How to master a skill, courtesy of Anders Ericsson

The standout from my 2016 nonfiction reading will surely be Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson (“the world’s reigning expert on expertise”) and Robert Pool (a science writer). Nine years in the making, oft cited in or popularised by other ‘how to” books, this is the real deal, a superbly written, logical book offering vital concepts.

I recall being very taken by a simplistic idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers: to master a skill, work on it for 10,000 hours. How exciting, eh? Pick a passion, throw energy at it for three hours a day, every day for ten years, and voila, you’re an expert. Well, Gladwell’s notion came from Ericsson’s research but Ericsson, in this book, goes out of his way to point out what Gladwell got wrong. Yes, much practice is essential, but it’s also about how you learn during practice. Time spent is necessary but not enough.

So let me sum up Peak (this is my reading, don’t blame me if you read something else into it). Other than skills affected by bald physical facts (small people won’t star in basketball, giants flounder at gymnastics), any skill can be mastered. Ericsson reveals at length that the idea of genetic disposition is nearly always a canard. Perfect musical pitch? Learn it. Chess grandmaster? Learn it. World-class swimmer? Learn it. The world is open to us.

How do you master a skill? Lots and lots of practice. Three levels of practice exist. Most people go for the first level, a kind of beginner’s practice where you take a few lessons, flail around and eventually achieve enough mastery to be able to “do it.” Most people stop there. Repeating a skill without systematically seeking improvement guarantees stagnation.

Second level – deliberate, focused practice. Both adjectives are important. Focused means intense – a focused practice session of more than an hour might be too tiring. Deliberate means aimed at precise improvements. Learning to play tennis and then imagining you can improve by playing in local competition is a mirage – you need to practise your volley, you need to improve your serve, and so on. Practice must be ambitious and meticulous. If you’re daydreaming during practice, it’s failing. To be frank, deliberate practice is harder work than most of us countenance. But deliberate practice works, step by step by step.

One of Ericsson’s most beguiling concepts is that the key to such deliberate practice is mental. You need to improve your “mental representation,” your mental map. Think, really think, conceptualise how to make that tiny improvement, how to get a bit faster, more precise, quicker of action or thought. Deliberate practice is Monty Python’s “my brain hurts.” Your nightly Sudoku, after your first month, is useless until you analyse why you’re failing four times a week, until you make incremental hard-to-make better decisions. Try, fuck it! Think!

Third level of practice towards mastery – this is Ericsson’s “gold standard,” and involves hiring a coach and pouring fanatical attention into every facet of your chosen skill-to-be. Not every skill is suited to the third level. Highly systematised skills, with well-developed training methods, can best use this approach. Ericsson’s examples: violin, chess, memory, swimming.

Peak offers no easy road to stardom, and I doubt anyone expects that from a book on expertise. But while the 10,000-hour idea, superficially enticing but quickly daunting (“ten years, you’re joking, right?”), offered little to “ordinary folks” such as myself, Ericsson’s work is intrinsically inspiring. For his notion of motivated and deliberate practice, his recipe that “it’s all in the mind,” can be used right now, to improve right now, to improve as much as you want, to reach any less-than-superstar level. Wanna get better? Work at practice, at thinking, at improving!

A mark of an important “how to” book is that executing the book’s “lessons” involves much subtlety. Ever since my read, I’ve had the feeling that I must read it again, to really understand what deliberate practice means. How do I know that I’m probably not ready to launch my new “hey, this is what Peak preaches” programs? Simple: all my current efforts at “bettering myself” are nothing like what Ericsson has discovered from his research, and I can’t imagine how to change my approaches. The journey begins with a reread . . .

How do you ride a bicycle?

A Cycling Big Year would differ from a Jogging Big Year. I’ve been running for over three decades, on a bike I’m only slightly more competent than a ten-year-old with training wheels. Oh, I exaggerate slightly but in truth when I took the Specialized Sirrus out for a whirl, twice recently, I felt just like a kid. Turning a routine corner, I crashed into a pole (luckily at near zero speed).

But such a sense of freedom! Practice session #1: 13kms. Practice session #2: 24 kms. Both of them slow but who cares?

(Notice the complete lack of proper gear.)


Single versus album?

The role of songs versus albums . . . esoterica for most, but I’ve always eschewed the “hit single” in favour of the more meaty album. Pondering the role of music in my life, pondering a Music Big Year of some sort, the “30 Days, 30 Songs” notion resurrects that debate. (By the way, I’m not criticising this playlist per se – the first two artists, Death Cab for Cutie and Aimee Mann, are among my favourites.)

Big Year as psychological safety cocoon?

Check out “Productivity and the power of trust.” A short interview clip but coming from Charles Duhigg, whose new, wise book I’ve just worked through, and from Susan Cain, hero to us geeks, I read it carefully. It’s true, psychological safety is, for some of us questing souls, hard to obtain. I like to think my Big Years, within a wondrous family and life, offer me a refuge, at least a little.

Writing Big Years: Does apocalyptic brooding strike you?

Twice recently, in rambunctious social gatherings, dread has seized me, completely unbidden. I recall one specific thought: Armageddon is nigh. A dead weight settled over my chest.

Both times the sensation departed as quickly as it arose, but I’ve kept thinking about the topic. Like melancholy, dread is a therapeutic notion in small doses, an emotion preventing complacency.

My Dark Novel Big Year – a novel so dark my family should reject it – might slot into 2021, so it’s distant. But the book’s idea is a first page I drafted years ago, and it’s somehow always close to my heart. I felt it again this week. Welcome, blackness.

Birding Big Year?

In the September issue of the Australian Birdlife magazine, Jonathan Franzen, my hero in more than one regard, was asked in interview (in Papua New Guinea of all places) about “the appeal of traveling the world birding.” I swooned over his response, here’s one angle:

And also it gets you to places that would otherwise not get to go. I spent the first half of my life going to churches and museums in Europe. Now I arrive in Italy and my first question is, “How do you get to the nearest sewage treatment plant?”

Oh, for a Birding Big Year!

Can “The Power of Habit” help me?

I’ve posted a few times my ongoing observations from working through this book for the second time, little snippets that haven’t amounted to much. Today I finally conclude my rereading.
Do you have a habit you wish you could get rid of? Scoffing biscuits an hour before dinner might, for example, be one. Well, Duhigg does offer fresh insights. Gather research over a couple of weeks. What is the cue, the moment and the motivation that triggers needless eating? What is the reward? This research needs to be thorough, for the cue might be subtle. For example, the thought of impending dinner might not just trigger raw hunger but a desire to “call it quits for the day.” So: cue = 5 PM thoughts of dinner; routine = overeat; reward = relief from the stress of the day. Now, here’s what you do – replace the routine with something else that satisfies the same reward. In our case, we might set an alarm for 5 PM, grab a book and walk five minutes to read for fifteen, and the same reward results: aaah!. Systematically stick to the new routine and after a few weeks, bingo, the Tim-Tams rot in the pantry.
The trouble is, I don’t seem to have many really bad habits, at least in my own mind. At this point in my life, I’m more interested in creating “better” new habits, and here Duhigg’s book isn’t, for very good reasons, as helpful. It helps to appreciate how cue, routine, and reward combine to form a big new habit, but the hard part is determining exactly what the new habit should comprise, and having the motivation to instil it. That, I realise, is tough.
A Big Year is, it seems to me, a highly specific way of instituting new habits. The cue is a brute force one: do something every day for a year. The reward is whatever yearning or fascination impels the Big Year activity in the first place. After 365 cue/routine/reward repeats, on December 31, hopefully something of a new, intoxicating habit will have formed. Let’s see!