When Practice Makes Perfect
Anders Ericsson, co-author of the new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, has spent a lifetime studying what it takes to become an expert. His work was cited in the best-selling book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, who used Ericsson’s research on expert violinists as the basis for his “10,000-hour rule.” According to this rule, if you practice for 10,000 hours, you will become an expert.
Gladwell’s rule is an oversimplification of his research, Ericsson argues, although Gladwell does get the general concept correctly: To become an expert, it takes a huge number of hours of practice.
At first glance, this rather unsurprising assertion hides a deeper and more controversial implication: No one is born with vastly superior talent. Just to be clear, Ericsson launches his book with the poster child for innate superior talent: Mozart. As everyone knows, Mozart was a musical genius — both as a performer and a composer — at an age when most children were focused on playing with their tiny (lead, at that time) toy soldiers.
While not discounting the talent of young Mozart, Ericsson and his co-author, science writer Robert Pool, argue in Peak that Mozart would not have been Mozart had he been born the son of a cobbler. Thankfully, for the world, Mozart was born the son of a musician, whose apartment was filled with all kinds of musical instruments — all of which Mozart learned to play beginning at the age of four. Mozart, it turns out, practiced for thousands of hours just like the other experts in Ericsson’s book.
The Power of Purposeful Practice
Of course, not all practicing is equal. Ericsson identifies three different types of practicing. The most basic type of practicing is naïve practice, the generic rather mediocre practicing that children muddle through as they go from piano lesson to piano lesson. They will not become star performers, nor do they intend to.
A much more effective type of practice is what Ericsson calls purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is not simply repetition. Instead, it is characterized by well-defined, specific goals. Instead of just playing a piece over and over, purposeful practice would require the piano student to play the entire piece three times in a row with no mistakes. The guiding principle of purposeful practice is to take baby steps –– a bunch of them that, little by little, helps you reach the goal.
There are other characteristics that separate purposeful practice from naïve practice:
- Purposeful practice is focused. Students must give it their full attention.
- Purposeful practice involves feedback. Immediate, specific feedback on where students are falling short is vital.
- Purposeful practice requires leaving one’s comfort zone. If students aren’t pushing themselves beyond what is comfortable and familiar, they will not advance.
Purposeful practice is more effective than naïve practice. But to truly become an expert requires an even higher level of practice: Deliberate practice. Deliberate practice also pushes people out of their comfort zone and involves feedback and focus. However, deliberate practice is different from purposeful practice because it is based on proven techniques developed by past experts. “Deliberate practice is purposeful practice that knows where it is going and how to get there,” Ericsson writes. For example, the violin has been played for centuries, and the best training techniques to become a world-class violinist are well known. Deliberate practice requires a teacher who will use those techniques to increase the proficiency of the violin student.
Ericsson notes that not all fields have the highly developed practice techniques that one finds in such areas as musical performance, chess, dance or gymnastics. Strictly speaking, it is difficult to engage in deliberate practice without such techniques. Nevertheless, it is possible to come close if you first identify the absolute best in your field and then carefully study how they trained themselves to become so highly skilled.
In Peak, Ericsson and Robert Pool lay out decades of Ericsson’s research at an almost leisurely pace, allowing the reader to slowly grasp the full depth of his deliberate practice. This fascinating book will undoubtedly have readers rethinking how they might improve the skills they want to develop.
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