Gladwell made Anders Ericsson famous—or, at least, his research work. A professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson conducted the study of violinists that the best-selling journalist glamourized in his book Outliers, imprinting on our consciousness that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at whatever task you devote such attention to.
If you bowl, after 10,000 hours, you will be an expert. If you golf, give it 10,000 hours. It follows that 10,000 hours should turn you into a virtuoso at work. It’s a neat, simple and tantalizing formula. It’s also wrong. But it—and Ericsson’s many studies—point the way to how to achieve peak performance and, as the subtitle of his new book puts it, “master almost anything.” Unfortunately, management is one of the exceptions Ericsson highlights but even then he does offer useful advice.
Ericsson has spent a lifetime studying and working with peak performers. Why was Mozart so adept a composer? When seven digits are considered the norm for us to remember, how can some people recall a string of hundreds of digits? What makes a violin virtuoso?
Our tendency has been to assume it’s natural. Something innate allows them to achieve such success. Mozart, for example, was a child prodigy. But in Peak, written with journalist Richard Pool, Ericsson looks at Mozart, tennis star Roger Federer, gymnast McKayla Maroney, chess grandmasters who can play several dozen games simultaneously, blindfolded, and determines their skill is not innate but developed.
He points out that perfect pitch was assumed to be something you are born with. However, he notes that a good deal of research shows everyone with perfect pitch began musical training at a very young age, usually three to five years old. “But if perfect pitch is an innate ability, something that you are either born with or not, then it shouldn’t make a difference whether you receive musical training as a child. All that should matter is that you get enough musical training—at any time in your life—to learn the names of the notes,” he writes. As well, perfect pitch is more common in people who speak a tonal language such as Mandarin, Vietnamese, and several other Asian languages, in which the meaning of words is dependent on tone. So not innate, but learned.
To be successful, he argues, we need a growth mindset—a belief that more is achievable—and the determination to shape our brain to learn, and perfect, the new skills required. Adult pianists have more white matter in certain regions of the brain than non-musicians, with the difference resulting from practice in childhood. London taxicab drivers, who must travel the complex roadway structure of that British city, have a larger rear part of the hippocampus than the average person, the hippocampus being crucial to special navigation. We can similarly develop our minds—and abilities.
Experts perceive patterns in their field better than others. A chess grandmaster has an edge because he or she can glance at the board and see how the game will play out under different situations. These patterns, or mental representations as Ericsson calls them, result from years of practice that changed the neural circuitry of their brains.
“In pretty much every area, a hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less developed mental representations. In other words, experts see the forest when everyone else see only trees,” he says.
But it doesn’t come in 10,000 hours. That number was an average from a study of violinists at age 20, with half of them not attaining that number of hours. Ericsson notes that Gladwell could have just as easily chosen age 18, when the figure was 7,400. But 10,000 is a nice round number, the researcher notes. But at age 18 or 20 they weren’t experts—they still had a way to go. Competitions tend to be won at age 30, when the musicians have put in 20,000 to 25,000 hours of practice.
He worries that many people have interpreted the 10,000-hour rule, as it is commonly called, as a promise that almost anyone can become an expert in a given field by putting in 10,000 hours of practice. But nothing in his work shows that. There were no randomized studies from which such an interpretation could be drawn.
“Gladwell did get one thing right, and it’s worth repeating because it’s crucial: Becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly 10,000 hours but it will take a lot,” he says.
But these advances don’t come from just any type of practice. Effort isn’t enough. The gold standard is deliberate practice, which involves a coach drawing from a highly-developed body of knowledge about the best way to teach the skills, focused effort by you in the practice sessions, feedback, and long, grueling work that pushes past your comfort zone. “In pretty much any area of human endeavour, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way,” he insists.
Although management is one of the exceptions you can still take advantage of Ericsson’s research by trying purposeful practice, applying as much of the formula as possible. This will usually involve identifying expert performers and figuring out what makes them so good, and then coming up with training techniques to improve on those skills. But he stresses the importance of clarity. Don’t guess at what you should be doing, as you may end up fooling yourself. “Be careful when identifying expert performers. Ideally you want some objective measure of performance with which to compare other people’s abilities,” he warns.
To effectively practise a skill without a teacher he recommends the three Fs: Focus, feedback, fix it. Break the skills you need down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively. As you practise, determine your weakness and figure out how to improve.
Stories abound in the book of performers in music, the arts, and sports. And while one person—commercial photographer Dan McLaughlin—decided at age 30 to adopt the deliberate practice notions to become a PGA golfer, despite never playing much golf, and after 6,000 hours of practice has a decent handicap fluctuating between three and four, most of us would be more inclined to apply the ideas to our duties at work. That starts with questioning the consultants and coaches eager to come to your aid. “Of all the myriad approaches out there, the ones most likely to succeed are ones that most resemble deliberate practice,” he says.
Push past any beliefs that your abilities are limited in some way. Growth is possible. You may believe you’re not creative. But you can be, with deliberate practice. “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 practising the right way. Once you understand this, improvement becomes a matter of figuring out what the ‘right way’ is,” he says.
You also need to push back the suspicion none of this has much practical use to a government executive in his or her day job. After all, practice seems impossible—not much time to practice and how would you do it? But it is possible, in things as diverse as presentations and interviewing job candidates, to treat the situation as a practice, setting out goals for improvement, pushing beyond your comfort zone, and arranging for feedback to ensure continuous improvement. He advises you to remember that improvement doesn’t come from gaining more knowledge—as traditional training implies—but from polishing your skills.
The book is fascinating reading, covering a lot of research on diverse performers and also looking at how these ideas might be used in schools and universities. It also will offer clues on how you might apply his thinking into the 2,000-plus hours you put in at work each year.