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Practice Makes . . . Better

books and culture

Practice Makes . . . Better

Talent helps, too. May 20, 2016
Arts and Culture

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $28)

Why do some people achieve outsize success? Given the competitive nature of the modern world, it’s a question many have spent time thinking about. The usual answer is that success results from some combination of talent, luck, and hard work. Tales of prodigies and “naturals,” born ready to conquer the world, tend to minimize the importance of hard work, but the whole formula may need a rethink. That’s the message of Peak, a new book by Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool. Ericsson has spent decades studying the concept of “deliberate practice,” the sort of hard, unglamorous focus on improvement that gets results. This highly readable book distills Ericsson’s work for a general audience, while raising thought-provoking questions about what talent really is.

Ericsson began his career with a somewhat strange quest: to push the boundaries of working memory. Most people can repeat back a seven-digit phone number, but not a ten-digit one. He recruited Steve Faloon, an average Carnegie Mellon University student, and they set about systematically working to get better. After about 200 hours of effort, Faloon could repeat back 82 digits, by far a world record at the time. Faloon wasn’t destined for such greatness. Rather, Ericsson’s takeaway is that performance has no inherent limit. “Instead, I’ve found that people more often just give up and stop trying to improve,” he writes. Work constantly at the edge of your ability, though, and your brain changes in a way that makes better performance possible.

Much of Peak is devoted to how deliberate practice works, and why more is better. Ericsson’s most famous research involved studying the schedules of violin students at an elite German school. The best—those the instructors said were destined for stardom—spent much more time in solo practice than those likely to become music teachers. Reconstructing their schedules since youth, Ericsson calculated that the best had spent on average 7,410 hours in deliberate practice by age 18, compared with 3,420 for the music education students. This solo practice allowed them to create mental models of their craft. They knew what a piece would sound like before they played it, and that familiarity allowed them to focus on details and nuance.

Ericsson’s work has been cited so widely that big chunks of the book feel familiar. This isn’t his fault, of course. Indeed, the book’s most fascinating section is Ericsson’s description of what it was like to get the Malcolm Gladwell treatment. In his 2008 bestseller Outliers, Gladwell popularized Ericsson’s violin research with his catchy formulation, “the 10,000-hour rule,” which Ericsson paraphrases as the rule that “it takes ten thousand hours of practice to become a master in most fields.” This notion was “irresistibly appealing,” Ericsson notes, because it’s easy to remember and satisfies a human desire for simple cause-and-effect relationships.

While Gladwell captured some of the nuance, others have repeated the 10,000-hour rule in a way that mimics the children’s game Telephone—in which information loses accuracy the more it gets repeated. “Unfortunately,” Ericsson notes, “this rule—which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice—is wrong in several ways.” If the headline number of Ericsson’s study was 7,410 hours by age 18, then perhaps the violinists would have practiced 10,000 hours by age 20; but 20 is an arbitrary age. It’s certainly not the career peak for most violinists, and these young musicians had many thousands of hours of deliberate practice to go before they reached their full potential. Likewise, one of Gladwell’s other key examples—the Beatles, he claims, played 10,000 hours together in Hamburg—is problematic because the numbers don’t add up, and the Beatles were mostly performing in Germany, not deliberately practicing. Certainly, “the number varies from field to field,” Ericsson observes. Steve Faloon hit the world record for memorizing strings of digits after a mere 200 hours. Even with the violinists and their 10,000 hours, an average means that half were above and half were below the magic number. Nonetheless, Ericsson praises Gladwell for bringing attention to the concept of deliberate practice.

Ericsson doesn’t deny the existence of talent—as some educators keen on abolishing gifted programs would love to do—but he defines it in new ways. Perhaps some children “are born with a suite of genes that cause them to get more pleasure from drawing or from making music,” or from doing math, gymnastics, or other activities. These children then spend more time practicing because it feels better. They carry their sketchpads, guitars, or calculators around with them. Some may be doubly blessed with a natural tendency to focus for long periods. Viewed this way, talent may be whatever “pushed them to practice and thus develop their skills to a greater degree than their peers.” Practice leads to success, the children get praised for their abilities, and they devote more time to practice. The cycle becomes self-reinforcing.

The reverse is also true. Small difficulties in the beginning soon become magnified. “Children who were told they were no good at math grow up believing it,” Ericsson laments, and so they avoid math and never get better at it. The best attitude for educators might be that we should all work hard and by doing so we will all become better. Whatever level you start at, the research on practice shows this statement to be fundamentally true.

True, most of us aren’t looking toward careers in violin playing, chess, golf, or digit memorization. Outliers became so popular because it implied that world-class performance was open to anyone in all endeavors. And it’s true that people whose jobs involve skills used repeatedly can benefit from deliberate practice: surgeons, teachers, writers. But many of the jobs men and women do daily present fewer opportunities for focused practice or uncertain payoffs for years of repetition. A restaurant manager will definitely get better at creating a staffing schedule after her first few weeks, but it’s probably not worth her time to keep “practicing” beyond that. Even without aiming for world-class performance, however, the idea that people can improve with time and practice is valuable. As Ericsson puts it, “there is no reason not to follow your dream.” It may not be fun or easy, but practice works.

Photo by Izabela Habur/iStock

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