TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy/science), practical.
IN A NUTSHELL: “The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.”
SYNOPSIS: A practical, fact-based primer on the primacy of purposeful and deliberate practice in expert performance – by psychologist and scientist, Anders Ericsson, and science writer, Robert Pool.
NOTE: Anyone who is now good at something was once bad at it. But what separates the amateur from the expert?
The answer, Ericsson and Pool tell us, is practice. Of course, right motive, mindset and opportunity are important. Necessary, perhaps. And even genes play a role. Yet no matter the life you’re allotted, or the domain that you tackle – no-one makes expert at anything without practice.
But there’s a catch. You see, there’s more to practice than grit, determination and 10,000 hours. In fact, quantity is only half the equation. The other half? Quality. An ingredient as obvious as oft overlooked.
So what does high-quality practice look like? And how can you start it today? That’s precisely the puzzle Ericsson has dedicated his life to. It’s the paradox at the base camp of Peak.
THREE LEVELS OF PRACTICE
The answer begins by defining three levels of practice:
- Naive Practice – Is practice that is:
- Neither purposeful nor deliberate (see below); and
- Characterised by blindly swinging and hoping.
- Purposeful Practice – Is practice that:
- Takes place beyond your comfort zone, demanding constant, near-maximal effort;
- Works at well-defined goals that target a specific aspect of performance;
- Sets and follows a plan of baby-steps that clearly support those goals;
- Uses full attention and conscious action to control and adjust performance;
- Develops detailed and effective mental representations that guide you on what to do or how and why you are falling short (i.e., creates clear internal feedback); and
- Keeps you motivated with constant signs of improvement.
- Deliberate Practice – Is practice that is both purposeful and informed, i.e.,
- Is guided by a teacher familiar with the abilities of experts and with how to develop those abilities; and
- Begins with external, teacher-led feedback but leads increasingly to internal self-monitoring.
THE RIGHT SORT OF PRACTICE
It should be obvious that naive practice is to be avoided. And yet so many of us start or slip back into it. Ericsson’s message? Progress is not built on 10,000 hours alone and mindless repetition is not the path to expert performance.
Purposeful practice is the bare minimum to guarantee clear and consistent progress. But it’s no easy skill. To apply it, you must make a conscious and continuous effort to integrate its characteristics into your training.
How do you know when you’re practising purposefully? Purposeful practice should feel strenuous, demanding and yet still achievable, it should feel like flow.
The best option of all is deliberate practice. But getting there means combining good purposeful practice with great top-down coaching. A task easier said than accomplished.
How do you find good teaching? You’ll find some great tips in Daniel Coyle’s Little Book of Talent. For now, Ericsson and Pool offer three bits of advice:
- Find someone accomplished at the skill – ideally, that have themselves achieved at least the level you are aiming for;
- Find someone skilled and experienced in teaching in your chosen field – ideally, with experience in teaching people like you (i.e. your age and experience level); and
- Change your teacher as you yourself change – keep moving forward; move on as you outgrow your mentor.
Of course, finding the right teacher is half-chance. And, though times are changing, getting the best teaching still largely depends on being in the right place, at the right time, knowing the right people and having the right resources.
So how can you practice deliberately when your appetite outsizes your opportunities?
The answer, says Ericsson, is to get as close to the ideal as you can. If teaching is an option, take it. If not, use the following process until circumstances change:
- Identify expert performers – Either the objective best (where rankings exist) or even just your personal heroes.
- Figure out what makes them so good – Read their stories, analyse their performance, learn all that you can of their journey.
- Come up with training techniques to get there – Experiment, test, learn, adjust and repeat.
To overcome inevitable plateaus in your training, Ericsson suggests:
- Pushing yourself way outside your comfort zone and seeing what breaks first – this will help force your bottlenecks to the surface for you to identify and work on; and
- Not just trying harder, but trying differently – if you do what you always did, you may get what you always got; come at barriers from different directions for a fresh perspective.
With a little thought, expert inspired exercise can be developed and learning-obstacles can be bypassed in almost any field. And that’s the whole point of purposeful and deliberate practice – it’s purposeful and deliberate. Good quality practice doesn’t happen by accident, it is painstakingly planned and carefully crafted.
So there you have it. Will the advice above make you the best in the world at your chosen skill? Probably not: even the most blessed and promising of performers face innumerable, unpredictable challenges on the way to the summit of their field.
But could it make you the best in your school, company or country? It might do. Might it help you find joy in mastering something you love? It certainly will. And would it be better than mindlessly grinding towards 10,000 hours in the hope that everything will just fall together? You betcha.
So what are you waiting for? Find a skill that excites you, resolve to practice it deliberately – or at the very least purposefully and go to bed each day a little wiser than you were when you woke up.
And remember the main lesson of Peak – no matter where you are, who you are, or what you are doing – with a little practice, you, too, can achieve extraordinary things.