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 . . .

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