How to Be World Class


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.”



How to Be World Class — 9 Comments

  1. I have very little visual imagination. My childhood drawings consisted of a couple of things that I memorised – the house/sun/tree combo many children start out with and never moved on. I did badly at school, I tried to learn to draw/paint a number of times and was never happy. I had two(!) arts lessons that were encouraging (on school exchange), and otherwise resigned myself that this was Not My Thing.
    Then last year, I bought a graphics tablet and started to apply the lessons I’d learnt about how I learn, what I need to do, and what works for me, and never mind ‘how one ought to’. I’ve walked away from resources/techniques/tutorials that make me feel like a failure and sought out those that make me feel that I’m making progress. I kept looking around until I found explanations that made sense to me, even if they were the tenth or twentieth resource I hit. And if there’s a digital aid that helps me become a better artist – vector lines I can move when I’m incapable of drawing them where I mean to place them, tools to pick up colours from reference images, etc – then I’m making use of it, because my goal is to make recognisable art, not to be a purist. (I also don’t write by chiselling each letter in stone. Technology, people. Embrace it.)

    Long post short: Despite having ‘very little talent’ I have become a reasonably competent beginner artist, I’m having fun when I do art, by doing digital art with all the training wheels on I’ve magically become reasonably competent in traditional drawing that I ‘ought to have learnt first’ and I’ve started to develop a visual imagination. So I recommend that route to everyone who wants to do art and thinks they’ll suck at it: it’s unlikely you’re worse than me, and I’m doing pretty ok these days.

    • I’m thinking about trying my hand at some art as well. I loved the class I took on welded sculpture. And although I thought I had very little visual imagination, too, it has occurred to me that many of my stories start with a picture in my head.

  2. Drills are boring. Sure. But if you want to learn a new skill or form, from Ballet to Fencing to art, you start with the basics. The ballet warm up exercises break down bigger movements into tiny components. You start with the plie, bending the knees while the feet are in specific positions. Later you realize that a plie is the beginning and ending of almost everything else. The same for pointing the toe in specific directions or drawing a circle with the leg. All the while you are teaching your body the proper posture for dance, the breathing, etc. etc.

    Practice is more than memorizing the steps, its learning the make your body move properly bit by bit.

    • And it seems that the more advanced you get, the more you need to do those things and tweak them just that much more. Apparently you should never stop doing drills.

  3. Talent still matters though, when it comes to the difference between adequate, good and great.

    Speaking as one who knows very well personally quite a few musicians and artists who are in the great category, and knows their daily routines very well.

    • Maybe the right question is where does that talent come from. Ericsson would argue it comes from doing the work, or having done it in the past. His studies of musicians showed that those who had the potential to be world class had put in the most work, while those who had put in the least (which was still considerable) were more likely to end up as music teachers and in similar roles.

      It does occur to me that one could put in all the great work and still end up being second best. The different between the amount of work done by Serena Williams and whoever is ranked say 27th in tennis worldwide is probably not significant.

      • One could in all the hard work and still be on the competent side of mediocre: if your physical abilities limit what you can do, practice won’t help you.

        Talent, as I see it, is a spectrum. You can have no talent whatsoever for something (which is exceedingly rare), you can have a modicum of talent (which is the norm), you can have bucket loads of talent for whatever field you’re interested in: the would-be artists with a lively visual imagination, the ability to translate what they see into lines or colours, the ability to draw those lines exactly where and how they want them; or the tennis player with good reflexes, great hand-eye coordination, good depth perception, the ability to calculate where the ball will land, etc etc.

        If very talented people don’t practice, they won’t be world class, but they’ll probably still be decent. If moderately talented people learn from good teachers and practice well, they might BE world class.

        And if people struggle, they should still be encouraged: sometimes they need a different form of teaching, sometimes they’ll never get beyond ‘competent amateur’ but all too often that’s treated like it is a bad thing. Unless someone gets hurt, bad (writing, singing, sports) doesn’t take anything away from the people who do it really, really well.

        • Ericsson thinks talent is overrated. And I gather he thinks that aptitudes for something, which might be seen as talent, might get you started, but they’re not what makes someone world class. I suspect an aptitude for something makes you interested enough to start doing the work and makes it easy for you to learn for long enough to get you hooked, whereas if something is difficult, you might not have enough fun with it in the beginning to get serious about it.

          There’s lots more work to be done in this field, but I think Ericsson is really onto something when he downplays the importance of talent.

          And, of course, learning to do something well enough to enjoy it is important in and of itself. Our obsession with the “best in the world” kind of status gets in our way, imho.

  4. BTW, all these side comments about talent and such remind me to emphasize Ericsson’s argument: It’s not just hard work, but rather the right kind of hard work, that makes the real difference. It’s deliberate practice, not just practice. Working on the things that come hardest for you, getting out of your comfort zone. There are some fields where there are very clear ways to do that kind of deliberate practice; others, it’s not so well defined.