Peak, by Anders Ericsson

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Deliberate practice is an ongoing theme for me these days, as that growth mindset drives much of my belief in my ability to improve at things I used to think were genetic and unchangeable. Deliberate practice is mentioned in several books I have read, like The Talent Code and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, not to mention Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the book that popularized the 10,000 hour rule. All of this attention eventually drove Anders Ericsson, who did the research into deliberate practice that was the basis for Gladwell’s rule, to write his own book on the subject.

For those that are unfamiliar with the concept, Ericsson describes the idea of deliberate practice – an effort to systematically practice just beyond one’s skill level – as the key to accelerated improvement in any discipline. This sort of deliberate practice is difficult and demoralizing, as it involves constant failure. Ericsson uses that to differentiate it from just doing an activity – playing a sport for fun for 8 hours a day is not the same as deliberate practice; deliberate practice would involve setting up drills to specifically focus on deficiencies in one’s skill and practicing those drills until the deficiency is corrected. He observes that one can not do more than 3-4 hours of deliberate practice in a day, and even that much would require additional rest to recover; he uses the example of world-class athletes who do intense two hour practices in the morning and afternoon, and take a nap in between to recuperate. This is where Gladwell got the 10,000 hour rule – Ericsson had observed that getting to world-class skill levels generally took ten years, regardless of discipline, and 10 years * 365 days/year * 3 hours/day is approximately 10,000 hours.

Ericsson draws the conclusion that natural talent means nothing without deliberate practice. He said he could find no situation where people were able to achieve mastery in a skill without deliberate practice. He goes further and claims that natural talent did not shorten the total amount of deliberate practice needed to achieve mastery; in other words, talent was not a shortcut to mastery. He repeatedly emphasizes this – even in situations where we think of somebody having natural talent, an investigation shows that they just got started on their deliberate practice earlier than most e.g. Mozart started to write music at age 4 with a taskmaster of a father, such that by the time he was a teenager, he had already put in his 10,000 hours.

People dismiss the idea of deliberate practice by saying that no amount of practice could turn somebody with a tin ear into a musician; Ericsson cites a study which taught students with varied musical experience to acquire perfect pitch, an ability that had previously been thought to be genetic, and only able to be acquired as a child. Other people say that “well, no amount of practice could let a short person play in the NBA, so I might as well not even try”, to which I think Ericsson would reply that (a) there have been a few players in the NBA at that height (e.g. Muggsy Bogues at 5’3″ and Isaiah Thomas of the Celtics, who’s listed at 5’9″ but I’ve read articles claiming he’s only 5’7″), (b) basketball is unusual in that the unchangeable quality of height has a disproportionate advantage – most activities do not have a genetic differentiator like that, and (c) if you practice, you’ll still be disproportionately better than most people you play against, even if you will never make the NBA (only a few hundred people make it to the NBA).

Along those lines, Ericsson goes on to say that the takeaway from his research should not be the 10,000 hour rule, despite Gladwell’s popularization, but that you can improve in any area by applying deliberate practice. Lack of natural talent is not holding you back. Just get started, because some practice is better than none, and deliberate practice will drastically increase your improvement in your chosen area. I find this idea incredibly empowering, and have been applying it to my own life. I discovered that many of the areas where I thought I was just naturally bad at something were because I had never spent time trying to get better; I had given up trying before I even started, or at the first sign of failure. However, when I have struggled through that doubt, I have learned to do things I could never have imagined myself doing.

On the flip side, my “natural talent” was often a reflection of what I started at an early age. For instance, I took violin lessons and listened to classical music from pre-school to high school, and then sang in various choruses over 10 years before getting into the San Francisco Symphony Chorus – I didn’t wake up one morning and pass the audition, as it took twenty years of musical experience for me to be ready. Similarly, people assume that I’m naturally athletic because I play a number of sports at a high level now. I tell them that when I was a kid, I would play catch with my dad, and when he would throw the ball at me, it would hit me in the head because I was so uncoordinated. On my little league team, they put me in right field so that I could never ever be involved in the play (because kids couldn’t hit it that far). But those experiences led my parents to put me into several sports leagues (baseball, soccer, tennis), and with years of practice, I became more coordinated such that now I can pick up new sports relatively easily. I also have the confidence of knowing that getting better at a sport is not “natural talent”; it’s being willing to fail at something when it’s hard, and then pick myself up and try again. Admittedly, being a healthy 6’3″ is an advantage in most sports, and yes, I understand that some people have bodies or joints that just don’t work right, so no amount of practice will overcome those challenges.

Finally, Ericsson observes that deliberate practice requires learning how to practice your particular skill. Because deliberate practice involves designing drills to push you beyond your current skill level, how do you learn to do that? Ericsson prescribes learning from the best; study what they do differently than the average practitioner, and figure out ways to practice that. At lower levels, you can just hire a coach to run a standard set of drills to drive improvement, but if you are pushing the limits of what’s possible or can’t afford a coach, studying how the best do what they do is a good place to start. Ericsson tells the story of a coach watching Ray Allen, the NBA player, design a drill for himself where he lay under the basket, jumped up, backpedaled four steps without looking to the corner three-point line, caught the ball and shot in one motion. He practiced this over and over again. The coach thought this was ridiculous…until Allen did exactly that to win a Finals game. That sort of insane attention to detail and willingness to drill unusual scenarios is what made Allen one of the best shooters in NBA history, amd we can all learn from his creativity in designing ways to push our own limits.

Peak was a quick read, and I had learned much of what it had to say from other sources, but it is a great summary of Ericsson’s research and the value of deliberate practice. I feel empowered by the book’s central message that I can improve at nearly anything if I put in the time and energy to systematically drill my skills in that area. One challenge for me is how I can apply the concepts of deliberate practice to develop more ephemeral people skills as opposed to more concrete athletic or musical skills. I’m curious: what skills do you want to develop? How can you apply the idea of deliberate practice to improving that skill? If you want to brainstorm ideas on how to do so, please get in touch!