Peak

K. Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

What is the secret to better learning? What is the secret to becoming an expert in your area? First, forget all about the talk linking success with innate abilities and natural talent. We are talking about training, learning, and mastering. In this book, K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool offer a survey collected over several years of research with professional musicians, masters in the art of memorializing numbers, athletes and other kinds of experts. The goal: to understand the secret behind their amazing skills. Actually, how do the best acquire excellence in what they do? With this premise, this microbook will offer techniques for developing mastery in any area of your choice. Welcome to your guide to the science of expertise!

The case of having a gift

First of all, we need to stop talking about innate abilities and talent. There is no scientific evidence of natural gifts, like playing the cello. All that talk about geniuses, such as Mozart and Beethoven, being naturally gifted is just a way to exclude hours and hours of practice.

What science shows is that you have the gift of having an adaptable brain. In that same way, the body can increase in size and gain strength with some exercise. Our brains function in the same manner our muscles of our arms and legs do. If you train them, they change, they adapt. But if you suddenly stop working out, it will start to lose it all.

One of the most interesting cases shown is the research with London cab drivers, conducted by a neuroscientist named Eleanor Macguire. Those workers are known for having an enormous ability to remember every detail from large city areas, including streets, places, parks, and even trees. It's actually a requirement in the process of selecting personnel for the job.

The research focused on identifying if the researched drivers brains were different in memory-related areas. And, well, they were! In fact, the newly admitted cab drivers had a portion of their hippocampus, the part linked to memory, slightly bigger than other subjects.

This is the natural gift everyone has: a body and a brain, both capable of high-level adaptability. To get the best results, you only have to know how to train right.

How we traditionally learn?

Right, and why most people aren’t experts in their areas? Even those that do the same activity for years?

First, let’s take a look at the way people usually learn new skills, such as driving a car, playing some songs on the piano, drawing the basic shapes of the human figure, etc.

Usually, the steps go like this: we start by getting the general idea of the skill we want to learn; then, we get some instructions with a teacher, a book or some YouTube tutorials. Using this knowledge, we practice until we can at least have some skill: well, I can drive a car, or, this drawing looks like a human figure! We generally practice this until it becomes automatic.

There is nothing wrong with that learning approach. The problem is that you won't be better at something just repeating the same thing over and over. That's also true with exercising. If you’ve never run, you will suffer a lot in the first tries. After a while, your body starts to adapt and eventually running gets easier. The thing is: if you start to run every day in the same velocity and length, you will stop improving. Your body, already used to the challenge of running that course, will get stuck in a pattern.

Intellectual skills are also part of this rule. If you play the guitar identically for 30 years after it becomes automatic, you will commit the same mistakes over and over again. And chances are you start playing worse, not better, after all.

The secret lies in the fact that your body and your brain can only learn and adapt if out of their comfort zone! People who left the automatic level know they always should try new things, one after another, to get at excellence. Let's break it down for you in the next lessons.

The lesson of purposeful practice

We already know that the trick is not mindless repetition over and over until it becomes automatic. And one of the approaches to get out of that learning pattern is what we call the Purposeful Practice.

Purposeful Practice is much more thoughtful and focused practice. The intent is getting better every time at what you do. Specific goals, reachable for your level, must be set to achieve that.

The problem is that most people don’t know how to practice this way. They take account neither of their mistakes nor of areas that could focus on purposeful practice.

Imagine that you are a musician that wants to play a piece flawlessly. You can't just replay it over and over in the hope that mistakes will naturally disappear. Set a goal for the training session. For example, play the song without mistakes three times in a row, instead of replaying it 30 times.

And that was the trick of Purposeful Practice: you break the big goal into several tiny pieces and advance through it consciously. You have to learn what are your most common mistakes, what is your practice's weaknesses  and then attack just at the right spot with mindful practice.

Here are some thoughts about purposeful practice:

  • You need feedback: that's how you will learn where your mistakes lie. It can come from a teacher or from someone who already mastered the skill you are trying to learn. It can also be done by yourself. If you are trying to get better at public speaking, for example, record your speech and analyze what you did right and what you did wrong.
  • You need to step out of your comfort zone: this is a full important part of Purposeful Thinking. When you leave your comfort zone, you challenge your mind to create new thinking patterns, new mental methods that hack into your mind, opening range for the apprehension of a new skill.
  • The secret is in trying more distinctly instead of trying harder: that's why a teacher or a coach can be critical in the process. Someone who already knows how to approach the obstacles in your way can show how to overcome them in unsuspected ways.
  • Create ways to keep you motivated: the more dedicated the practice, the less entertaining it becomes. It is fundamental to keep yourself passionate about improving. It can be for the thrill of the challenge or to show yourself that you can improve. Sometimes this is enough for ambitious people.

But what if I told you that this is not the end of the road? Yeah, Purposeful Practice is a great way to improve, and that is way better than the traditional learning format. But Purposeful Practice still falls a few steps behind of Deliberate Practice. It's really a great and fulfilling way to become an expert in your endeavor.

Before we enter into that, let's take a look at the mental mechanisms behind the learning process.

Mental representations

Chess is a game known by its mental centrality. A professional chess player knows in advance a large number of possible movements and the outcomes that are around every element in the game.

The mental process involved in training that chess skill is so thick that lots of professional chess players end up playing blindfolded. They don’t really need to see the game because they are mentalizing it. The aforementioned happens because getting good at chess depends on the skill of learning and remembering meaningful patterns in the game.

In fact, whoever wants to be truly good at chess has no option except for an in-depth study and analysis from the most common masters' movements.

The thing is: we learn everything in our lives thanks to those mental representations. That's the trick that our minds use so, for example, someone says dog,  you can imagine it. If you didn’t know what a dog is, it would be quite difficult for you to visualize that animal in your mind.

Well, this mental movement is behind everything we learn. Remember those London cab drivers? They use mental representations of lines and mental maps of the city to be like human GPS. If you try to remember 40 different numbers in the exact order, you will have to group those numbers in clusters and organize them somehow in your mind. This way they can be separated into recognizable patterns.

When you learn something new, your mind's first challenge is trying to grasp that information, to understand its elements and to create a mental representation capable of dealing with it. In doing so, a person that plays the guitar starts to follow the movements’ patterns required for the fingers to move accordingly.

This was the basic mechanism in the learning process. And, to improve and to be better, you have to create more complex and more efficient mental representations.

Deliberate practice

This type of learning is more likely and doable in the context of areas with long historical development, like learning to play the violin or dancing ballet. That happens because those kinds of activities were developed through years and years by lots of people, which consolidates a great platform of how to learn a skill. The learning process is more objective in its measurements and goals, and masters are clearer about what is best in the field.

Apart from that, you can inspire yourself with the principles of deliberate practice in anything you want to learn. Let’s take a look at those principles:

Deliberate Practice requires a teacher. You will develop skills previously figured out by trainers and masters alike. That’s why the presence of a coach or teacher is essential in the process of finding the right spots for improvement.

Deliberate Practice demands maximal effort. This is not something very pleasant but is a prerequisite in the demand of trying new things and getting off the comfort zone.

Deliberate Practice has very specific, well-defined goals. Well-developed training plans are needed to hunt those goals. You will not follow some generic desire for improving but work in the direction of improving your performance consciously.

In Deliberate Practice, you will not just follow your teacher commands. You have to be fully conscious of what you are doing all the time during practice. You need to be fully aware and concentrate on the specific goal you are willing to target.

Feedback and adaptation to response are essential in the training process. A teacher can do this in the beginning, but you'll have to learn to monitor yourself for room to improve in your work and get better. Being capable of doing so is essential to develop efficient mental representations.

Deliberate Practice is the process of developing ever better and improved mental representations of what you are learning. By the time you've mastered a skill, you should be able to do it mentally beforehand. If you are learning musical composition, you will be capable of writing a song totally within your mind because you own it in your mental representation.

You can still use the principles of the Deliberate Practice as a guide even if you are unable to hire a teacher - perhaps the area of your choice doesn't require it. A teacher can be useful in the process of absorbing mastery by observation. You still can learn from imitating, studying and analyzing the techniques used by a master in your area. You can identify what makes the mentors so good, what makes them experts at what they do.

In many cases, what places experts apart are the mental skills and mental representations they create. Unfortunately, you can’t spy inside someone's head. But fortunately, mental representations usually are put together in training, in practice. So, by learning how people (that are excellent in their tasks) practice, you can have a glimpse of what makes their mental representations so advanced and learn how to improve to be like them.

Final notes

By now, you should believe that anyone can learn how to be an expert in the chosen field of work. It will not be easy and will require focused practice. If truly motivated and willing to get to the top, nothing can hold you back (except self-imposed limitations).

The Deliberate Practice mindset offers you a different way to think about improvement: if you are not improving, it is because you are not practicing right, not because you are not capable of doing so. You may be repeating patterns or not able to see where your practice’s mistakes and problems are. Believe in science, believe in yourself!

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