Ericcson is a research psychologist internationally renowned for his work on expertise practice and human performance. His work in part was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell who coined the mythology of 10,000 hours practice required to become expert.
The theme of the book is basically that ‘natural talent’ is a myth & that all real expertise depends on practice & what distinguishes the best is the specific nature and type of practice they undertake. The book details what deliberate practice looks like and how anyone can apply it to the right sort of goals.
Perfect pitch long thought of as a very rare gift amongst musicians but research proves that most people appear to be born with the ability to develop perfect pitch. (though the necessary adaptability in the brain appears to disappear by about the age of 6).
Highlights the fact the brain is more plastic in early childhood and therefore there is a particular depth and quality to things learnt in these early years and part of why world class performers have usually started in their early childhood.
Ray Allen ten time All Star basketball player in the NBA & greatest 3 point shooter in the history of the game. ‘When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day. Not some days, every day.’
Ericcson’s research began in the late ‘70’s with Steve Faloon a volunteer student. Investigating the ability to memorize random numbers read out at 1 second intervals. Since then looked at all sorts of expert performers in many fields music sport surgery etc.
Deliberate practice is different from ‘normal’ practice. What we normally do is engage with the activity & get to a point of acceptable performance, driving playing tennis whatever it is. The skills and knowledge move from being conscious to unconscious but many faults and weaknesses remain, additional years of practice don’t address these faults.
Purposeful practice has well defined specific goals – for every practice session. The opposite of simply going through the motions. Its about putting steps together on route to an overall objective.
To improve you have to give full attention (focus) there must be feedback – are you doing something right or wrong? Meaningful positive feedback also a crucial factor in building and maintaining motivation – persistence is a big characteristic of experts they are prepared to keep practicing which is boring and not fun.
You have to get out of your comfort zone (Perhaps the single most important principle) If you don’t push out of your comfort zone you wont improve.
Improvement does not come from try harder but rather try differently.
In a nutshell, ‘Get outside of your comfort zone but do it in a focused way with clear goals a plan for reaching those goals and way to monitor your progress. Oh and figure out a way to maintain your motivation’
Study of London cab drivers by Elanor Maguire a neuroscientist at UCL published 2011 is probably the clearest and most dramatic evidence that the brain grows and responds to intense training. The posterior hippocampi of cab drivers is larger as a result of their training to navigate the streets of London. This upturned the belief that once fully grown the adult brain was a static structure. It seems likley that the brain is as adaptable as other physical systems eg muscle tissue. It responds to stimulus.
Most of us don’t develop deep expertise because we are comfortable with the homeostasis – ie good enough. We learn to get by but rarely progress beyond this.
Point about deliberate practice is not just to reach your potential but actually to build your potential which should not be seen as a fixed marker.
Mental representations. In effect models and maps against which we can build performance. The picture in our minds eye of what this performance should look like / sound like against which we can benchmark and measure progress. Without this image your trying to navigate without a map. As expertise improves your maps get better. Grand master chess players are not cleverer than average players but they do have far better mental representations of the game. These models more than anything else explain the difference between novices and experts.
Mental representations are not built by thinking about something – they get built by trying to do something, failing revising and trying again over and over.
Key role of deliberate practice is to build better mental representations of the activity. Applies to both physical and mental activities and physical activities are in effect mental too. The mind leads the body.
Comparative studies of musicians in elite schools has shown that the difference between the best the good and the average is not talent but the type and quality of their practice. The best simply do more practice of a higher quality. This makes motivation a key factor – who wants it most tends to put it in the most work.
Deliberate practice requires for best application a field that is well developed. Time has established the best way to play the violin - like sport dance etc there are objective standards for superior performance – unlike gardening or business by comparison. Also a teacher to act as a guide, practice therefore becomes informed.
Deliberate practice therefore characterized by the following traits:
It develops skills that others have already figured out and for which effective training methods exist. Practice is overseen and directed by a teacher who knows how ability is developed.
Deliberate practice takes place outside of comfort zone and requires near maximal effort which is generally not enjoyable
Involves well defined and specific goals towards improving some aspect of target performance.
Requires full attention and conscious action
Feedback and response to feedback – partly from a teacher but with experience against own mental representations
Mental representations of the activity are key
DP always involves building or modifying previously developed skills by focus on particular aspects of that skill. It is a step by step approach. The role of the teacher to provide the correct fundamentals as a foundation is very important.
Myth of the 10,000 hours. 2008 Malcolm Gladwells Outliers – picked up on research publish in 1993 by Ericcson, Krampe & Tewsch-Romer looking specifically at violin students at the Berlin Academy of music.
Gladwell noted their finding that the best students had practiced for around this length of time by the age of 20. However the ‘rule’ is wrong in several important ways.
- Nothing magical about 10,000 hours – the students in the study were good but not world class, probably only about half way there compared to international soloists.
- Gladwell made no distinction between practice and deliberate practice. It is not the time per se that is important. His example of the Beetles is very flawed in this perspective.
- The implication that anyone can put in 10000 hours of practice and become world class is not a finding of the original study.
What Gladwell got right was that in a well established field it takes a long time to reach mastery over many years.
Example of US Navy Top Gun programme – established in direct response to unacceptable combat losses in air to air combat over Vietnam.
Programme trains pilots in air to air combat missions using a red team made up of the best pilots in the Navy as instructors. Pilots constantly pushed out of comfort zone and learn lessons through practice they would only have otherwise picked up in combat – where experience comes with a heavy penalty. Results were dramatic and kill ratio which had been at approx. parity moved dramatically in favour of the US. During the 1st Gulf War US pilots shot down 33 enemy planes in air to air combat without a friendly loss – probably the most dominant performance in aviation history.
Improvement through practice is not just about effort it is about the right activity, effort on its own is meaningless.
Emphasis in deliberate practice is on doing – traditional pedagogues emphasis is on knowing (easier to test for 1 thing) . Difference between knowledge and skills is at the heart of the deliberate practice approach. Imagine if you tried to improve your tennis game just by reading magazines and watching you tube articles.
US Army Think Like A Commander training programme designed to teach adaptive thinking
Applying and designing deliberate practice towards your own performance goals. 1st Find a good teacher.
Need to focus on what your doing – pay attention to the process & aim to do something you cannot do, which will take you out of your comfort zone.
When practicing without a teacher 3 F’s: Focus, Feedback & Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyse effectively to identify weaknesses and improve them.
Motivation and willpower are different. When you quit something you originally intended to do its because the reasons to quit have come to outweigh the reasons to continue. Maintaining motivation means increasing the reasons to do something and decreasing the reasons not to and probably a combination of both.
Expert performers in general get good sleep and are in good physical condition. The second thing they have in common is that practice sessions are limited to about 1 hour – concentration cant be effectively maintained beyond this with any consistency.
The myth of talent – enduring and deep seated belief that talent plays a major role in determining ability, all of Ericcson’s studies show that talent cant be seen as anything more than how quickly an individual learns in the first instance. Motivation and practice account for the remainder of the journey.
Entire comic book industry is built on the myth of talent – something happens and instantly the protagonist is endowed with talent and ability.
Thinking about designing practice far more effective to think in terms of what a student should be able to do rather than what they should know.
Learning and understanding what it takes to build a mental representation in one area translates across to other subjects as what is involved is more clearly understood.
‘We are most human when we are improving ourselves’
‘Homo exercnes – ‘practicing man’ the species that takes control of its life through practice and makes of itself what it will’