talent

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.


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Testing the Water in Lake Wobegon

We all believe that we are special. At least here in the US, we are trained to think that we can do anything we set our minds to; that we have a supreme talent at something and the trick is simply to find out what that might be. A short survey of the world’s population and a basic understanding of statistics lead to a very different conclusion. Nevertheless, folk wisdom and even some recent psychological studies contend that believing in your potential and doggedly pursuing your passion will eventually lead to something good.



These days, even corporations have a hard time admitting that they are probably just average in terms of their global standing. Evidence of this reluctance to face the truth has hit the headlines and provoked the ire of a nation as CEO pay has continued to rise despite dismal company performance. The excuse? A company doesn’t want to admit that their CEO is simply average and so boards vote to pay their leaders above the market rate. Even the recent economic bubbles and the resultant crises are in part a function of overconfidence.

Psychologists and many other groups of people have known for decades that we often over-estimate our own capabilities. The ‘Lake Wobegon Effect’ permeates all sorts of skills and domains. In 1999, Justin Kruger and David Dunning from Cornell University published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showing that in tasks ranging from humor to logical reasoning, the worst performers over-estimated their own abilities the most. Subjects in their study who actually performed above-average were more accurate in their assessments of their own performance. The authors suggested that the poor performers simply didn’t understand how hard the tasks were: once they were trained such that their skill level improved, they were also more accurate in evaluating their skill level. Justin Kruger then went on to show that when a task is really hard, skilled performers underestimated their own performance, because they did not take into account the comparison group. He concludes that people are just bad at comparing themselves with others.

In 2007, another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that whether poor or skilled performers are the worst offenders in terms of comparing themselves with others depends largely on how easy or hard a task seems to be. When a task feels easy, poor performers overestimate their competence, and good performers accurately assess themselves as performing above-average. When a task feels difficult, good performers underestimate their performance and poor performers accurately admit that they are below-average.

So what’s the deal? Now that we know this effect exists, why don’t we simply re-calibrate our estimates? Before you plunge into a ‘I’m just an insignificant speck in the universe’ depression, consider this: for some reason, our brains have evolved to make us more likely to remember the good times than the bad times, to pay attention to good news more than bad news, to see ourselves in a more positive light rather than to face the fact that there are many people who are more skilled or more beautiful or more powerful. Eighty-percent of us behave like optimists; and we’re the ones whose genes have survived.
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