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