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Day 7. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Robert Pool and Anders Ericsson



Recommendation What appears to be genius is not so uncommon. Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna, was also a child prodigy. The difference for top performers isn’t practice – it’s “deliberate practice,” a focused method of systematic improvement that psychologist Anders Ericsson spent a lifetime studying. He and co-author Robert Pool explain the science that supports deliberate practice and illustrate their manual with historical examples of top performers.


Take-Aways

  • Practice and the time they devote to the practice differentiates top and average performers.

  • Focused practice that challenges homeostasis changes the brain.

  • Top performers improve their skills by improving their “mental representations.”

  • Nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice.

  • To improve, you need to practice the right way.

  • Maintaining practice over time is the key to steady improvement.

  • The development of expert performance typically progresses through a series of recognizable stages: “starting out,” “becoming serious,” “commitment,” and, in rare cases, “pathbreaker.”

  • Under the surface of what appears to be natural talent lurks lots of time dedicated to practice.

  • In every discipline studied, deliberate practice has been shown to produce improvement.

Summary Practice and the time they devote to the practice differentiates top and average performers. “Purposeful practice” aims at specific, well-defined targets. “Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals and a way to monitor your progress. Oh, and figure out a way to maintain your motivation.” Instead of practicing your golf game, think specifically about what you need to do to reduce your handicap five strokes. Focus, perhaps, on adjusting your swing. Effective practice helps change your brain to increase your playing ability.

Focused practice that challenges homeostasis changes the brain. Your brain size may not change, but the brain is highly adaptable, or plastic. When you undertake a physical fitness program, muscle cells contract and use available oxygen and energy. But now the bloodstream needs more, so you breathe deeper and tap other sources of energy. If you maintain a program of physical exercise that challenges the body, your cells respond by changing, activating different genes to handle the change. The muscles involved eventually create a “new comfort zone.” By setting up a program that offers continual challenge, “just outside your comfort zone,” you keep improving. The brain responds similarly to challenges by rewiring neuronal connections rather than generating new cells. London’s streets are labyrinthine, defying logic and confounding GPS systems. London’s cabbies develop an ironclad memory of streets, addresses and efficient routes. The posterior hippocampus is a brain structure that is important for our ability to navigate through space. Studies reveal these cabbies have larger posterior hippocampi than people of the same age who don’t drive cabs. “The brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain – your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain – in the ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training.” Musical training over time changes the brain. Musicians have a larger cerebellum, a brain structure crucial to controlling movements, than people who aren’t musicians do. Changes that occur in training require maintenance: Use it or lose it. Retired cabbies had fewer of the brain changes than active cabbies.

Top performers improve their skills by improving their “mental representations.” Divers and chess masters develop their expertise using different mental maps. These mental representations develop from working on a specific skill. “A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.” As experts develop more sophisticated representations, they make quicker decisions. With deliberate practice, neural circuitry changes to create the mental representations they need. Chess masters manipulate their mental representations of the patterns they discern on the board. Doctors manipulate their mental representations of how illnesses present to hone in on the right diagnosis. Salespeople do something similar, and the larger their repertoire of “if…then” scenarios that make up their mental representations, the better their success on the job. When surgery doesn’t go according to a surgeon’s mental representation, the surgeon knows to take a moment, re-evaluate and come up with another plan.

Nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice. Generally, fields with long traditions have a regimented structure for practice and for measuring progress. These disciplines share these characteristics:

  • An agreement about what constitutes a good performance.

  • Competitive top performers.

  • Fields that evolve over long periods of time.

  • Top performers who become teachers and improve training techniques, advancing their fields.

In a study that separated three tiers – good, better and best – of top-performing violinists, researchers found all groups agreed that practice led to improvement, was difficult, and not fun. Yet all recognized that practice was the path to improved performance. One difference existed between these groups: The best students spent more time, and the top two groups spent a lot more time in solo practice than the “good” group – although even the least accomplished practiced thousands of hours. The principles of deliberate practice apply no matter what area you want to improve in. Identify top performers and the feats that make them the best. Adopt their training methods. To identify top performers, use objective performance measures or consider peer assessments. “In many fields it is the quality of mental representations that sets apart the best from the rest, and mental representations are, by their nature, not directly observable.” A word of caution about Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours is the magic number of hours to gain expertise in anything. Pianists win competitions at around age 30, and by that time have put in 20,000 or more hours practicing. Performing isn’t deliberate practice. Musicians find no limit to the improvements that additional practice can bring.

To improve, you need to practice the right way. Know that improvement is possible. Genetics do not limit your possible improvement. Mere repetition or trying harder will not lead to improvement. Focus on improving. “If you are not improving, it’s not because you lack innate talent; it’s because you’re not practicing the right way. Once you understand this, improvement becomes a matter of figuring out what the ‘right way’ is.” Most businesspeople don’t have time for deliberate practice. They must turn job scenarios into opportunities to practice skills. If you want to improve your presentation skills, for example, focus on telling more entertaining stories to engage your audience. To improve team skills, listeners can take notes and give the presenter feedback. This creates a virtuous process by which presenters steadily improve. What matters most isn’t what you know, but what you can do. Researchers found that physicians’ performances generally got worse over the years, despite their experience. Interactive techniques such as case solving, acting out roles and hands-on training improve skills. Passively listening to lectures or attending seminars do not.

Maintaining practice over time is the key to steady improvement. You can start out learning in a group class or following someone on YouTube, but at some point you need a coach or teacher. Not all competent practitioners make good teachers. Some people are better at teaching kids, for example. Look for someone who teaches the specific skill you wish to improve. Since most of your practice is solo, you want a teacher to guide you to get better at these solitary sessions. Teachers correct misperceptions you may have in your mental representations. Change teachers as you grow and improve. Set clear goals to focus on in short training sessions. “Keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.” You will inevitably hit a plateau. Typists improve their speed by typing faster and noting where they make mistakes. If they realize they err when they type words with “ol,” they design a specific practice using lots of those words, and practice typing more quickly. To maintain motivation, establish a habit. Set aside a fixed time to practice. Musicians who got up in the morning and began practicing right away built a sense of duty around the habit. They slept better and were better time planners. Minimize distractions. Turn off your smartphone. Move your exercise class to the afternoon if you lack motivation in the morning. Maintain motivation by remembering your end goal. Eventually, mastery itself becomes part of your motivation.

The development of expert performance typically progresses through a series of recognizable stages: “starting out,” “becoming serious,” “commitment,” and, in rare cases, “pathbreaker.” Stage one, “starting out,” typically begins in childhood. When the first female chess grandmaster, Susan Polgár, began as a small child, she saw chess pieces as toys, and playing as fun. Later she came to enjoy the challenge. This is typical for top performers. Parents introduce them to their area of interest as play. Attention and parental praise give children motivation. Parents teach self-discipline, hard work and constructive use of time. In the next stage comes deliberate practice, in which practice becomes work, and students get coaches or teachers. Eventually, the student makes a commitment to becoming a top performer, pushes continuously to improve beyond his or her personal best and in competition with others, sometimes worldwide. At this point, the student supplies the motivation. Parents play a part in financial commitment and emotional support. For baseball and ballet, starting in childhood makes a difference to training arms and legs for a full range of motion. Older participants can adapt, but not as much as children. “In fact, people can train effectively well into their eighties. Much of the age-related deterioration in various skills happens because people decrease or stop their training; older people who continue to train regularly see their performance decrease much less.” Adult brains learn differently from children’s brains. The earlier someone learns a second language, for example, the better their brain’s can adapt. In the fourth stage, top performers move beyond the performance standards in their fields and make innovative contributions. These “pathfinders” lay the ground for others to follow, even if they never share their receipe for success; “simply knowing that something is possible drives others to figure it out.”

Under the surface of what appears to be natural talent lurks lots of time dedicated to practice. Nicolò Paganini was a great violinist. According to legend, Paganini was such a genius that when a string broke during a performance, he kept playing. Another string broke, and “the audience was stricken,” but still the genius kept playing. When the third string broke, Paganini continued playing on one string to the delight and amazement of the crowd. To his listeners, it was miraculous. But the truth behind the legend is his performance wasn’t talent – it was practice plus showmanship. Improvement is a long process without shortcuts. Individuals with “Savant syndrome” demonstrate specific, extraordinary abilities in parallel with mental challenges. Some people can hear a piece of music once, then play it. While this may look like innate talent, studies suggest it requires practice – as with the acquisition of any other ability. Mozart, despite being labelled as “prodigy,” developed his abilities through years of concentrated practice. IQ doesn’t make much difference. Researchers found no correlation between chess expertise and IQ. Those players with lower IQ practiced more. When a skill is difficult to master and progress is slow, teachers may assume kids don’t have the talent to succeed and discourage them from trying, turning their belief into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In every discipline studied, deliberate practice has been shown to produce improvement. When teachers taught freshman physics students using principles of deliberate practice, students learned twice the information than those in more traditional programs. Students talked in small groups, and instructors used their answers to questions as feedback for their program. “Deliberate practice is all about the skills. You pick up the necessary knowledge in order to develop the skills; knowledge should never be an end in itself.” Instead of teaching students separate facts to memorize into long-term memory, connect them together as part of a mental representation. Thus, information has context. Information with meaning is easier to use. When you fail, revise your approach and try again. Knowledge comes as a byproduct of learning skills. “The regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again, and so on is how the students will build their mental representations.” When children develop their own mental representations through deliberate practice, they can improve their skills and innovate through trial and error. They understand that the path to success in other fields follows this pattern. A generation of students with this mind-set will create a world of more expertise in all areas.

About the Authors Conradi eminent scholar Anders Ericsson, PhD, teaches psychology at Florida State University. Robert Pool has a PhD in mathematics and is a science journalist.

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