Anders Ericcson is the expert on experts. He studies how people become the best in the world at any domain, from chess grandmasters to professional violinists to olympic contestants and even memory champions. In his book he recounts an experiment where a track student at FSU learns to memorize large sets of numbers read to him at a pace of 1 per second. Normally people’s working memory only allows us to keep track of seven items at a time, and most people can correspondingly retain 7-10 digits read in this way. This student eventually managed to retain 80 digits. As it turns out, the same principles for learning that skill, apply to every other conceivable skill. Here are 10 things I learned from “Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise”:

1) There is no scientific evidence for talent.

Talent can be interpreted in a couple of different ways, the primary one being that it is an innate ability to do a specific task well, and without it learning the basics of that skill will be vastly more difficult and you could never master it. To this, the author cites a study of london taxi drivers, which, if you didn’t know, is licensed and regulated to an incredible standard. In order to pass the test to become a licensed london cabbie, you pretty much have to memorize all of london in incredible detail (see the Wikipedia page for a more detailed explanation). What has been observed is that the hippocampus in these drivers is twice the size as a normal person, larger than that of the trainees studying to become the driver, and when they retire it shrinks, less than it was professionally but still far greater than the average person. Similar studies of Einstein and mathematicians show other unusually enlarged brain regions. What seems to happen is that as you study a certain field, your brain restructures itself in potentially radical ways in order to specialize in the field you’re attempting to master. The fact that your brain grows and configures to the task that you’re studying, combined with the fact that there’s no known limit to how good any one can be at a skill, implies that you create your own talent through practice. You do not have what Ericcson calls a “fixed potential” that you can attempt to live up to, but the ability to create your own potential. So if there’s something you wanted to learn but didn’t, because you didn’t have the “talent”, it’s time to get started.

The other interpretation of talent is a natural advantage or ease of learning a particular skill, even if the lack of it doesn’t preclude mastery. Dr. Ericcson did a study of violinists at one of the world’s top schools for music and analyzed many factors (including the daily habits) of the top students vs the weaker violinists. By the time they entered the school, (at 18 mind you), the best had already acquired ~7500 hours of deliberate practice, the good ones had ~5500 hours of practice and the students who at best could teach the violin in a high school had 3500 hours of practice. The defining difference between masters is hours of practice. Nothing more. That’s at the advanced levels. At the earlier levels it is too easy for people to assume that when one beginner picks something up more quickly that he’s truly starting from the same place as his peers. For example, if someone already fluent in French, Italian and Portuguese were to begin learning Spanish, he would start at a massive advantage compared to someone who’s learning Spanish as a second language. The fact that those effects disappear as you go up in skill level, is a testament to the uni-dimensional importance that practice has on learning new things.

2) Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule could take 25,000 hours or more.

In the book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell cites the violinist study. He got the number 10,000 by looking at how many hours the best violinists would have accumulated by the time they were 21, and extrapolates the number 10,000 across all fields. This Ericcson takes great pains to refute, as in the case of the violinists by the time they’re at the peak of their professional career Ericcson estimates they will have accumulated 25,000 hours of deliberate practice. On top of that, there are many fields that require less than 10,000 hours, one example being the memory championships that mnemonists partake in, which are not nearly as competitive. Nonetheless, becoming world class in a popular and competitive domain requires thousands of hours of dedicated practice and frequent naps.

3) I.Q. matters as a beginner but matters less and less with practice. Several chess grandmasters have below-average I.Q.

Another reason people learn things more quickly is because they’re smarter. An interesting study of chess students correlated ability with I.Q. What they found was that I.Q. mattered if you were a beginner, but the more you practice the less it mattered. At the high junior divisons, I.Q. posed a slight disadvantage, presumably because the losses as beginners prompted the low IQ chess players to practice more.

4) The proper way to learn chess is to study the chess grandmasters’ games, see what you would do in that position and when they do something else, study the board until you understand why.

Benjamin Franklin learned to write excellent work by following a similar method. He found articles or essays that were so beautifully written he admired them. After reading the essay, he would set it aside and attempt to write it himself, in his own words. After that he would compare his essay with the original and see how they stacked up, make notes on how he could improve his writing and then try it agian. These are the beginnings of what the author calls “deliberate practice” which is the only way to achieve world class mastery of any field. And will be explained momentarily.

5) Rote repetition is not practice.

Doing something every day does not necessarily make you better at it, and if that’s all you do, then over the years your skills will decline. Professional typists type for years without improving their typing speed, but Ericcson in one study showed that they could improve if they practiced by typing so fast that they start making errors, and then maintaining that speed until they stop making typos, and then increasing their speed again. This applies to your driving as well, and regarding your health, a doctor with 25 years of experience is statistically worse than a doctor with 5 years of experience. That is something the medical community is trying to fix but as yet has not been successful.

6) There are different kinds of practice, and that difference matters a lot!

Naive practice, is the worst but most common kind. It constitutes bumbling around with no real direction or particular goal, hoping you’ll get better without actually knowing what to look for. This is like trying to master golf by randomly hitting golf balls over and over again.

Purposeful practice is better. In purposeful practice, you set a goal that is beyond your current limitations, push yourself to the point where you fail, and try to figure out for yourself how to get past that error. Sometimes it’s automatic, as in the case with the typists. Sometimes it requires figuring out the proper technique.

Deliberate practice is the gold standard of practice. Deliberate practice has everything of purposeful practice except that everything is all figured out for you. Instead of trying to re-invent the proper way to hold a violin, someone shows you. Instead of figuring out on your own the way to memorize large numbers, someone could tell you how to do it. By finding examples of the correct way to do something it guides you and saves you the trouble of figuring it out for yourself, which has the added important quality of preventing you from accidentally learning a bad form. This is the brilliance behind the approach to learning chess, and behind Benjamin Franklin’s method of becoming a better writer. Both translate the concepts of deliberate practice to domains even when you don’t have an explicit teacher.

7) Coaches are incredibly valuable.

Coaches not only know how to think like an athelete, or a scientist, but the also have the ability to give you objective feedback and correct you on things that you wouldn’t notice. Also, it’s normal on the road to mastery to outgrow your coach. Congratulations, you’ve learned every thing he can teach you! At that point it’s best to fire him and find one better suited to your new level.

8) The deliberate practice approach has also been used to teach physics.

Evidently it led to a tremendous improvement in test scores.

9) Top notch violinists take naps.

Sleep is very good for learning (see the post on why we sleep) and naps are a great way to break up deep work.

10) Sometimes with the right training methods, even abilities like perfect pitch can be acquired outside of the developmental window.

There are certain abilities that are normally associated with a developmental window in children. For instance, in order for a ballerina to raise her leg perfectly horizontally, the bones of her hips need to develop in a different way. This can only happen if the ballerina starts training as a child, before the bones develop. The ability to hear a note from any instrument and accuratly identify what type of note it is (B or B-flat?), also called perfect pitch is an extremely rare ability, overrepresented in musicians, that people generally believed could only be taught to children within a given developmental window. Anders Ericcson tells the story of one man who devised a training method that allowed him to learn it as an adult.

 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Go read it already! Go read it, and then learn the skill that you’ve always wanted to master. I’ve been thinking of working on my writing myself. …  maybe I should start a blog?