Feel like you could do with more success in your life? Join the club.
But ever wondered how the best actually get so good? Is their expertise a matter of talent? Hard work? Better training montages?
By now you’ve probably heard about the “10,000 hour rule”. It’s an idea made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story Of Success. Basically it says that anyone can succeed and become an expert in a field with around 10,000 hours of practice. Talent is not required.
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
Yep, I know you’re thinking: 10,000 hours… that’s one long training montage.
So how true is it that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a world-class expert in anything?
Turns out there is a bit more to the story.
10,000 hours isn’t quite a “magic number”. It’s an average. And individual results may vary. Widely.
In 2007, psychologists Guillermo Campitelli, of the Universidad Abierta Interamericana in Buenos Aires, and Fernand Gobet, director of the Centre for the Study of Expertise at Brunel University in West London, recruited 104 competitive chess players of varying skill levels for a study of chess expertise…While the average time to master level was 11,000 hours, one man’s 3,000-hours rule was another man’s 25,000-and-counting-hours rule…
That was the most striking part of our results,” Gobet says. “That basically some people need to practice eight times more to reach the same level as someone else. And some people do that and still have not reached the same level.”
Okay, so 10,000 hours of practice isn’t a magical formula for expertise.
But it’s still clear that anyone with a level of expertise is putting in thousands of hours of practice. So why the big difference in outcomes?
Turns out it’s not just about how much you practice. It’s also about how you practice.
Not all hours of practice are created equal.
And research shows that those with the greatest expertise practice differently from the rest of us.
So how do you practice like an expert?
1) Focus On Your “Learning Zone”
When you practice should you focus on going over the stuff you already know or should you try to learn something new you aren’t so good at?
Scientists studying expertise, such as the father of the field K. Anders Ericsson, have found that a hallmark of the way experts practice is that it’s a specific, focused effort to stretch for something just beyond current abilities.
Ericsson calls this style of expert practice, deliberate practice.
When most people practise, they focus on the things they can do effortlessly,’ Ericsson has said. ‘Expert practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well – or even at all. Research across domains shows that it is only by working at what you can’t do that you turn into the expert you want to become.
I know some of you are probably thinking practice what you don’t know, that’s pretty obvious. Sounds easy right? Think again.
Most of us have 10,000 hours of driving experience. How many of us are racing Formula One or Indy cars?
Truth is, it’s hard to constantly push yourself to do things beyond your ability.
Most everyday activities only require a moderate level of skill to perform them adequately.
Once you reach that level and the task is within your ability, your brain makes the task automatic. Why’s that a problem?
At this point you won’t gain any further benefit from repetition unless you deliberately try to extend your skill. But, if you reach too far, you’ll be discouraged by the difficulty.
Think about it like this:
Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan business school and former chief of General Electric’s famous Crotonville management development center, illustrates the point by drawing three concentric circles. He labels the inner circle “comfort zone,” the middle one “learning zone,” and the outer one “panic zone.”
Only by choosing activities in the learning zone can one make progress. That’s the location of skills and abilities that are just out of reach. We can never make progress in the comfort zone because those are the activities we can already do easily, while panic-zone activities are so hard that we don’t even know how to approach them.
How can we stay in the “learning zone”? What will help us steadily progress while keeping the learning manageable?
2) Break It Down
“Take it one step at a time” – we all heard it a million times from our coaches and parents when we were growing up. Was it actually good advice?
Turns out this is exactly how experts approach practice.
Research shows that experts break the skill down into its component techniques, or what psychologists call “chunks”. They learn each chunk, and then steadily combine the chunks into larger chunks.
That helps them stay in the learning zone and keep reaching.
Chunking is a strange concept. The idea that skill—which is graceful, fluid, and seemingly effortless—should be created by the nested accumulation of small, discrete circuits seems counterintuitive, to say the least.
But a massive body of scientific research shows that this is precisely the way skills are built—and not just for cognitive pursuits like chess. Physical acts are also built of chunks.
Okay, so you’re reaching for stuff in your learning zone and you’re breaking up the skills you need to learn into manageable chunks. Nice. What else do you need to do?
3) Get Feedback
Once we’ve got some practice and experience at something, we all like to think we are pretty good.
But how good does experience actually make us?
Turns out, it can actually make us worse.
In 1960 researcher Jeffrey Butterworth examined whether the ability to make diagnoses using heart sounds and murmurs improved with time on the job.
He found that while accuracy increases with experience as a person progresses from student to certified cardiologist, he also found that accuracy actually diminishes over time for doctors in general practice.
That’s to say, general practitioners with many years of clinical experience are actually worse at diagnosing heart complaints than doctors fresh out of medical school.
How can an experienced practitioner get worse?
Lack of objective feedback.
Experts know you’ve got to get objective feedback. And you’ve got to get it often. The more often the better (ever wonder why top sportspeople still have coaches?).
What happened when the GPs got some coaching? Some fast feedback? You guessed it.
In effect, GPs are like amateur golfers encountering a tricky lie and hitting only one ball: they have insufficient feedback to challenge and refine their judgment...
So, how to improve the game of GPs? How to ensure they spot the warning signs? How about giving GPs a precious opportunity to ‘hit a lot of balls’? How about a well-designed booster course handing GPs an opportunity to make as many diagnoses in one weekend as they would normally make in a year? Sure enough, when GPs were put through this kind of course, their diagnostic accuracy soared.
What do you do once you’re in your learning zone, breaking skills down and getting regular feedback on your technique?
4) Repeat, Repeat, Repeat…..
If you are learning something there’s no substitute for repetition. And it’s not just because your mum said so.
It’s a principle of how the brain develops and coordinates skills. And it’s a principle experts understand.
Each repetition helps the brain to coordinate and strengthen the neural connections that make up the skill you are practicing.
Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become…Myelin is “the key to talking, reading, learning skills, being human.
If repetition is coordinating and strengthening brain connections, how can we get more out of each repetition? Do more of them really fast? Wrong.
5) Slow It Down
I know, I know. No one wants to be the slow kid.
But here’s the thing: Research shows that it’s the slow repetitions, not the fast repetitions, where the skills get learned.
Be precise, take it slow, correct your errors.
Precision especially matters early on, because the first reps establish the pathways for the future. Neurologists call this the “sled on a snowy hill” phenomenon. The first repetitions are like the first sled tracks on fresh snow: On subsequent tries, your sled will tend to follow those grooves. “Our brains are good at building connections,” says Dr. George Bartzokis, a neurologist at UCLA. “They’re not so good at unbuilding them…
When you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Go slowly. Make one simple move at a time, repeating and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, particularly at the start. Learning fundamentals only seems boring—in fact, it’s the key moment of investment…
If you build the right pathway now, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the line.
Now you’re starting to get the hang of this deliberate practice thing. What could help you get more out of deliberate practice?
6) Manage Your Energy
Deliberate practice is draining. So how can you make sure you get the most out of each hour of deliberate practice?
Practice when you are most alert.
It seems obvious, but then, researchers studying groups of skilled violin players noticed that non-experts tended to ignore this simple idea.
Practice is so hard that doing a lot of it requires people to arrange their lives in particular ways. The two top groups of violinists did most of their practicing in the late morning or early afternoon, when they were still fairly fresh. By contrast, violinists in the third group practiced mostly in the late afternoon, when they were more likely to be tired.
If you liked the idea of managing your energy levels, you’ll love the next tip.
7) Sleep On It
We all know that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. But what happens when the expert practice gets tough?
Researchers found that those with the most expertise just go to sleep.
The two top groups differed from the third group in another way: They slept more. They not only slept more at night, they also took far more afternoon naps. All that practicing seems to demand a lot of recovery.
Confused? Research shows that the brain consolidates learning during sleep. No sleep = poor learning.
What about the napping? Science shows that naps can help speed up that learning process.
You may have noticed that the tips on energy and sleep point to ways of extracting more from each bit of deliberate practice. What if I told you scientists have found a secret to getting 400% more out of each bit of practice?
Want to know the secret?
8) Commit For The Long-Term
Researchers have found that long-term commitment can ignite practice with wonder-drug like results.
In 1997 Gary McPherson set out to investigate a mystery that has puzzled parents and music teachers since time immemorial: why certain children progress quickly at music lessons and others don’t.
He undertook a long-term study that sought to analyze the musical development of 157 randomly selected children…The children were asked to identify how long they planned to play…and their answers were condensed into three categories: Short-term commitment Medium-term commitment Long-term commitment…He plotted the results against their performance on a skill test.
The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.
It seems crazy that something as simple as long-term commitment could make such a difference to how much you get out of practice but there is plenty of evidence that the beliefs and perceptions you bring to a situation are important determiners in your eventual success.