Anders Ericsson has finally written the book I’ve wanted to read ever since Malcolm Gladwell gave a quick and dirty summary of Ericsson’s work in his book Outliers.
Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, written with the help of science writer Robert Pool, tells everyone what it takes to be a world-class athlete, artist, musician, writer, inventor, cook, expert in anything:
Hard work. The right kind of hard work. And lots of it.
Not talent. Not genius. Not some magical combination of genes. Just dedication to what you want to do, lots of effort, and good feedback so that you correct your mistakes instead of practicing wrong over and over.
This is the idea that Gladwell simplified into the 10,000-hour rule. That figure was based on the amount of practice time a potential world-class musician puts in by the time they’re 20. It’s a nice round figure and it does give you some idea of the amount of effort required, but it doesn’t mention that a world-class musician will keep working at that level throughout their career.
Ericsson discusses other key factors. The first is good teaching or coaching. You need some guidance on how to train or practice and how to work on your weak spots. In some fields – sports and music, for example – there are well-defined systems for learning the field.
Deliberate practice is another important process. You don’t get good by just repeating something over and over without addressing the areas that give you trouble. This includes working on a difficult passage or technique until you can get it right, and also getting immediate feedback so that you recognize the problem areas.
He also emphasizes getting out of your comfort zone. Once you get good at something, it’s tempting to just keep doing it on that level. To get better at that point, you have to try something new. In my experience with Aikido training, trying to incorporate changes into a technique you know well usually means you do it badly again for awhile. You have to be willing to live with that.
A lot of this work is simply the tedious process of figuring out where you have problems and working on those areas over and over until you can do them well. Ericsson points out that this can be boring and unpleasant work. Which is to say, getting to be world class at something everyone thinks is fun – like playing basketball – involves doing a lot of grueling work.
Yes, there are some physical advantages and disadvantages in some fields, particularly in sports. Yes, a few things are best learned when one is a small child, like perfect pitch. But for the most part, you can learn to be very good at anything you want to do so long as you put in the time.
Ericsson looks at some people everyone assumes are prodigies, such as Mozart, and finds that, in fact, there is strong evidence that they had a lot of high level training early on.
Here’s a data point about natural talent I found particularly interesting. Chess is considered a highly intellectual pursuit, and, in general, beginners in the field test higher on IQ. But the grand masters don’t have higher IQs than the run of the mill chess players; in fact, many of them have lower ones. It may be that having a high IQ gives you a little edge in starting out, since chess uses some of the skills that IQ measures, but that advantage only lasts so long.
That makes me think about art. I read somewhere that Georgia O’Keeffe once said she became a painter because she couldn’t dance. I’ve sometimes said I became a writer because I couldn’t paint. And I knew I couldn’t paint because I took an art class when I was a kid and the teacher told me I was terrible.
I assumed that natural talent was required to do art and that I lacked it. So I never tried to do it again. Reading Ericsson, it seems more likely that I just ran into a bad teacher who lacked patience with students who didn’t come with a set of basic skills.
On the other hand, people told me I was smart from as early as I can remember. I was raised by journalists in a household where we all read and talked a lot, and, not surprisingly, I was very verbal from an early age. I’m a “natural” writer because of all that.
One of the things I like about Ericsson’s conclusions is that they apply not only to becoming an Olympic athlete, but also to doing high level work in occupations where there isn’t the “there can be only one” pressure, fields where we need lots of world class people. Teaching, for example. Or medicine. Ericsson has some very good ideas about how radiologists who read mammograms can become highly skilled: he suggests they train by reviewing old mammograms for which the outcomes are known – that is, whether a tumor was found, whether it was malignant, results of the treatment, etc.
The kind of work he’s talking about can be applied to anything you want to take up. And – obviously – you don’t have to work as hard as Serena Williams or Yo-Yo Ma unless you’re trying to be a world class tennis player or cellist. But you can get good at what you do, and push yourself to do it on a satisfying level.
This is twenty-first century science and it’s still growing. But Ericsson ends on an intriguing note. Perhaps we are becoming Homo exercens – practicing humans – as the next step after Homo sapiens.
As Ericsson says, “[I]t may be that the only answer to a world in which rapidly improving technologies are constantly changing the conditions under which we work, play, and live will be to create a society of people who recognize that they can control their development and understand how to do it.”