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The Book in Three Sentences
- Anders Ericsson has made a career studying top performers.
- We all have the seeds of excellence within us; it’s just a question of nurturing them properly.
- In Peak, Ericsson shows you how to get better at the things you care about.
The Five Big Ideas
- People aren’t born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives.
- The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.
- Once you reach a level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.
- The goal, with deliberate practice, is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before.
- Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.
No matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.
People aren’t born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives.
Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.
The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.
Chapter 1: The Power of Purposeful Practice
The following are the basic types of practice—the sorts of practice that most people have already experienced in one way or another.
- The Usual Approach (A.K.A. “Naive Practice”)
Once you reach a satisfactory skill level and automate your performance, you stop improving.
According to Ericsson, once a person reaches a level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, people who have been at it for twenty years are likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five. Why? Because automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
- Purposeful Practice
Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve your performance.
Purposeful practice is, as the term implies, much more purposeful, thoughtful, and focused than naive practice. In particular, it has the following characteristics:
- Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals
- Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal
- Purposeful practice is focused
- You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention
- Purposeful practice involves feedback
- You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.
Generally speaking, no matter what you’re trying to do, you need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short. Without feedback—either from yourself or from outside observers—you can’t figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.
Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. Why? Because if you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. To get out of your comfort zone, you need to try something you couldn’t do before.
Often, the goal isn’t to “try harder”; it’s to “try differently.”
The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them.
Sometimes it turns out that a barrier is more psychological than anything else.
Whenever you’re trying to improve at something, you will run into such obstacles—points at which it seems impossible to progress, or at least where you have no idea what you should do in order to improve. This is natural. What is not natural is a true dead-stop obstacle, one that is impossible to get around, over, or through.
In all of his years of research, Ericsson has found it is surprisingly rare to get clear evidence in any field that a person has reached some immutable limit on performance. Instead, he’s found that people more often just give up and stop trying to improve.
While it is always possible to keep going and keep improving, it is not always easy. Maintaining the focus and the effort required by purposeful practice is hard work, and it is generally not fun.
Meaningful positive feedback is one of the crucial factors in maintaining motivation. It can be internal feedback, such as the satisfaction of seeing yourself improve at something, or external feedback provided by others, but it makes a huge difference in whether a person will be able to maintain the consistent effort necessary to improve through purposeful practice.
Purposeful practice in a nutshell: 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. Finally, figure out a way to maintain your motivation.
Although it is generally possible to improve to a certain degree with focused practice and staying out of your comfort zone, that’s not all there is to it. Trying hard isn’t enough. Pushing yourself to your limits isn’t enough. There are other, equally important aspects of practice and training that are often overlooked.
Chapter 2: Harnessing Adaptability
There is a growing body of evidence that both the structure and the function of the brain change in response to various sorts of mental training, in much the same way as your muscles and cardiovascular system respond to physical training.
The hippocampus is the horse-shaped part of our brain that is involved in the development of memory.
In one study, Ellenor McGuire, a neuroscientist at University College London, studied a group of people training to become licensed taxi drivers in London.
McGuire found that the volume of the posterior hippocampi had gotten significantly larger in the group of trainees who had continued their training and had become licensed taxi drivers. By contrast, there was no change in the size of the posterior hippocampi among the prospective taxi drivers who had failed to become licensed (either because they simply stopped training or because they could not pass the tests) or among the subjects who had never had anything to do with the taxi training program.
You need to continually push to keep the body’s compensatory changes coming, but if you push too far outside your comfort zone, you risk injuring yourself and actually setting yourself back.
Recent studies have shown that learning a new skill is much more effective at triggering structural changes in the brain than simply continuing to practice a skill that one has already learned.
Musical training modifies the structure and function of the brain in various ways that result in an increased capacity for playing music.
The most effective forms of practice do more than help you learn to play a musical instrument; they actually increase your ability to play.
Long-term training results in changes in those parts of the brain that are relevant to the particular skill being developed.
Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.
The effects of training on the brain can vary with age in several ways. The most important way is that younger brains—those of children and adolescents — are more adaptable than adult brains are, so training can have larger effects on younger people. Because the young brain is developing in various ways, training at early ages can actually shape the course of later development, leading to significant changes.
“The Bent-Twig Effect”: If you push a small twig slightly away from its normal pattern of growth, you can cause a major change in the ultimate location of the branch that grows from that twig; pushing on a branch that is already developed has much less effect.
In many cases people who, have developed one skill or ability to an extraordinary degree seem to have regressed in another area.
The cognitive and physical changes caused by training require upkeep. Stop training, and they start to go away.
When Maguire studied a group of retired London taxi drivers, she found that they had less gray matter in their posterior hippocampi than did active taxi drivers, although they still had more than retired subjects who had never been taxi drivers.
The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.”
The traditional approach to learning is not designed to challenge homeostasis. It assumes, consciously or not, that learning is all about fulfilling your innate potential and that you can develop a particular skill or ability without getting too far out of your comfort zone. In this view, all that you are doing with practice—indeed, all that you can do—is to reach a fixed potential.
The goal, with deliberate practice, is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis—getting out of your comfort zone—and forcing your brain or your body to adapt. But once you do this, learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose.
Chapter 3: Mental Representations
Research has shown that the amount of time spent analyzing positions—not the amount of time spent playing chess with others—is the single most important predictor of a chess player’s ability. It generally takes about ten years of this sort of practice to reach the level of grandmaster.
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.
Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.
The thing all mental representations have in common is that they make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory.
What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields. These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.
The main thing that sets experts apart from the rest of us is that their years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialized mental representations, 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.
The best way to understand exactly what these mental representations are and how they work is to develop a good mental representation of the concept mental representation.
The more you study a subject, the more detailed your mental representations of it become, and the better you get at assimilating new information.
To write well, for example, develop a mental representation ahead of time to guide your efforts. Then monitor and evaluate your efforts and modify that representation as necessary.
The more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practice honing your skill.
As you push yourself to do something new—to develop a new skill or sharpen an old one—you are also expanding and sharpening your mental representations, which will, in turn, make it possible for you to do more than you could before.
Chapter 4: The Gold Standard
In one study, Ericsson interviewed violin students from Berlin University of The Arts. One of his most significant findings was that most factors the students had identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labor-intensive and not much fun; the only exceptions were listening to music and sleeping.
Everyone from the very top students to the future music teachers agreed: improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work they did to improve. In short, there were no students who just loved to practice and thus needed less motivation than the others. These students were motivated to practice intensely and with full concentration because they saw such practice as essential to improving their performance.
First, to become an excellent violinist requires several thousand hours of practice. Ericsson found no shortcuts and no “prodigies” who reached an expert level with relatively little practice. And, second, even among these gifted musicians—all of whom had been admitted to the best music academy in Germany—the violinists who had spent significantly more hours practicing their craft were on average more accomplished than those who had spent less time practicing.
Nobody develops extraordinary abilities without putting in tremendous amounts of practice.
Deliberate practice is different from other sorts of purposeful practice in two important ways: First, it requires a field that is already reasonably well developed—that is, a field in which the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who are just entering the field.
Second, deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance.
Deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel. Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there.
Deliberate practice is characterized by the following traits:
- Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established.The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
- Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
- Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.Once an overall goal has been set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change. Improving some aspect of the target performance allows a performer to see that his or her performance has been improved by the training.
- Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, it requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions.It isn’t enough to simply follow a teacher’s or coach’s directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice.
- Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback.Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience, students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly.
- Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong to correct it.
- Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.Because of the way that new skills are built on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamental skills later when at a more advanced level.
Research has shown that the “experts” in many fields don’t perform reliably better than other, less highly regarded members of the profession—or sometimes even than people who have had no training at all.
Be careful when identifying expert performers. Ideally you want some objective measure of performance with which to compare people’s abilities. If no such measures exist, get as close as you can.
Another method is to seek out the persons that professionals themselves seek out when they need help with a particularly difficult situation. Talk to the people about who they think are the best performers in their field, but be certain that you ask them what type of experience and knowledge they have to be able to judge one professional as being better than another.
If you find that something works, keep doing it; if it doesn’t work, stop. The better you are able to tailor your training to mirror the best performers in your field, the more effective your training is likely to be.
Chapter 5: Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job
The first step to enhancing performance in an organization is realizing that improvement is possible only if participants abandon business-as-usual practice. Doing so requires recognizing and rejecting three prevailing myths:
- The belief that one’s abilities are limited by one’s genetically prescribed characteristics.
- If you do something for long enough, you’re bound to get better at it.
- All it takes to improve is effort. If you just try hard enough, you’ll get better.
The deliberate-practice mindset offers the following view: anyone can improve, but it requires the right approach. 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.
When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice.
Chapter 6 Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life
One of the most important things a teacher can do is to help you develop your own mental representations so that you can monitor and correct your own performance.
You may need to change teachers as you yourself change.
If you find yourself at a point where you are no longer improving quickly or at all, don’t be afraid to look for a new instructor. The most important thing is to keep moving forward.
If your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.
Focus and concentration are crucial. Shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop new skills faster.
To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to 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.
When you first start learning something new, it is normal to see rapid — or at least steady—improvement, and when that improvement stops, it is natural to believe you’ve hit some sort of implacable limit. So you stop trying to move forward, and you settle down to life on that plateau. This is the major reason that people in every area stop improving.
The best way to move beyond it is to challenge your brain or your body in a new way.
Any reasonably complex skill will involve a variety of components, some of which you will be better at than others. Thus, when you reach a point at which you are having difficulty getting better, it will be just one or two of the components of that skill, not all of them, that are holding you back. To figure out which one, you need to find a way to push yourself a little—not a lot—harder than usual. This will often help you figure out where your sticking points are.
First, figure out exactly what is holding you back. What mistakes are you making, and when? Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first. Then design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness. Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, you may be able to fix it yourself, or you may need to go to an experienced coach or teacher for suggestions. Either way, pay attention to what happens when you practice; if you are not improving, you will need to try something else.
Anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration.
Maintaining the motivation that enables the above regimen has two parts: reasons to keep going and reasons to stop. When you quit something that you had initially wanted to do, it’s because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to continue. Thus, to maintain your motivation you can either strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit.
Good planning can help you avoid many of the things that might lead you to spend less time on practice than you wanted.
More generally, look for anything that might interfere with your training and find ways to minimize its influence.
Chapter 7: The Road to Extraordinary
In the first stage, children are introduced in a playful way to what will eventually become their field of interest.
In the beginning, a child’s parents play with their child at the child’s level, but gradually they turn the play toward the real purpose of the “toy.”
At this stage, the parents of children who are to become experts play a crucial role in the child’s development. For one thing, the parents give their children a great deal of time, attention, and encouragement. For another, the parents tend to be very achievement-oriented and teach their children such values as self-discipline, hard work, responsibility, and spending one’s time constructively.
One excellent supplement, particularly with smaller children, is praise. Another motivation is the satisfaction of having developed a certain skill, particularly if that achievement is acknowledged by a parent.
A child who sees an older sibling performing an activity and getting attention and praise from a parent will naturally want to join in and garner some attention and praise as well. For some children, competition with the sibling may itself be motivating, too.
In many of the cases that have been studied, children with talented siblings also had one or both parents encouraging them as well.
Once a future expert performer becomes interested and shows some promise in an area, the typical next step is to take lessons from a coach or teacher.
Helping children develop mental representations can also increase motivation by increasing their ability to appreciate the skill they are learning.
Finally, as the students continued to improve, they started to seek out better-qualified teachers and coaches who would take them to the next level.
Generally, when they’re in their early or mid teens, the future experts make a major commitment to becoming the best that they can be. This commitment is the third stage.
During this stage, the motivation lies solely with the student, but the family may still play an important support role.
This is the fourth stage of expert performance, where some people move beyond the existing knowledge in their field and make unique creative contributions.
Researchers who study how the creative geniuses in any field—science, art, music, sports, and so on—come up with their innovations have found that it is always a long, slow, iterative process.
Research on the most successful creative people in various fields, particularly science, finds that creativity goes hand in hand with the ability to work hard and maintain focus over long stretches of time—exactly the ingredients of deliberate practice that produced their expert abilities in the first place.
Even if the Pathfinder doesn’t share the particular technique, simply knowing that something is possible drives others to figure it out.
In short, in most cases—and this is especially true in any well-developed area—we must rely on the experts to move us forward.
Chapter 8: But What About Natural Talent?
Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process.
One of the major reasons that people believe in the power of innate talent is the apparent existence of natural prodigies,.
Ericsson has made it a hobby to investigate the stories of prodigies, and he reports with confidence that he has never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.
Ericsson’s basic approach to understanding prodigies is the same as it is for understanding any expert performer. He asks two simple questions: What is the exact nature of the ability? and, What sorts of training made it possible? In thirty years of looking, he has never found an ability that could not be explained by answering these two questions.
People do not stop learning and improving because they have reached some innate limits on their performance; they stop learning and improving because, for whatever reasons, they stopped practicing—or never started.
In the long run, it is the ones who practice more who prevail, not the ones who had some initial advantage in intelligence or some other talent.
Chapter 9: Where Do We Go from Here?
When teaching a skill, break the lesson into a series of steps that the student can master one at a time, building from one to the next to reach the ultimate objective.
The redesigned physics class at the University of British Columbia offers a road map for redesigning instruction according to deliberate-practice principles:
Begin by identifying what students should learn how to do. The objectives should be skills, not knowledge.
In figuring out the particular way students should learn a skill, examine how the experts do it. In particular, understand as much as possible about the mental representations that experts use, and teach the skill so as to help students develop similar mental representations. This will involve teaching the skill step by step, with each step designed to keep students out of their comfort zone but not so far out that they cannot master that step.
Then give plenty of repetition and feedback; the regular cycle of try, fail, get feedback, try again, and so on is how the students will build their mental representations.
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