Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ericsson and Pool, Peak

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of decades you may not have heard of deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson, who along with Robert Pool, a science writer, has just published Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), was an early advocate of the notion that, within limits, extensive deliberate practice is what separates expert performance from run-of-the-mill performance. Malcolm Gladwell subsequently popularized (and bastardized) this notion in Outliers, calling it the 10,000-hour rule.

Peak is Ericsson’s own popularized version of his research. As such, it doesn’t break new ground, but it sets the record straight in an accessible, engaging way.

Natural talent, Ericsson argues, plays “a much smaller—and much different—role than many people generally assume. … While people with certain innate characteristics … may have an advantage when first learning a skill, that advantage gets smaller over time, and eventually the amount and the quality of practice take on a much larger role in determining how skilled a person becomes.” (pp. 178, 198-99) And, by the way, there’s no magic number of hours of practice that divides peak performers from the rest of us.

When you’re learning and practicing a new skill—say, dissecting corporate balance sheets or detecting patterns in price fluctuations, you are changing the structure of your brain. This was clearly evidenced in a 2011 study of the MRI brain scans of London taxi drivers. They had much larger than average posterior hippocampi, the areas of the brain “particularly engaged by spatial navigation and in remembering the location of things in space. … Furthermore, the more time that a person had spent as a taxi driver, the larger the posterior hippocampi were.” (p. 42) But there can be too much of a good thing. “Pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and ineffective learning. The brain, like the body, changes most quickly in that sweet spot where it is pushed outside—but not too far outside—its comfort zone.” (p. 51)

What are the characteristics of deliberate practice? First of all, it should be noted that deliberate practice is normally overseen by a teacher or a coach. Self-coaching is tough, especially since deliberate practice “demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”

Ericsson lists seven traits of deliberate practice. Among them, it “involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.” It also “both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.” (p. 94)

The notion of mental representations is fuzzy. But “in essence these representations are preexisting patterns of information—facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on—that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations. The thing all mental representations have in common is that they make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory.” (pp. 65-66)

The quality and quantity of mental representations are, in fact, the most important characteristics that distinguish the performance of novices from that of experts. “Through years of practice, [experts] develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields… These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation.” (p. 66)

I have chosen snippets from Peak that distill some of the book’s main points. But Ericsson and Pool flesh out these points with case studies. We learn, for instance, how Benjamin Franklin set about becoming a good writer, how Paganini wowed his audiences by breaking one violin string after the other and still playing beautiful pieces of music (some, of course, that he wrote specifically for the purpose), how the Polgár sisters became world-class chess players, how Steve Faloon was (after more than 200 training sessions) able to remember 82 digits.

The upshot is that there’s no substitute for hard work. But this work has to be smart and focused, pushing boundaries. Otherwise, you condemn yourself to accomplishing much less than you’re capable of.

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