growing body of research on deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice is the act of practicing the hard shit right on the edge of your abilities.

People who spend more time practicing this way get much better much faster than the people who merely log a lot of seat time. If seat time was all that mattered, we’d all type 300 words a minute and be excellent drivers.

[but you should’ve seen how fast he was typing]

Now, I have read (and written) a ton about deliberate practicing—what it is, how to do it, where people get it wrong, what happens inside the brain, etc, etc.

But recently I read Kathy Sierra’s book Badass, and she blew my freaking mind.

[you want the print edition]

In it, she says that it’s helpful to imagine that we have three groups of skills:

  • Can’t Do
  • Can Do With Effort, and
  • Mastered/Automatic

It’s not a neat, orderly progression of things from Can’t to Can to Mastered.

The column for Can’t Do is never ever empty. As we progress, we begin to see & hear in high def, and we find new things to work on.

Some stuff jumps from Can’t Do straight to Mastery. More on this in a minute.

Sometimes things that we can do Masterfully we pull back from automaticity to give it a tune up. There’s something called the “intermediate blues,” where we get stuck and stop making progress. To break out of that rut, usually what we need to do is make changes to an already-mastered, automated skill.

[Anecdotally, this happened for me in a big way—I spent a whole year rebuilding my picking, learning to do it George Benson style. After getting it up to speed and dialed in (and recording a live album using it), I… completely abandoned it. My new experience with my old picking was night and day—all that time spent breaking it apart allowed me to re-rebuild it in a matter of days instead of months.]

But even more common than needing to de-automate something to break out of the intermediate blues is… having too many things in the Can Do With Effort column.

The single biggest problem for most people on most expertise curves is having too many things on the [Can Do With Effort] board.
We try to learn and practice too many things simultaneously instead of nailing one thing at a time.”

Ok, this is some heavy shit, and we’re going to pick it apart in a minute.

But wait, she’s not done! A few pages later she throws down some more solid gold:

Half-a-Skill beats Half-Assed Skills.
Mastering one tiny useless-on-its-own sub-skill at a time is nearly always a more effective, efficient way to move explicitly-practiced skills from [Can’t Do] all the way to [Mastered].”

So if we need to avoid half-assed skills (too many things on the Can Do With Effort board), how do we know what to work on? I mean, super specifically:

  • what thing do I work on today?
  • how do I know if I’m going too big?

Luckily, Kathy has our back here too, with her Simplified Rules For Deliberate Practice:

Pick a small sub-skill/task that you can’t do reliably (or at all), and get it to 95% reliability within three 45-90 minute sessions. Getting it to 95% in a single session is often better.”

If it’s too big to 95% master in <3 sessions, it’s too damned big. Stop trying. Break it apart into more manageable chunks.

If the problem is that it’s too complex, break it into subskills: work on just that one tricky chord change, or sing the harmony part without also playing your guitar part.

If it’s not too complex, but rather too difficult, make the performance criteria easier: play it slower, or play only one small subsection.

What’s This Mean For Us?

Ok, before I defame any more of this excellent book and get sued by my newfound hero, let’s have a look at what Badass Deliberate Practice means in the context of this course.

  1. Discrete Tasks. Can you identify the exact thing you’re trying to improve? If not, you’re playing, not practicing.
  2. Move that thing from Can’t to Can to Mastered. Or even from Can’t straight to Mastered.
  3. Move something from Mastered back to Can With Effort? If you’re feeling the Intermediate Blues, be on the lookout for bottlenecks that you can clear in order to break free. Sometimes the best way forward is a step backward.
  4. Avoid half-assed skills. Half-a-skill is better. Break it down if’n you have to. Avoid having a pile-up on the Can With Effort board.
  5. Get it 95% reliable in one to three sessions. One session is even better. Adjust the size of the practice task accordingly.
  6. Show up consistently. Of course, life happens. But don’t rest too long or you’ll be starting over.

Staying in the sweet spot of deliberate practice is tough.

In our next lesson, we’ll look at how we’re going to organize and manage all of this.

See you there,


In our last lesson, we talked about deliberate practice as it’s laid out in Kathy Sierra’s book Badass.

In it, she asks us to imagine having three posters on our wall, one for each skill level:

  • Can’t Do,
  • Can Do With Effort, and
  • Mastered/Automatic.

What she’s really describing here is a variation on Kanban.

Kanban originated in Toyota’s famed lean production method, and is now the go-to method for software development teams.

It looks something like this:

Discrete tasks move from the queue (To Do) into production (Doing) and into the finished pile (Done).

Of course, they’re not limited to three categories:

And in an office, they’re usually done on giant white boards with post-it notes:

Remote teams—and online guitar courses created by nerds like me—use virtualkanban boards.

There are a bunch of them, but the one I like is Trello.


Trello is free. And maybe more importantly, I already used Trello to set up all of the discrete practice tasks you’ll be working on in this course, moving them from Can’t to Can to Mastered.

You should be getting an email from me inviting you to your own copy of all these boards. Maybe you already got it?

(If you’re already on Trello under a different email address than you used to sign up for this course, shoot me an email at [email protected] and I’ll send you a new invite.)

How This Course Works With Trello

Every time you sit down (or stand up?) to practice, pull up and take a look at your dashboard.

All the way to the left there’s a Macro View that outlines the various units in the course:

The next three columns are for the individual examples:

Each example has its own card:

And if you want to get even more granular, most cards have a little checklist:

If you’re the sort who finds motivation in checking those boxes, have at it.

If you think that’s a pain in the ass, feel free to skip it.

In fact, feel free to skip the Trello thing altogether if you want, but be warned: there’s so many little lessons in this course that having it all Kanban-ed helps prevent any sense of overwhelm.

There’s very little you need to know about how to use Trello—click cards to see descriptions. Check boxes. (Or don’t.) Drag cards. (Or don’t!) The instructions and supplemental materials are also inside the course (the thing you’re reading right now.)

Critical Path

One last note about Kanban.

For many (most?) things, the order you do them in is super important. You can’t put cheese on your pizza before you roll out the dough. You can’t pour a foundation before you excavate. If you put the windshield in place before you apply the adhesive, it won’t stick. If you hail a Lyft to the airport before you pack your bag, it’s going to leave without you. If you try reading music without knowing the names of the notes on your fretboard, you’re going to get discouraged.

This is known as the “critical path.” The idea is that there are dependencies between all of the actions you need to take. Putting them in the proper order gives you amazing clarity as to what needs to happen when. And it lights up a lot of cartoon light bulbs over your head as to why the thing you worked super hard on didn’t get you the results you expected.

Like seeing the arrow in the FedEx logo, you can’t unsee this once you’re hip to it.

My hope is that as you go through this course (and everything else out there in Guitarlandia), you start to see the matrix behind the apparent reality. It’s why I’m harping on you about getting your time & feel together before going further. It’s why in GuitarOS we have to do a bunch of boring and seemingly worthless memorization of the Circle of Fifths before we learn to build fun chords.

As Goethe said:

"Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

Go take a gander at your new friend Trello, and we’ll bust out some other workflow stuff in the next one.

See you there,