Have you ever wondered how great musicians, athletes, and writers become great? Maybe you have heard of the ten thousand hour rule (that to become exceptional at anything it takes ten thousand hours of practice), and questioned if it was true.
Answers to questions like this and many more can be found in the new book, Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. In fact, while the ten thousand hour rule was made known by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, Ericsson is actually the psychology professor who performed the studies.
And not only do Ericsson, whose work has been cited by numerous others, and Pool, who is a popular science writer with several other publications to his credit, dispel the misconceptions surrounding the rule, but they help us understand just what we need to be doing during those ten thousand hours to truly become exceptional.
It starts not just with practice, but purposeful practice. “Purposeful practice,” the authors write, “has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call ‘naïve practice’ which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that repetition alone will improve one’s performance.” Those characteristics — well defined and specific goals, focus, feedback, and getting out of our comfort zone — combine to move us past the usual place where we stop improving.
To prove the point, the authors introduce us to several examples of near freakish improvement, one of which is Steve Faloon, who worked with Ericsson to memorize strings of digits. By using Ericsson’s training methods, he was able to remember (and recite correctly) eighty-two random digits after only two hundred training sessions. Numerous other examples are cited from expert violinists, surgeons, and athletes — all who broke the mold of what was thought impossible.
And the reason they did, we are told, is because they refused to live in a world of “good enough.” Instead of lacking innate ability, or even capacity, what holds most people back, they write, “is that they are satisfied to live in a comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it.”
That work, of building our own potential and making things possible that were not before, begins with challenging our homeostasis, which means getting out of our comfort zone. But when we practice in a purposeful and deliberate way, we also develop highly sophisticated mental representations, which are mental structures that allow us to quickly take in vast amounts of information, organize it, recognize patterns, and even predict future outcomes. Mental representations, the authors tell us, are what allows surgeons to make lightning fast adjustments when the patient is on the table, chess masters to recognize patterns in a split second, and people like Steve Faloon to remember unthinkable amounts of numbers. And in a sort of feedback loop, the better our mental representations get, the better our practice becomes and more elaborate and well defined those representations are formed. Ultimately, mental representations take us from simply having the knowledge to having it organized in a way that is rapidly accessible.
But becoming great also means practicing in a way that clearly identifies what good performance is, what other experts do to be great, and what errors we make that keep us from reaching our potential. In short, we must move beyond simply putting in our ten thousand hours. Instead, we must start with the belief that our abilities are malleable and not limited by our genetically prescribed characteristics. Then we must look for ways to practice — especially what we are not so good at. We must focus on what we are doing, have clear goals, immediate feedback from an established mentor, and a way to measure our progress. And if we do all of these things, the authors remind us, that they “have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with a particular type of practice.”
As engagement is one of the most powerful ways to improve the effectiveness of our performance, we can use shorter sessions with clearer goals. But we must know where we are falling short, and selectively look for ways to manufacture our own opportunities to improve. If we hit a plateau, which we likely will, the authors write, “the best way to move beyond it is to challenges your brain and your body in a new way.”
On the motivation to keep going when practice is tough, the authors tell us that those who maintain the grueling schedules that exceptional demands are not bestowed with a rare gift of grit or willpower. What motivation boils down to is a regimen that consistently strengthens the reasons to keep going, while weakening the reasons to stop.
Like Gladwell did in Outliers, Ericsson and Pool will have us rethinking our potential. But perhaps even more important, we will rethink what we need to break through our own barriers and realize our true capability. And because deliberate practice can open the door to a world of possibilities we may have been convinced were out of reach, there is no reason we shouldn’t open that door.
Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2016
Hardcover, 336 Pages