Tag Archives: expert performance

Practise, and keep practising

Do you want to become really good at a skill? The world’s greatest authority on expert performance, Anders Ericsson, tells how.

Anders Ericsson

Pick a skill you’d like to improve, say chess, golf, piano, writing, Mandarin or mathematics. You need to find a good teacher, someone who understands the skill and will assign you tasks just beyond your current ability. You start practising, putting your full concentration into doing the tasks and overcoming shortcomings. And you keep practising, with your teacher’s guidance, tackling ever harder challenges.

For decades, Ericsson has been studying what it takes to become a top performer. Here’s the surprise. Natural talent doesn’t seem to make much difference. Think of geniuses like Mozart or Einstein. Natural talent for music or physics? No. Their supreme achievements can be explained by intensive practice from a young age. Ericsson has now written a popular account of his research, titled Peak, co-authored by science writer Robert Pool. It is clearly written, filled with examples and addresses the most common criticisms.


            Ericsson is often credited with the so-called 10,000-hour rule, which loosely stated says that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to become a world-class performer. The rule was popularised by science writer Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, but Gladwell got lots of things wrong. There’s no magic number for the number of hours of practice, nor does any old practice suffice. Gladwell said the Beatles obtained 10,000 hours of practice performing in Hamburg from 1960 to 1964. Ericsson cites a Beatles biography saying the figure was probably closer to 1000, and anyway the Beatles weren’t practising to play other groups’ songs to a high standard. Their fame rests on original compositions by Lennon and McCartney, so the key to the Beatles’ success is the time these two spent practising composition.

The one thing Gladwell got right was that becoming a great performer requires a lot of practice, usually thousands of hours.

“By now it is safe to conclude from many studies on a wide variety of disciplines that nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice.” (p. 96)

There’s also hope for those of us with lesser ambitions, who just want to become a lot better than we are. The key is the right sort of practice.


            Most people, when learning a new skill like driving a car, practise enough to acquire a basic competence. After that, deploying the skill becomes automatic, and there’s little further improvement. We are using the skill, not practising to improve. If you want to improve as a driver, you need new challenges, such as racing.

The same pattern holds for most people in most fields. After obtaining their medical degrees and beginning their regular work, doctors acquire some new skills through exposure to patients and procedures, but then level off. Ericsson cites evidence suggesting that for many purposes, doctors with decades of experience are no better than those who graduated a few years ago. Indeed, recent graduates might be better because they have learned the latest techniques.

In fields such as teaching, business and law, practitioners may be skilled, but few keep improving. Just doing the job won’t make you better. You need to practise.

To learn how to keep improving, it’s valuable to look at areas where excellence can be judged with little ambiguity, for example chess (where rankings reflect tournament success), sport (especially individual sports like tennis), and performing arts like ballet and classical music (where judges of performance generally agree). In all these areas, there has been a lot of research into the sort of practice that enables ongoing improvement.

Deliberate practice

Only a particular sort of practice will make much difference. Ericsson calls it “deliberate practice.” It requires intense concentration on attempting to improve at the limits of your capacity. Consider reading, a skill that nearly everyone develops at a basic level and some take to advanced levels. Children can find learning to read both fun and challenging; by trying to read gradually more difficult writing, reading skills are developed.

Most adult readers stop pushing themselves and settle into a steady diet at the same level, reading novels, newspapers or text messages, or perhaps poetry or scientific papers. If you want to continue to improve as a reader, you need to find pieces of writing that challenge you, and you need to concentrate intently on understanding them. If you’ve read lots of crime novels, reading another one won’t be deliberate practice, but picking one that is especially difficult could be.

In classical music, good teachers know what it takes to become an outstanding performer: using the right technique and practising intently on ever more difficult music. But in most fields, practitioners stop improving because they seldom engage in deliberate practice.

piano teacher

            To improve requires lots of deliberate practice, usually under the guidance of a good teacher, using the most advanced methods, and in situations where there is prompt feedback. Few people have the advantage of a personal teacher or trainer who can give immediate feedback throughout practice every day. (Wolfgang Mozart’s father Leopold provided this sort of personal guidance.) In music, the next best option is having weekly private lessons, in which the teacher assigns music to be practised, monitors improvement and assigns new music of ever increasing difficulty. For this sort of teaching to work, the music student has to practise. To the chagrin of many a music teacher, quite a few young pupils don’t improve, and invariably it’s because they don’t practise. So having or developing the self-discipline to practise is crucial. Supportive parents often make the difference, providing encouragement and structure for practising in early years, until the child becomes self-motivated.

According to Ericsson, hardly anyone finds this sort of practising fun. Deliberate practice is hard work. Elite professional musicians may practise several hours per day throughout their careers, but never find it relaxing.



Not everyone aspires to become a chess grandmaster or a violin virtuoso. Even for lesser achievements, though, the methods of developing expert performance can be applied, sometimes with dramatic effect. Ericsson reports on an application of expert performance principles to the teaching of physics — students in groups engaged with the material and received rapid feedback — that gave an astounding improvement. The promise is that applying the principles to a range of areas can speed learning.

For those who want to improve their swimming, application of the principles can accelerate learning and gains, even if world-beating performance is not a goal. High levels of fitness can become more achievable with less effort.

Ericsson says deliberate practice can revolutionise the way we think about human potential. Rather than being limited by innate talent, the implication is that nearly everyone can become really good in any of a wide range of skills. When people say “I’m no good at maths,” they assume some sort of genetic limitation. Instead, the assumption should be that anyone, with the right sort of training and motivation, can become good at maths, and about anything else you can name. In some fields, early training is essential for world-class achievements, but even that can be factored into education in the future. There are potential applications in education, business, health, science and other fields, as described in Peak and previous books presenting research findings in the field for a general audience.


For the revolution of improvement to occur, much more investigation is needed. Ericsson notes that in lots of fields, little is known about how to measure expert performance or about the mental representations used by top performers.

There will also be another obstacle: many top figures in a range of fields have a stake in the present system. Consider education. A transformation could occur, and it involves changing from a priority on learning knowledge to a priority on learning skills. The problem is that this would shake up educational hierarchies, in which teachers are in charge of dispensing knowledge, administrators run the systems and there is little scope for individualised training programmes. Perhaps the most promising area for uptake is in home schooling, with informed parents applying the principles and recruiting specialist teachers as appropriate. Just as private tutoring is the basis for expert performance in music, so it may become more common in a range of learning areas.


            The long-term implication might be that educational bureaucracies will become obsolete, replaced by networks of individualised learning embedded in the community. This is reminiscent of the ideas of Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. It would be wishful thinking to imagine that this will happen quickly, if at all.

The idea that anyone, with the right sort of teaching and support and lots of deliberate practice, can become very good at something is potentially threatening to power-holders in all sorts of areas, including corporate management and politics. Governments and corporations operate on the principle that their leaders know best, either individually or via experts on tap. If anyone can develop high-level expertise, present power systems may be threatened. Deliberate practice promises to democratise human capacities. The implications are potentially profound, so those with the most power will use it to keep changes under control.


Expert performance: who could be against it? Everyone wants surgeons to be highly skilled when undertaking operations. But there is a wider set of considerations: expertise needs to be deployed for worthy causes. For surgeons to be more highly skilled is fine, but the wider question is the level of effort put into preventive health measures, now minimal compared to medical interventions against ill health. What is also needed is expertise in promoting exercise, good diet, a clean environment and mental calm, and these areas are poorly funded and less well developed than medical specialities such as surgery.


            Then there are areas where expert performance is undesirable. Torture is an example: militaries experiment with torture techniques, and some practitioners become very good at them. It might also be argued that improvements in military performance are undesirable, and that efforts should instead be put into improving performance in conflict resolution, nonviolent action, and promotion of social justice. Initiatives to improve human performance need to be linked to worthwhile social goals. So it should be a priority to learn about expertise in promoting freedom and equality, so more people can apply deliberate practice to methods for making the world a better place.

If you want to become a lot better at some skill, Peak should be on your reading list. It is systematic yet accessible, with lots of examples. On its own, reading it won’t make you better, but deliberate practice will.

“Deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities that you may have been convinced were out of reach. Open that door.” (p. 179)

Robert Pool
Robert Pool, co-author of Peak

Brian Martin

Rapid learning

You can become pretty good at a new skill in just 20 hours by following Josh Kaufman’s advice.

Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is a busy man. He has three children, runs a business and is a writer on the side. Yet he wants to do more. He wants to acquire new skills and to learn them as quickly as possible.

There’s an enormous body of research on learning. There are millions of teachers in schools and universities, not to mention private teachers and coaches on every topic from driving to playing the violin. Despite this wealth of knowledge and experience, Kaufman was looking for something different: how to tackle a completely new skill and become competent as rapidly as possible, fitting it all into his busy life.

So Kaufman developed his own system, based on 10 principles of effective learning. Being a practical person, he drew on his experiences in developing the principles, and then tried out his approach. And he’s written a book about it: The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast (Penguin, 2013).

First 20 hours

Expert performance and rapid learning

There’s a growing body of research on expert performance, the sort of high-level competence that would make you a chess grandmaster, a piano virtuoso, or a famous scientist. The research suggests that achieving this level of performance usually requires at least 10,000 hours of practice. Furthermore, not just any sort of practice will do: it has to be what is called “deliberate practice,” during which you concentrate intensely on improving, typically by working on the most challenging tasks for your level of performance. A swimmer, for example, needs to be pushing most the time during training.

Kaufman respects those who seek this level of performance. His goal is something different: to become as good as possible in a short time. It is quite compatible with deliberate practice. Indeed, it could be seen as the beginning of a journey towards high-level performance.

Anders Ericsson, the most prominent researcher on expert performance, notes that in learning a new skill most people improve rapidly to start with, but then their performance level plateaus. For example, most people learning to drive improve steadily because they are putting themselves in ever more challenging situations. But as soon as they are reasonably competent, they stop pushing themselves: they are driving but not improving much. Race car drivers, on the other hand, need to keep challenging themselves to achieve much higher level skills.


Kaufman is interested in this early skill acquisition stage and how to make it really efficient. No messing about attending classes for him.

So how good can he get in just 20 hours? Kaufman’s 10 principles for rapidly acquiring skills seem plausible, but how to apply them is what counts. To illustrate this, he offers six case studies in which he personally set out to learn a new skill in just 20 hours. These case studies take up most of the book. They are fascinating and are powerful recommendations for Kaufman’s approach.

Typing: learning it fast

Kaufman was already a good typist. Using a standard online test, he could type 60 words per minute. But he felt he was moving his fingers too much and so wanted to learn to type using a different, more efficient keyboard.

The standard keyboard is called QWERTY, after the first six letters in the top row of keys. Nearly all keyboards are laid out this way, and nearly everyone who learns to type learns this system. So why would anyone want to change?

QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY was set up in the days of manual typewriters and designed so the moving keys wouldn’t get stuck. But in terms of finger movement it is not ideal. For example, a highly efficient key arrangement would have the most common letters, E and T, on the middle line of keys, so less finger motion is required.

Kaufman set himself a goal: in 20 hours, he would seek to learn to type using a different keyboard, up to the same speed as before, 60 words per minute. So how did he proceed?

If deliberate practice is the key to skill acquisition, then you might guess that Kaufman spent 20 hours practising using the new keyboard. This is only partly right. One of the key insights Kaufman provides is that it is vital to figure out the best way forward. Time spent doing this is at least as important as deliberate practice.

First he had to choose the alternative keyboard he wanted to learn. He investigated several options and chose Colemak, one that suited his circumstances. He figured out how to change his computer so that when he pressed keys, they gave Colemak rather than QWERTY outputs. He then purchased some key covers and set up his keyboard in the new configuration. Now he was ready to practise typing using Colemak.

Colemak keyboard

Deliberate practice is the key

How to practise? Kaufman searched the web to find training programs, and compared the ones he found, choosing one that suited his purposes. Then it was time to begin. He used the program for an hour every day, practising in the evening to that his new skills would be better cemented into his mind through sleep.

After just 20 hours total — comprising choosing the keyboard, setting it up and practising using it — he achieved his goal of typing at 60 words per minute in Colemak. Along the way, though, he did a little experiment that is one of the best advertisements for deliberate practice I’ve seen.

While learning the new typing system, Kaufman couldn’t just drop all his regular correspondence. He still needed to type. So as soon as he was competent, even at a slow typing speed, he used Colemak. But doing his correspondence wasn’t deliberate practice, because he was concentrating on what he was writing, not on improving his typing speed.

I wonder: What if I drop the deliberate practice for a while and just continue typing e-mails and surfing the web? I’m two-thirds of the way to my target performance level of sixty WPM [words per minute] after only fourteen hours of deliberate practice. Can ambient practice carry me the rest of the way, without additional focused effort?

I decided to do an experiment: I’m going to suspend my deliberate practice for thirty days and set what happens. I’ll continue typing normally in Colemak, without switching back to QWERTY. With as much time as I spend on the computer, I should be able to get enough ambient practice to hit sixty WPM, right?

After thirty days, I retook the typing test. Want to guess my typing speed?

Forty WPM. Zero improvement.

Even though I was typing quite a bit, I wasn’t actively focused on improving my skills. Ambient practice wasn’t enough to improve.

If you want to improve a skill, you need deliberate practice, at least in the early stages of skill acquisition. Lesson learned. (pp. 151-152)

Other skills

Kaufman describes his efforts at learning a variety of skills using his approach: yoga, computer programming, the game of go, and windsurfing. In some cases, it’s an advantage to be able to pay for good equipment, as in the case of windsurfing. Kaufman tells how he searches for information about the most suitable equipment for his purposes, yet at a moderate price. And he does this all within the 20 hours.

To my mind, his most impressive achievement was learning the ukulele. Musicians will tell you that the ukulele is one of the easier instruments to learn. In 20 hours you can only make a start on the violin or oboe. Although the ukulele is relatively easy, Kaufman set himself a performance target that most people would find impossibly daunting.

He was invited to give a talk at a conference to tell about his approach to rapid learning. It was just 10 days until the conference and he thought, “Why don’t I demonstrate my approach by learning the ukulele in 10 days and performing on it as part of my talk?” And so he did. He practised hard during those 10 days, but also, as usual, spent a good portion of the time ensuring that he adopted the most efficient approach to practice. The response to his talk, and the accompanying ukulele performance, exceeded his expectations.

Josh Kaufman on the ukulele

What happens after 20 hours and a reasonable level of competency? Kaufman makes it clear that this depends. In some cases he wants to keep going: he continues to use Colemak for touch typing. In other cases he decides not to do any more. He became a decent beginner at the game of go, but decided not to continue playing the game. After all, if he learns too many skills, he’ll run out of time to deploy them, much less to continue to improve at them.

If you have a desire to learn any of the skills Kaufman took up, for example computer programming, the details he provides about how he learned will prove helpful. Even if you want to learn something quite different, the case studies are inspiring. They show how to approach a completely new area and make the task manageable. In the age of the Internet, this has become far easier than it would have been a few decades ago.

Implications for learning

Kaufman is a learning addict: he loves learning for learning’s sake, as well as for the satisfaction of using skills. Could his approach be applied to schools and universities? In many courses, students in a semester spend more than 20 hours attending classes — at least if they attend as they are expected to — and are supposed to devote many additional hours in study. Yet, based on Kaufman’s account, my impression is that few students learn as much in 100 hours as he does in 20.

There are several reasons for this. Kaufman’s first principle of rapid skill acquisition is “Choose a lovable project.” Many if not most students take courses primarily because they want a diploma or degree. They might enjoy some of the topics, but study is commonly seen as onerous, whereas Kaufman sees it as part of an intensely absorbing challenge.

Another factor is that Kaufman is in charge of his learning process. He chooses what to learn and how to learn it. Students seldom have this autonomy.

Kaufman pushes himself really hard. He designs his deliberate practice so it is maximally effective in achieving goals he has set himself. Most students are driven to study not by their own desires but by targets imposed externally, by their teachers. Kaufman set himself a goal of performing the ukulele before an audience. Students have a goal of passing an exam set by their teacher.

20 hours, but not so rapid

Kaufman wants to acquire skills rapidly. Is it possible to learn efficiently but not so rapidly? I decided to apply a variant of Kaufman’s approach. I acquired some juggling balls and the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz, and started to practise. But rather than doing it intensely, I decided to practise only five minutes per day. After a few months, I could juggle three balls with two hands or two balls with one hand without too much difficulty — in less than 20 hours of practice. I discovered that the key is practising every day, even for just a couple of minutes.


While learning, I demonstrated to myself the importance of concentration. If my thoughts wandered for even a second or two, I would inevitably drop the balls.

I’m not as brave as Kaufman: I’m not going to juggle in front of an audience, at least not yet!

Kaufman versus textbooks

A typical textbook tells about subject matter, whether philosophy or physics. What it doesn’t tell is how to go about learning in a really efficient fashion. Educational researchers know a lot about learning, but this is seldom translated into practical guides for high-speed learning. So it takes someone like Kaufman, not a professional educator, to provide an original, inspirational guide. If you really want to learn, enjoy it and get better quickly, then spend a few hours learning from Kaufman’s example.

But there is no substitute for practice, a point that Kaufman reiterates.

If you want to acquire a new skill, you have to practice. There is no other way.

You can prepare. You can research. You can eliminate distractions and alter your environment to make it easier to practice. You can find intelligent ways to make your practice more effective or efficient. But, in the end, you must practice.

What feels like the long way is the shortest way. Zero-practice shortcuts don’t exist. No practice, no skill acquisition. It’s as simple as that.

Why don’t we practice? Simple: we’re busy and we’re scared. …

The major barrier to rapid skill acquisition is not physical or intellectual: it’s emotional. Doing something new is always uncomfortable at first, and it’s easy to waste a ton of time and energy thinking about practicing instead of practicing. …

One final thought: the only time you can choose to practice is today.

Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month or next year. Today. (pp. 257-258)

Brian Martin