At a glance
Updated 14th July 2023
This article was accurate at the time of publication.
What makes a person exceptional at what they do? What made Mozart pitch perfect and able to compose 600 works in a relatively short life? Why was Tiger Woods able to rewrite the golf record books just a year after turning professional? How do London cabbies recall the details of 25,000 streets within a 10km radius of Charing Cross?
What of the feats of Scrabble master, New Zealander Nigel Richards, winning the 2015 French Scrabble Championship when he couldn’t speak the language? He had spent just nine weeks beforehand memorising the French dictionary.
Common answers to such questions invariably use words like “giftedness”, “natural ability”, even “genius”. Mozart has long been called a “child prodigy”.
What made all these people brilliant is within the reach of almost everyone, insists myth-busting behavioural psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, of Florida State University.
Ericsson has spent more than 30 years studying experts in their fields – athletes, musicians, doctors and poker players, among many others – to determine what makes them exceptional.
His research shows something quite prosaic is the difference between being ordinary and truly outstanding, even a world-beater.
To Ericsson, the difference is a method known as deliberate practice – and that view has made him a target for fellow psychologists around the world as they try to counter his claims.
In his book, Peak: The New Science of Expertise, co-authored with Robert Poole, Ericsson explains the science as he shows step by step how almost anyone can reach their full potential by using the right approach. The pair maintains they’re not peddling giftedness as we know it, but something more powerful.
“We’re actually describing scientific processes that show how the body can adapt, rather than assume there’s something magical going on,” says Ericsson.
“This idea that we’re born with certain innate characteristics that we can’t change – that’s basically wrong.”
Crucial in the development of expertise, Ericsson finds, is the brain’s ability to change over time, with deliberate practice refining its mental maps for the next best step.
Put simply, it involves building or modifying specific skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and using feedback from a coach or teacher to improve incrementally (see The 5 P’s, below).
Over a long period of dedication, this process of continuous improvement leads to exceptional performance. Whether aware of it or not, experts the world over have used deliberate practice to achieve excellence, Ericsson asserts.
After numerous studies and analysis of the psychology, physiology and brain machinations that culminate in exceptional performance, his discovery suggests revolutionary possibilities for professional productivity, educational selection and training and sporting prowess.
It also promises a brave and much cleverer world if the principles of deliberate practice are widely embraced.
It was a misunderstanding of his game-changing work that first shot Ericsson to global attention in 2008, when author Malcolm Gladwell’s international bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success reported that 10,000 hours of practice was required to achieve expertise. Gladwell used examples ranging from The Beatles to Bill Gates to back this up.
This misses the crucial point, retorts Ericsson, whose original 1993 study of violinists at the Music Academy in Berlin showed 10,000 to be the average number of hours they had practised by age 20. The crucial difference, though, was whether that practice was “deliberate practice”.
Most people make do with conventional practice “where they just go out and play and hope they’ll get better”, Ericsson notes. We all do this every day, whether it’s by driving a car or playing a game of hit-and-giggle tennis, he explains.
Purposeful practice is a very different activity “where you get out of your comfort zone and try to improve a particular aspect”, such as working on your leg muscles to get better at high jump.
Deliberate practice is more complex and goes well beyond the comfort zone.
Prodigy or practice?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a stellar example. Ericsson and Poole outline in the book how his musical skills were fostered by his father, Leopold, a moderately talented violinist who set out to turn his children into the sort of musician he had always wanted to be.
Leopold wrote a book about teaching music to young people and was one of the first to push the idea of starting lessons at a very early age.
Mozart was four when his father started teaching him to play the harpsichord, clavichord and violin, and he soon learned to compose, in part by studying some of the era’s best composers and copying their work.
Leopold also worked with him on analysing and writing music. (It’s known that Mozart’s early compositions are in Leopold’s handwriting.)
Little wonder that a six-year-old with his feet dangling from the bench wowed audiences across Europe during a family tour. Mozart was called a prodigy, but they had not seen all the deliberate practice that had gone into his “natural talent”, says Ericsson.
One caveat to the deliberate practice theory, he admits, is in sport, where height and certain physical attributes may give a person the edge. Yet sometimes even this is debatable.
More than just smarts
Not everyone is convinced by the almost universal success claims being made about deliberate practice.
A barrage of contradictory research has emerged. Academic papers point to how talent development is a mix of abilities, environment, practice and motivation; that the average IQ of advanced chess players, for example, is higher than that of the general population; that it’s very unlikely child prodigies would have engaged in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before adolescence; and that expertise in creative fields cannot be counted, because creativity is nebulous.
Ericsson consistently dissects peers’ research arguments and methods, noting they use different theoretical frameworks for studies.
“Rarely when people raise questions about our work do they point out the lack of evidence from twin studies about heritability,” he says.
“You would expect a higher incidence of identical twins becoming excellent, but there seem to be hardly any… I find that curious.
“In many years of mapping DNA, I also find it curious that a single gene hasn’t been discovered where there is consensus that it’s providing a clear advantage for the people who have it.”
Ericsson’s recent work shows IQ is “a decent predictor” for beginner performance in chess, but that the advantage disappears as players gain skill.
“Skills overtake and replace whatever was correlated with IQ,” he says. Selection processes in education and employment which look for high-IQ individuals are now coming under scrutiny.
Skills also outstrip knowledge, according to Ericsson. He and Poole note that there’s been a tradition of focusing on knowledge in business, mainly because it’s “easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice”.
The two researchers have now trained their sights on professionals. Qualifying tests for doctors, for instance, tend to involve multiple choice questions about knowledge.
“A lot of the time doctors don’t even get feedback about how patients are doing,” says Ericsson. “We need to find how they can deliver superior performance.”
In business, forecasting could readily take a cue from deliberate practice. When scenario planning, valuable feedback comes when the correct scenario emerges, says Ericsson.
“A lot of people lose track of what they were thinking when they were generating predictions.” To develop the right mental representations, it’s important to reflect and learn from the process.
“But many just jump to the next thing,” he laments.
When news of his research was first reported, Ericsson realised that people often want to believe in specialness.
“I’m yet to find someone who’s exceptional at what they do who would cite innate abilities as important for their success. They all talk about the training,” he says.
“People who know exceptional people seem to be even more committed to the idea of being friends of someone special, but they really don’t know what it took for that person to reach this very high level of performance.”
The good news, Ericsson and Poole conclude, is that everyone has the main gift in the adaptability of the human brain and body – it’s just a matter of taking advantage of it.
What is deliberate practice?
- For starters, deliberate practice must be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who understands how expert performers in your chosen field develop their abilities.
- Getting out of your comfort zone is a must; you must constantly try to get the best out of your ability and be fully focused at all times.
- Goals must be clearly defined; the role of the teacher is to develop a series of small changes towards a bigger goal. Incremental changes allow the student a sense of achievement.
- Feedback is vital for improvement – this comes initially from the teacher, but as the process continues, the student learns to monitor themselves and spot points for improvement. To do this requires accurate mental representations.
Mental representations explained
What sets experts apart from others is that years of practice have changed the neural circuitry in their brains to produce highly specialised “mental representations”. This involves pre-existing patterns of information – facts, images, rules, relationships – that are held in the long-term memory and can be used to respond quickly in certain situations.
As a person’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve further.
How to use deliberate practice in business
Art Turock, a world-class athlete in his 60s and a leadership development coach for many Fortune 500 companies, uses the principles of deliberate practice to improve and develop expertise for businesspeople.
Usually they plead busy-ness with “no time to develop their skills or reflect”, says Turock, whose coaching method is called Learning While Real Work Gets Done.
You can lift your game, he says, by turning normal business activities into continuous improvement tasks. Before meetings, presentations and sales calls, for example, take a minute to set goals. Follow up with a debrief and ask for feedback.
Turock’s method relies on The 5 P’s:
Get rigorous about basics. There are assumptions that people know what best practice decision-making looks like, how to give feedback and how to give a PowerPoint presentation that won’t make the audience doze off. Choose some leadership skills to work on each month as a team and individually.
Design many opportunities every day for skills practice. Set goals. In presentations, choose a focus such as being persuasive and ask colleagues to give feedback afterwards. Good feedback is not enough – get everyone out of their comfort zones, exploring what can be improved and suggesting how. Ask for crisp examples. All take notes!
Game-on situations are high-stakes meetings with customers or employees, or a strategic planning session for the senior management team. These require high-performance levels to be second nature; you don’t want mere competence, but polished, well-practised performers taking their game to a different level.
Here, debriefing and feedback come into their own. Reflection is vital. Build on what you learned last time. How could it be done better?
Share learnings with anyone who may benefit, from cross-functional team members to trade association colleagues and customers. A simple email will do it, says Turock.
He also runs Raise the Bar sessions to drill into specific topics where input is sought from the business or team. Appoint an editor to identify themes or patterns for what worked or can be improved, he says. Compile and report the learnings.