Peak (2016) is your guide to achieving expertise through regular practice. Counter to the general perception that natural ability plays a large part in determining performance, these blinks show you that just about anyone can acquire specialized skills if they practice hard and correctly.
What’s in it for me? Discover how outstanding performers practice correctly to achieve greatness.
Do you ever feel a pang of envy when you watch world-class musicians or Olympic athletes perform? Do you think it’s unfair that a higher power, or fate or simply genetics endowed these people – and not you – with such exceptional talent?
These blinks will show you that after decades of scientific research, we now know that no one is born a genius, or blessed with supernatural talent. Instead, talented people work hard to develop the skills they make seem second nature, dedicating endless hours to practicing correctly.
So how do you need to approach practicing to become a top performer? And what part does your brain play in this process? Well, let’s get into it.
In these blinks, you’ll learn
- how an “ordinary” guy learned to memorize 82 digits;
- why being a cab driver changes your brain’s structure; and
- why Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wasn’t a genius.
With diligent practice, everyone can develop specialized skills from a young age.
It is said that Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could identify any musical note, regardless on which instrument the note was played. But few people know how he was able to do this.
Have you ever wondered how Mozart achieved such tremendous musical ability, or how some people memorize thousands of digits in pi as if doing so was as easy as knowing your phone number?
We used to think such genius was the product of innate talent or a special, spiritual gift. But in reality, anyone can acquire highly specialized skills. It just takes practice.
Consider perfect pitch, the ability that Mozart had to identify any musical note without a known tone for reference. This skill is rare; only one in 10,000 people can do it. Perfect pitch is considered an example of an innate ability. Yet a recent study found that having perfect pitch isn’t innate at all.
In 2014, Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara set out to teach 24 children between the ages of two and six how to identify the 14 different chords on a piano. Several times a day, every day for months, she taught the children chords.
As the children progressed, Sakakibara tested them on individual notes. At the end of the experiment, all the children could correctly identify notes when played. In other words, they had acquired perfect pitch.
It stands to reason that with the right training, any person can learn perfect pitch, too.
This would require diligent instruction and practice, however, starting at the age of six. The point is, under favorable conditions, perfect pitch is something that almost anyone can master.
Humans can develop highly specific skills regardless of the skill in question, be it music or otherwise, because of the way the brain responds to practicing. You’ll learn how in the next blink.
London’s taxi drivers literally have “bigger” brains than you do, a product of diligent training.
London is a vast, sprawling city with thousands of streets that intersect at the oddest of angles. With a population of more than 8.5 million, the city is also home to hundreds of restaurants, housing estates, shopping malls, office buildings and all sorts of establishments catering to its many inhabitants.
And if you want to be a taxi driver in London, you’ve got to know your way around this maze!
Sounds daunting, right? While some tasks – like memorizing all of London’s streets – might seem impossible, humans can learn many difficult skills given the brain’s ability to adapt.
Just as your body grows stronger when you lift weights, your brain is “plastic,” meaning it changes when you train it.
Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire at the University College London performed an experiment to test this idea in 2000. As part of her work, she compared the brains of London taxi drivers with those of non-drivers.
Maguire found that cab drivers had a larger posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps you navigate space and memorize locations. Also, drivers who had been in the trade the longest had the largest hippocampi.
To be sure the data she gathered was scientifically relevant – that is, that cab drivers didn’t just start with large hippocampi, which helped them excel at the job – she scanned the brains of two groups of people. Her two groups were people about to start taxi driver training, and ordinary non-drivers as a control.
At the start, she found no difference in hippocampi size between the two groups. Four years later, however, when she performed the test again, she found that the hippocampi of the now-trained taxi drivers were larger than those of her control subjects.
This study implies a connection between navigation skills and the size of the brain’s posterior hippocampus. When trained, this part of the brain can clearly grow, becoming capable of executing tasks it couldn’t handle before deliberate training.
So now we know that practice can change the human brain. But does practice affect thinking or the way we perceive situations?
The images stored in long-term memory help people excel at a variety of complicated tasks.
When you read the words “Mona Lisa,” you probably think of the famous painting of a mysteriously smiling woman by Leonardo da Vinci. When this happens, your brain “sees” the picture.
This is called a mental representation. Mental representations are structures that are stored in the brain that correlate to particular objects, images, movements or anything that brain might have processed and stored for later retrieval.
In a broad sense, mental representations allow you to sidestep your short-term memory, an ability that can be quite useful.
Short-term memory is great for certain things, like remembering the words you just read to understand this sentence. But to memorize an entire language, you need the power and capacity of your long-term memory.
Simply put, without the ability to store all the rules of a language in your long-term memory, you wouldn’t be able to communicate with the ease that you do.
Here’s where mental representations come into play. These well-organized patterns of information, stored in long-term memory, allow you to respond quickly to the situation in which you find yourself.
For example, these representations remind you that the Mona Lisa is a famous painting, which is why you don’t need to constantly relearn the significance of the painting every time you come across a reference to it.
Mental representations also play a role as a performance booster. We know it takes years of practice to become an expert in a field, whether driving a taxi or playing chess. Only through practice can you develop detailed representations of the situations or movements that matter to your performance.
Let’s consider the sport of baseball. Plenty of fans have a handful of mental representations stored away, but they’re nothing compared to those of professional baseball players. Because of all the practicing they do, professional players have developed sophisticated representations of all the potential trajectories of a baseball.
This means that when a batter receives a pitch, he can predict within a split second how fast it will approach, whether it’s a curveball or slider, and know exactly how to swing his bat.
In this way, practice really does make perfect. But not any type of practice will do. Next, you’ll learn which type of practicing is required to develop specialized skills.
Becoming a skilled performer means practicing purposefully, with set goals and constant feedback.
Do you think that a professional musician, athlete, scientist or entrepreneur developed their skills and talents overnight? It’s unlikely. Instead, they probably used purposeful practice to achieve success.
This technique pushes you to build skills through several mechanisms, including setting clear, specific goals, being focused, leaving your comfort zone and receiving constant feedback.
To better understand how purposeful practice is achieved, consider an experiment by the author in the 1970s. A Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate named Steve was asked to memorize an ever-expanding string of numbers as the string was read out loud to him in one-second intervals.
Steve did not already have any particular facility with numbers or memorizing. In general, most people can memorize around seven digits without much trouble, and initially, Steve proved no different.
But with lots of training and practice, Steve could memorize chains of numbers that were 82 digits long.
How did he achieve this? First, Steve had a clear and specific goal: to memorize more numbers than he could previously. Second, throughout the experiment, he remained focused.
Steve also was pushed outside his comfort zone, as he was constantly encouraged to move past his current level of performance. If he managed to memorize 28 numbers in one session, for example, the trainer would start the new session by having him recite another string of the same length.
Then immediately afterward, the trainer would ask Steve to memorize a string of 29 digits – a higher performance bar.
And finally, Steve also received feedback on his performance, as the trainer would always inform him how he had done.
This last mechanism is crucial. After all, how can you improve if there’s no one to tell you how you’re doing? Regardless whether you’re practicing sonatas or German grammar, it’s essential to know if you’re learning it correctly.
Through purposeful practice, you can learn all manner of specialized skills. But purposeful practice is just a step toward a greater goal, which you’ll learn about in the next blink.
Informed practice guided by expert knowledge separates good performances from stellar ones.
Now we know that purposeful practice is essential to becoming a great performer. But what sets apart great performers from people who seem to touch genius?
They achieve this through deliberate practice, or purposeful practice that’s informed. For your practice to become deliberate, two things need to happen.
First, the practice must be applied to a field that’s well-developed, meaning that there are already more experienced practitioners in the world whose level of performance clearly differs from those who are just starting out. Second, deliberate practice requires a teacher or coach who can train a student using the practice activities necessary to improve.
The musical tradition has developed over centuries, and obviously, there are differences in the quality of musical performances. Also, it’s not uncommon to find piano teachers who are expert performers in their own right. These musicians have developed sophisticated training techniques that help their students acquire the necessary skills to become experts themselves.
In essence, deliberate practice must not only be based on a field with established experts but also involve guidance on how the student can become an expert. Thus you can take advantage of the specific techniques that teachers have used to achieve excellence to find excellence in your practice.
By adopting a teacher’s knowledge, a student is given a template to follow, eliminating the need to start from scratch or waste time figuring out basic facts common to the field.
For instance, let’s say you want to become a star high jumper. With a great coach, you won’t have to figure out things like the best place to start your jump, or how to achieve maximum distance.
But let’s pause for a moment. If nearly any skill can be learned through intentionally guided practice, what does that say about the concept of talent?
Contrary to public opinion, deliberate practice and not talent is the key to becoming extraordinary.
Now you know that highly specialized skills can be developed through diligent practice. But aren’t some abilities the result of sheer genius or a sort of talent bestowed by a higher power?
Many people tend to think this is the case, believing that outstanding performers owe their skills to innate talent, especially in cases where landmark performances are inexplicably accomplished early in a performer’s life.
What other explanation could there be for such unusual, extraordinary abilities?
Many of Mozart’s biographers, for example, have pointed to the fact that he began composing at the age of six, and that he wrote a symphony just two years later. Innate talent seems like a convenient catch-all to explain how a small child could accomplish so much in such a short time.
Yet there’s no evidence that innate talent exists. Rather, the incredible abilities of top performers, even a genius like Mozart, seem to be the result of deliberate practice.
In fact, Mozart might not have accomplished that much when he was young. Evidence now suggests that the first compositions ascribed to him when he was eight years old match the handwriting of his father, Leopold Mozart, a composer who trained his son from a young age.
While Mozart went on to become a legendary musical figure, he didn’t write any significant musical pieces until his teenage years, after nearly a decade of honing his skills through deliberate practice.
The same holds for many other performers. Talented people don’t take shortcuts. They’ve all practiced deliberately for years, building their brains’ capacities by creating advanced mental representations.
The key message in this book:
Innate talent just doesn’t play much of a role in performance. Instead, the key to performing your best in whichever field you choose is to practice deliberately. By devoting yourself to a methodological training schedule, you can master almost any skill.
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Suggested further reading: Unlimited Power by Anthony Robbins
Unlimited Power (1989) is a powerful, useful guide to overcoming fear, uncertainty and the feelings of unworthiness that can plague your life. With a few mental and physical exercises to help generate positive thoughts and improve body language, you can achieve the goals in life that truly matter to you.
About the author
Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology and Conradi Eminent Scholar at Florida State University. His work has been cited in bestselling books Moonwalking with Einstein and How Children Succeed.
Robert Pool is a science writer with a PhD in mathematics from Rice University. He has worked as a writer and editor for science magazines such as Nature and Science, among other publications.