I have just read and will soon review a new book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, co-authored by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt April 2016). It will be one of the most important books published this year.
Meanwhile, I thought you would appreciate reading this brief excerpt from an article, “The Making of an Expert,” written by Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely in the July–August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
* * *
What It Means to Practice Deliberately
To people who have never reached a national or international level of competition, it may appear that excellence is simply the result of practicing daily for years or even decades. However, living in a cave does not make you a geologist. Not all practice makes perfect. You need a particular kind of practice—deliberate practice—to develop expertise. When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate 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.
To illustrate this point, let’s imagine you are learning to play golf for the first time. In the early phases, you try to understand the basic strokes and focus on avoiding gross mistakes (like driving the ball into another player). You practice on the putting green, hit balls at a driving range, and play rounds with others who are most likely novices like you. In a surprisingly short time (perhaps 50 hours), you will develop better control and your game will improve. From then on, you will work on your skills by driving and putting more balls and engaging in more games, until your strokes become automatic: You’ll think less about each shot and play more from intuition. Your golf game now is a social outing, in which you occasionally concentrate on your shot. From this point on, additional time on the course will not substantially improve your performance, which may remain at the same level for decades.
Why does this happen? You don’t improve because when you are playing a game, you get only a single chance to make a shot from any given location. You don’t get to figure out how you can correct mistakes. If you were allowed to take five to ten shots from the exact same location on the course, you would get more feedback on your technique and start to adjust your playing style to improve your control. In fact, professionals often take multiple shots from the same location when they train and when they check out a course before a tournament.
This kind of deliberate practice can be adapted to developing business and leadership expertise. The classic example is the case method taught by many business schools, which presents students with real-life situations that require action. Because the eventual outcomes of those situations are known, the students can immediately judge the merits of their proposed solutions. In this way, they can practice making decisions ten to 20 times a week. War games serve a similar training function at military academies. Officers can analyze the trainees’ responses in simulated combat and provide an instant evaluation. Such mock military operations sharpen leadership skills with deliberate practice that lets trainees explore uncharted areas.
Let’s take a closer look at how deliberate practice might work for leadership. You often hear that a key element of leadership and management is charisma, which is true. Being a leader frequently requires standing in front of your employees, your peers, or your board of directors and attempting to convince them of one thing or another, especially in times of crisis. A surprising number of executives believe that charisma is innate and cannot be learned. Yet if they were acting in a play with the help of a director and a coach, most of them would be able to come across as considerably more charismatic, especially over time. In fact, working with a leading drama school, we have developed a set of acting exercises for managers and leaders that are designed to increase their powers of charm and persuasion. Executives who do these exercises have shown remarkable improvement. So charisma can be learned through deliberate practice. Bear in mind that even Winston Churchill, one of the most charismatic figures of the twentieth century, practiced his oratory style in front of a mirror.
Genuine experts not only practice deliberately but also think deliberately. The golfer Ben Hogan once explained, “While I am practicing I am also trying to develop my powers of concentration. I never just walk up and hit the ball.” Hogan would decide in advance where he wanted the ball to go and how to get it there. We actually track this kind of thought process in our research. We present expert performers with a scenario and ask them to think aloud as they work their way through it. Chess players, for example, will describe how they spend five to ten minutes exploring all the possibilities for their next move, thinking through the consequences of each and planning out the sequence of moves that might follow it. We’ve observed that when a course of action doesn’t work out as expected, the expert players will go back to their prior analysis to assess where they went wrong and how to avoid future errors. They continually work to eliminate their weaknesses.
Deliberate practice involves two kinds of learning: improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills. The enormous concentration required to undertake these twin tasks limits the amount of time you can spend doing them. The famous violinist Nathan Milstein wrote: “Practice as much as you feel you can accomplish with concentration. Once when I became concerned because others around me practiced all day long, I asked [my mentor] Professor Auer how many hours I should practice, and he said, ‘It really doesn’t matter how long. If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.’”
It is interesting to note that across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists, and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time. In fact, most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities, such as writing about new ideas. While this may seem like a relatively small investment, it is two hours a day more than most executives and managers devote to building their skills, since the majority of their time is consumed by meetings and day-to-day concerns. This difference adds up to some 700 hours more a year, or about 7,000 hours more a decade. Think about what you could accomplish if you devoted two hours a day to deliberate practice.
It’s very easy to neglect deliberate practice. Experts who reach a high level of performance often find themselves responding automatically to specific situations and may come to rely exclusively on their intuition. This leads to difficulties when they deal with atypical or rare cases, because they’ve lost the ability to analyze a situation and work through the right response. Experts may not recognize this creeping intuition bias, of course, because there is no penalty until they encounter a situation in which a habitual response fails and maybe even causes damage. Older professionals with a great deal of experience are particularly prone to falling into this trap, but it’s certainly not inevitable. Research has shown that musicians over 60 years old who continue deliberate practice for about ten hours a week can match the speed and technical skills of 20-year-old expert musicians when tested on their ability to play a piece of unfamiliar music.
Moving outside your traditional comfort zone of achievement requires substantial motivation and sacrifice, but it’s a necessary discipline. As the golf champion Sam Snead once put it, “It is only human nature to want to practice what you can already do well, since it’s a hell of a lot less work and a hell of a lot more fun.” Only when you can see that deliberate practice is the most effective means to the desired end—becoming the best in your field—will you commit to excellence. Snead, who died in 2002, held the record for winning the most PGA Tour events and was famous for having one of the most beautiful swings in the sport. Deliberate practice was a key to his success. “Practice puts brains in your muscles,” he said.
* * *
Here is a direct link to the complete article.
K. Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist and Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University who is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise. To learn more about Ericsson and his work, please click here.