How Experts Practice

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.


According to that old adage, practice makes perfect, and the oft-cited “10,000-hour rule” puts a magical number on the amount of practice it supposedly takes to attain expertise. But, while it’s true that attaining expertise requires lots of practice, simply putting in 10,000 hours won’t necessarily get you there. The key to becoming an expert is much more nuanced—and interesting.

In their book, Peak: Science of Expertise, psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool report on decades of research conducted by Ericsson and his colleagues on how experts develop their expertise. They show us how to apply those methods to our own chosen fields, offering a much more detailed pathway to success than any version of the so-called 10,000-hour rule.

The first step is to disabuse ourselves of three popular myths. The first myth is that our cognitive abilities are limited by genetics. The second myth is that if we keep at something long enough—like, say, 10,000 hours—we’ll inevitably improve. And the third myth is that to improve we simply need to put in effort or just try harder. These myths are wrong, wrong, and wrong, which is good news because it means we can accomplish far more than generally recognized. But we must engage in the right kind of practice to do so.

That right kind of practice is what Ericsson and other psychologists call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, akin to what journalist Daniel Coyle calls deep practice, is both purposeful and informed.

To be purposeful, your practice needs to be focused around specific, well-defined goals. The key to effective goal-setting is to break your long-term goals into intermediate and short-term goals. The short-term goals include objectives for each practice session—for example, working a particular component of the larger skill you’re trying to master. Having these goals will help you stay focused and engaged in your practice, another important element of being purposeful.

Purposeful practice also requires obtaining feedback while you practice. With feedback, you can assess where you’re meeting your goals and where you’re falling short—and therefore where you need to focus your practice. Feedback should be immediate so you can make corrections and adjustments along the way. Navigating around barriers often requires “trying differently,” as Ericsson and Pool say, rather than trying harder. Feedback is vital to this iterative process of trying something, learning what goes wrong, and making adjustments until you get it right.

Moving outside your comfort zone is another central characteristic of purposeful practice. But this doesn’t mean working on the hardest calculus problem you can find if you’re still trying to master algebra. You want to target that sweet spot that pushes you just beyond your current level with a difficult but not impossible challenge. Learning another language, for example, requires exposing yourself to what linguists call input plus one—that is, you need to be exposed to language that is slightly more advanced than what you currently comprehend. Likewise, a fundamental principle of physiology requires an athlete to apply a stimulus slightly beyond the athlete’s current fitness level to develop greater fitness—for example, a runner adds distance or speed to workouts to train for a race.

The importance of moving outside your comfort zone is based on the idea that the brain or body only changes if its homeostasis is disrupted. This basic process of stress-response-adaptation has been widely recognized for physical training. But more recently, neuroscientists have begun to uncover how cognitive stimuli impact the growth of neurons and tissues in areas of the brain associated with those cognitive skills. For example, Eleanor Maguire’s research demonstrates how the posterior hippocampi of London cab drivers grow as they become expert navigators of the city’s streets. The key message, according to Ericsson and Pool, is that “the brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain—your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain—in the ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training.”

If you follow all these guidelines of purposeful practice, you’re well on your way to improving. But Ericsson and Pool make a distinction between purposeful practice and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is further informed by activities and techniques employed by expert performers in a given field. This requires that the field be developed enough to have spawned experts, along with teachers or coaches to assign practice activities to help develop future experts. In other words, “deliberate practice is informed and guided by the best performers’ accomplishments and by an understanding of what these expert performers do to excel.”

Central to the success of experts is the quantity and quality of their domain-specific mental representations. Although we all possess mental representations that guide us as we perform any given skill, expert representations are richer and better developed. In other words, experts see things differently than novices. Take, for example, a person swimming across a pool. A novice might notice the type of stroke being performed and make a basic assessment of whether the swimmer is good or not so good. But an expert swim coach has developed a different way of seeing that swimmer—using a more advanced set of mental representations. The swim coach can see the nuances of the swimmer’s biomechanics and point out ways the swimmer could adjust the body position to improve efficiency. The difference between the expert and non-expert, in other words, comes down to different mental representations. As Ericsson and Pool emphasize, after years of practice, experts “develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields.”

Mental representations are important not just because they allow experts to perform better in their given field. Mental representations also allow experts to effectively monitor their own practice. In other words, there’s a positive feedback loop, or what Ericsson and Pool refer to as a “virtuous circle.” The idea is that “the more skilled you become, the better your mental representations are, and the better your mental representations are, the more effectively you can practice to hone your skill.”

The role of a good teacher or coach within the deliberate practice model is to help you develop the right mental representations. Again, the right mental representations not only allow you to perform like an expert, but they allow you to monitor your own performance when the teacher or coach isn’t around. So, the right mental representations allow you to practice more purposefully, and therefore further develop your skills.

The final element to practicing like an expert is this: to learn you must do. Simply reading about chess moves or calculus equations is not enough to master chess or calculus. You must engage in activities to apply that knowledge, glean feedback on your performance, and make adjustments—all while pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. Ericsson and Pool use the mnemonic of the three Fs—focus, feedback, fix it—to capture this process. “Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.”

As Ericsson and Pool emphasize, expertise is not something we’re born with. It’s something we develop with practice—the right kind of practice. Yes, it takes time and hard work to become an expert. But more important than simply logging time is how we use that time. “It is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period,” Ericsson and Pool advise. As the revised version of that old adage clarifies, practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect.

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