How to get better at any skill you desire

4 Things You Absolutely Need to Know to Become an Expert at Anything

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I was born with a pencil and sketch pad in my hand, drawing.

At least that’s the way it seems, because for as long as I can remember, that’s exactly what I’ve always been doing.

And by the time I was a teenager I had acquired the bad habit of drawing superheroes in class when the subject matter or teacher was too “boring” for me to pay attention. My classmates would marvel, “Man, you’re really good,  I wish I could draw like that!”

“You can!” I would invariably say. “All it takes is practice.”

Since that was a frequent exchange seemingly everywhere I went, I thought a lot about my supposed “talent.” Early on I reached the conclusion that I had no innate gift, and that my ability was merely a reflection of the countless hours I spent in my room trying to draw like the comic book masters I admired, Neil Adams and John Buscema. My first attempts were quite crude but as time went on, as I practiced faithfully, I acquired some proficiency.

If I had any innate gift, I thought, it was a deep-seeded desire and passion for drawing like the masters I admired. That passion made the “hard work” fun and I stuck with it. Eventually, I got good. Then people saw my ability and assumed I had a gift.

But the gift was the desire to draw, not the ability to draw.

We conflate those two things and, in doing so, limit our potential. It turns out you can shape your talent and there’s a methodology for doing so, correctly.

That’s the essence of Anders Ericcson’s new book Peak and the ideas contained in this remarkable work can forever change your life.

Here are 6 key takeaways from this inspiring book:

1. Forget everything you’ve heard about innate abilities or natural talent

Right from the start, Ericcson and Pool pull no punches in Peak.

In the very first chapter, we are treated to the paradigm-busting re-telling of the legend of Mozart.

Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it seems, was a tot scarcely 7 years of age when he publicly performed sublime feats of musical prowess, on violin and keyboard instruments of all types.

In 1763 the young boy was dazzling audiences in Europe with his seemingly miraculous abilities. His feats appeared all the more magical because he possessed yet another “gift”—the gift of perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is an exceedingly rare ability that allowed the young Mozart to recognize the exact note being played on any instrument; even if he was in another room; even if the emitter of the sound wasn’t a musical instrument at all! In other words, Mozart was so gifted that if he heard a bird singing, or your car made a sufficiently musical noise—he could tell you what musical notes were being reproduced.

Miraculous?

Maybe not.

Ericcson gleefully lifts the curtains and lets you peer behind Mozart’s magical performances. I won’t spoil it for you, but the point is as powerful and thunderous as a lightning strike. After decades of studying prodigies, geniuses, savants and top experts in different fields, Ericsson has yet to find a single case that cannot be attributed to purposeful, deliberate practice.

Why is this important for you to know?

Because science is telling you that you can follow a clearly defined process to get better at any skill or ability you desire. It’s not a matter of talent or natural gifts. It’s a matter of practice, of doing the work.

Think how valuable and empowering this insight is in the 21st century world of the fourth industrial revolution. Those who embrace entrepreneurship and lifelong learning will flourish. Those who don’t, will pay a heavy toll. Now, lifelong learners have a clear process to get better, faster. That’s why I think that Ericsson’s book is one of the most important books of the last couple of decades.

It takes away all the excuses we make for not pursuing the work that matters most to us.

2. Build the correct set of mental representations

Ericsson tells us that expert performers can perform at a high level because over time they have developed complex, robust, and finely detailed “mental representations” about what works.

Think of it this way: what would happen if I were put in a baseball game to face a major league pitcher hurling a ball right at me at speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour? Mind you, I have played almost no baseball in my life.

Well, the first thing that will happen is that I will likely freak out. Survival instincts will kick in and my likely reaction is to gird myself against the missile. It might take me weeks, maybe months (years?), to get totally used to the sensation of staring down those projectiles coming straight at me, without flinching.

Then, I’d have to learn how to position my body, how to swing the bat properly, how to pick up on subtle clues from the pitcher about what pitch is coming next, how to distinguish between a speed pitch and off-speed pitch and acquire the muscle memory to respond appropriately, and a million and one other little things which, together, combine to create a nearly magical result.

This very fine tuning of your thought processes, instincts and motor coordination, to create a specific result, is what Ericsson has dubbed mental representations.

That’s why “Big Papi” hits homers and I would likely swing the bat a full second (or two) after it smacks the catcher’s mitt.

But almost no one who’s reading this blog will be facing a major league pitcher anytime soon, but we all face professional and personal challenges that we could meet with gusto with the right mental representations.

Maybe you want to sell more widgets; market more effectively using social media; pass some professional certification; become a more powerful communicator; write a novel; become a world-class salsa dancer?

Want to be an exceptional performer in those fields?

Get an existing elite performer in that field to coach you. If that’s not possible, at least observe them carefully and try to reconstruct the mental representations they are working with. What do they do? What routines do they follow? What habits do they faithfully keep? How do they train? What do they read? What do they say? How do they think? Deconstruct as much as you can so you can see exactly what they’re doing. Then compare their approach to your own to see if there are any clear gaps that could improve your own game.

Then get busy working on those.

3. Engage in Deliberate Practice

In Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit, there’s a memorable exchange between her and Ericsson concerning Duckworth’s running. She tells him that she has been running for quite some time, spending many hours that could be considered “practice.” So how come she’s no where near good enough to become an olympian, she asks.

“Interesting,” says Ericsson as he proceeds to ask her some questions about the nature of her practice sessions.

The takeway is that you can run every day for a million years, if you like, and never get anywhere good enough to be an Olympian because what counts is not hours spent practicing, it’s hours spent in deliberate practice.

Here are the components of this more purposeful and effective form of practice:

  1. Motivation
    This one’s obvious. You need a healthy dose of motivation to do the work and put forth the effort to improve your performance.
  2. Design
    Practice tasks should be designed taking into account your pre-existing knowledge and skills so that the practice session challenges you to reach beyond your comfort zone, but not so far that you feel completely lost. Practice sessions must have clear goals and objectives.
  3. Feedback
    Practice must give you immediate informative feedback. This feedback should provide you with clues as to where you may be falling short and thus stimulate learning and growth.
  4. Repetition
    And of course, one must repeat the practice tasks and similar tasks until there are clear signs of proficiency.

4. It Takes Time and Patience

Lastly, because there is nothing magical about deliberate practice, becoming an expert performer is all about the “mundanity of excellence.” It’s all about trying, failing, and trying again. But this takes time. Perhaps many years.

Years ago, Malcolm Gladwell took Ericsson’s ideas and postulated the 10,000 hour rule. He asserted that to become a top expert invariably required 10,000 hours, the rough equivalent of 10 years of practice. But Gladwell, according to Ericcson and Pool, got a lot of things wrong.

For example, there is no 10,000 hour rule. In some fields, the amount of required practice may significantly exceed or fall short of that mythical mark. Furthermore, it’s not mere practice that counts, it’s deliberate practice that ensures continuous growth and learning.

The takeaway for us is that improving our performance in any endeavor will take time, and lots of it, but the ultimate number of hours required will vary widely by skill and by the level of proficiency we seek. Again, we may not all wish to become Major League Baseball players. Maybe all you want is to master your company’s accounting system or learn how to manipulate data sets and apply statistical regressions. If so, chances are you will require months, or a couple of years, in order to achieve proficiency, but nothing close to 10,000 hours.

Now that you’re free from the tyranny of the talent myth—what will you do?

Here’s the essence of what you need to know: You have enough talent to become an expert in any field you choose. Don’t be fooled by the tyrannical notion that you should give up because you’re not a natural. What matters is: your willingness to do the hard work of deliberate practice; your patience; your perseverance to stick with it for the long haul.

And if you’re the parent of small children, just imagine what this gift can do for them.

It should be comforting to you, that in a world of constant flux, a world that demands life-long learning, there is a simple stepwise process you can follow to acquire the ever-changing skills you need to stay competitive. Think of it as the Missing Manual of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Ericsson’s ideas are a God-send. And they arrived not a minute too soon.

Now that you know—where will you choose to go?