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managing books


  • By Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
  • (Viking, 307 pages, $26.75)

Anders Ericsson has spent a lifetime studying peak performers. Why was Mozart so adept a composer? When seven digits are considered the norm for us to remember, how can some people recall a string of hundreds of digits? What makes a violin virtuoso?

A professor of psychology at Florida State University, his research hit the zeitgeist when journalist Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, referred to him when declaring it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in most fields. Unfortunately, that isn't entirely true. It was an average, based on a study of violinists, with half of them falling short of that number. The book also referred to their progress by age 20 – yet when they began to win international music competitions at the age of 30, they had put in 20,000 to 25,000 hours of practice. Most important, Prof. Ericsson points out, you can practice for far more hours than that and be ineffective if your effort is unfocused.

In Peak, Prof. Ericsson, with journalist Robert Pool, sets the record straight. He debunks the notion that success comes from natural ability, providing many examples that seem to typify that belief, but where the amount of hard work to achieve success has been missed or underestimated.

To be successful, we need a growth mindset – a belief that more is achievable – and the determination to shape our brain to learn, and perfect, the new skills required. Adult pianists have more grey matter in certain regions of the brain than non-musicians, with the difference resulting from practice in childhood. London taxicab drivers, who must travel the complex roadway structure of that British city, have a larger rear part of the hippocampus than the average person, the hippocampus being crucial to spatial navigation.

Experts perceive patterns in their field better than others. A chess grandmaster has an edge because he or she can glance at the board and see how the game will play out under different situations. These patterns, or mental representations as Prof. Ericsson calls them, result from years of practice that change the neural circuitry of their brains.

"In pretty much every area, a hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less developed mental representations. In other words, experts see the forest when everyone else sees only trees," he said.

But these advances don't come from just any type of practice. The gold standard is deliberate practice, which involves a coach drawing from a highly developed body of knowledge about the best way to teach the skills, focused effort by you in the practice sessions, feedback and long, gruelling sessions that push you past your comfort zone.

That isn't available in all fields – he cites management as an example – but you can still try purposeful practice, applying as much of the formula as possible. This will usually involve identifying expert performers and figuring out what makes them so good, and then coming up with training techniques to improve on those skills. But he stresses the importance of clarity: "Be careful when identifying expert performers. Ideally you want some objective measure of performance with which to compare other people's abilities."

Stories abound in the book of performers in music, the arts and sports. One person – commercial photographer Dan McLaughlin – decided at age 30 to become a PGA golfer, despite never playing much golf. After 6,000 hours of deliberate practice, he now has a decent handicap fluctuating between three and four. But most of us would be more inclined to apply the ideas to our duties at work. That starts with questioning the consultants and coaches eager to come to your aid. "Of all the myriad approaches out there, the ones most likely to succeed are ones that most resemble deliberate practice," he stressed.

Succeeding means pushing past beliefs that your abilities are limited in some way. You may believe you're not creative. But you can be, with deliberate practice. "Anyone can improve, but it requires the right approach. If you are not improving, it's not because you lack innate talent; it's because you're not practising the right way. Once you understand this, improvement becomes a matter of figuring out what the 'right way' is," he said.

Business people are very busy and often believe there is no chance to practice their skills. But it is possible to treat everything from making presentations to interviewing job candidates as practice sessions, setting out goals for improvement, pushing beyond your comfort zone and arranging for feedback to ensure continuous improvement. Keep in mind that improvement comes from more polished skills rather than more knowledge. Too often our training reverses that, focusing on knowledge at the expense of skills.

The book is easy reading and richly detailed, taking you step by step through the elements of deliberate practice with ample examples, and ending with a look at how this might be applied in schools and universities. It's thought-provoking, and might allow you to improve your skills and help others do the same.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter


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Harvey Schachter