Effortless Mastery

Watching a great athlete, performer or surgeon at work is mesmerizing. When a highly complex skill looks effortless, we tend to think of the performer as otherworldly, rather than as the result of years of dedicated, mundane training. Effortless mastery, the hallmark of the world-class athlete, surgeon or other performer, appears only after countless hours of what’s now widely called deliberate practice. A large-scale study by Ericsson and colleagues published in 1993 transformed the way that scientists think about the relationship between talent, effort and mastery. It turns out that across domains, expert performance is directly correlated to the amount of deliberate practice that a person has engaged in, not simply the number of hours spent doing activities related to the domain. Some studies have even tried to quantify the number of hours or years required, and, in general, the magic number seems to be 10,000 hours or 10 years.



According to the Nielsen media rating company, the average American watches 4.5 hours of TV per day. If that American individual practiced, deliberately, as often as he/she watched TV, effortless mastery would be achieved by everyone in about seven to ten years. The idea that most Americans simply do not have time to master a domain must be false: what’s missing is effort, motivation and an understanding of how learning works.

Unlike watching television, deliberate practice is hard: it requires sustained attention and constant adaptability. Rote repetition of an activity simply ingrains habits, not all of whom are good. Mastery requires thoughtful practice, with feedback and change is incremental. Deliberate practice exhausts the muscles and the brain, and for most people, a four-hour practice session feels like a marathon. The way in which a person approaches training is inherently linked to personality and individual differences, making many generalizations uninformative. But are there some general principles that can cut across individual differences?

The first published evidence that called into question the popular notion that more practice of any kind inevitably leads to mastery came from studies of Morse Code operators at the turn of the 20th century (Bryan and Harter, 1897, 1899). The operators in these studies would show improvements in their skills with repeated practice but eventually, their progress would plateau and further practice would yield no more gains. By changing their practice techniques, however, the operators were able to jumpstart their learning and continue to improve. Are these plateaus an unavoidable consequence of learning? Using the same paradigm, that is, learning Morse Code, Keller (1958) showed that the training method itself can be designed to avoid plateaus and show steady learning.

What are the characteristics of the training method and are these characteristics applicable to domains other than learning Morse Code? Perhaps the most important, and certainly the most commonly discussed attribute of deliberate practice is captured by the name itself: deliberate. The subject must want to improve and must be focused upon doing so; attention must be paid and effort exerted. The other two factors outlined in the seminal paper on deliberate practice by Ericsson and colleagues are that the instructions for how to perform the task at hand be understandable and take into account the subject’s previous knowledge and that the subject receives feedback during practice that helps him/her adjust performance in the right direction. Then, the subject should repeated perform the task, adjusting when necessary and always focusing on the process.

Since mastery of a skill in a field requires on average 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, those individuals who take pleasure in practicing or who can enjoy the process are much more likely to put in the requisite hours, and pay more attention to what they are doing. Why do some people like practicing while others loathe it? The exercises that one chooses when practicing can vary in terms of the enjoyment they provide, but even rote repetition can be more or less interesting to different individuals. Ticking off repetitions can be experienced as serial micro-triumphs, or as the epitome of monotony. The mind can be engaged to different extents: the practicer can concentrate on each repetition, comparing it to previous instances, monitoring performance and observing the evoked sensations, or he/she can simply daydream and ‘check out’. Despite our innate tendency to resort to daydreaming in response to boredom, scientists have recently discovered that daydreaming or zoning out can actually lower your mood, rather than lift it. If you allow yourself to daydream during a practice session, it might, paradoxically, be less enjoyable than if you make the effort to concentrate, and battle the temptation of zoning out.

I’ve been thinking about motivation and concentration this past week because I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month - with the goal of cranking out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. For the first time in my life, I’m focusing on quantity rather than quality in an artistic pursuit. So far, I’ve written about 8,700 words, and I have no idea what use this exercise will prove to be. But the first step towards mastery is deliberate practice, and if nothing else, I’ll have resisted the temptation to procrastinate for at least several hours every day for 30 days in a row. Now that’s one habit worth developing.