K. Anders Ericsson is an expert on expertise. He’s spent several decades researching how the greats in chess, music, medicine, and even memory tricks get to be the world’s best.
Over the last year, I’ve seen some of Ericsson’s research and learned about his concept of “deliberate practice,” so I was excited to read his new book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which summarizes much of his work over the years, explains the concept of deliberate practice, and suggests ways that we can use the secrets of experts worldwide to improve our own performance at work or at home.
The book is chock full of interesting and surprising research. Here are the points that resonated most with me:
Experts are made, not born.
Although we generally think of people being born with innate talent for a particular activity, Ericsson disputes the point. He refers to studies showing that adult chess players have no better visuospatial abilities than normal non-chess-playing adults.
He also unpacks the story of Mozart to suggest that he wasn’t born with musical genius but developed it from years of very focused practice at his father’s direction. Mozart senior was an accomplished musician who’d written a book on teaching children music, and he’d started his son out at the age of 2.
Ericsson points out that Mozart’s earliest compositions, hailed as marks of genius, were written in his father’s handwriting. And these works, far from original, drew heavily on lesser known music of the time. He suggests that Mozart’s early creations looked a lot like school exercises you’d expect from any composer-in-training.
Finally, Ericsson debunks the myth of perfect pitch, another of Mozart’s “natural” abilities. In an experiment conducted by the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo, 24 children between the ages of 2 and 6 were put through a training course to identify piano chords by simply hearing them. The training took several months, but when complete, every child could identify chords and individual notes on the piano.
Thus, while Mozart’s abilities seem astonishing when we look at the end-result, it’s not so clear that he was born a genius and more likely that he was made a genius.
Experts practice with a purpose.
So if experts aren’t all born with special advantages, how do they rise to the tops of their fields? After years of studying both accomplished professionals and masters-in-the-making, Ericsson has identified a technique called “deliberate practice,” which they use to grow their abilities faster and further than others.
Deliberate practice has two main requirements: a field in which there are standards for excellence and competition, such as chess, music or sports, and a teacher or coach who provides the feedback and challenge necessary for constant improvement.
And experts engage in deliberate practice A LOT. FOR YEARS.
In Ericsson’s words:
What exactly is being changed in the brain with deliberate practice? The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us it that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representation, which in turn make possible the incredible memory, pattern recognition, problem solving, and other sorts of advanced abilities needed to excel in their particular specialties.
Ericsson lists 7 traits of deliberate practice:
- It develops skills for which there are known, effective training techniques.
- It pushes students outside their comfort zones.
- It uses well-defined, specific improvement targets.
- It requires full focus and attention.
- Students get immediate feedback so they can adjust if, for example, they hit the wrong note or make a poor chess move.
- It results in robust and accurate mental representations.
- It builds skills up step-by-step over time starting with good fundamentals.
So you may be thinking that deliberate practice isn’t for you. After all, you just want to become a great public speaker, not the next pogo-stick champion. But Ericsson asserts that we can all benefit from this technique.
Even if you’re not a virtuoso bassoonist, the secrets of experts can help you improve at work.
Even if we’re aiming at something less than world domination in our fields, we can identify specific skill targets, get help and feedback, compare our results to experts, and build up our skills over time. Just like experts do.
For example, if we want to become better communicators at work, first we need to specify exactly what that means. Maybe we want to deliver better presentations. That means having a good presentation voice, good pacing, and confident body language. Maybe it also means learning how to tell a good joke or speaking without “ums,” “ahs,” and “likes.”
We can find someone who already presents well to help us learn. Or even videos and books can help. We can get feedback by having someone listen to a speech and count the “umm” so we can track improvement over time. And we can ask good speakers how they prepare and mimic their approaches.
Ericsson describes the work of Art Turock, a leadership coach who has applied these principles into an approach he calls “learning while real work gets done.” He asks people to assign a practice goal to work tasks. For example, if you’re working on presentation skills, the next time you give a presentation as part of your job, you can assign a goal, such as telling more engaging stories, and ask some people in the audience to take notes on how you do.
While you’re doing actual work, you’re also focused on improving one aspect in a very specific way and soliciting feedback to help.
For anyone in the business or professional world looking for an effective approach to improvement, my basic advice is to look for one that follows the principles of deliberate practice: Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them? Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it? Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what set them apart from everyone else? Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess? A yes answer to all those question may not guarantee than an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.
Practice needs a rethink.
Overall, this book made me rethink the concept of practice. Just doing something over and over doesn’t make you better at it. You have to approach it with a specific goal and find a way to measure your performance against that goal.
But I also felt very optimistic after reading Peak. Ericsson takes the stand that you don’t need innate talent for extraordinary skills and you don’t have to put in the work that world-experts do to improve. Maybe you don’t need to win any contests, you just want to get better at your job and take pride in your progress. And with a little focus, you can reach your own peak.
At Pract.us, we’re dedicated to helping everyone achieve their best level of performance. Try out our tool to help set goals, engage coaching help and track your progress on your way to expertise. Learn more.