In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell introduced the world to the 10,000-hour rule. As he described it, world class talents like Bill Gates, The Beatles and chess grandmasters attained their great prowess only after 10,000 hours of practice. The message was that if you are willing to put in the time, you can achieve greatness as well.
Well, not exactly. The 10,000-hour concept is based on the work of Anders Ericsson, who studied not just any kind of practice, but deliberate practice. To achieve a high level of excellence, you must do more than merely show up. In fact, research shows that you can actually get worse with experience.
Yet as Ericsson explains in his new book, Peak, the core principle remains valid. The only way to become a world-class performer is through practice. Consider that high schoolers today routinely perform at what would have been considered Olympic level ability a century ago and it becomes clear that natural talent only goes so far. Here’s what will take you the rest of the way.
Identify Expert Performance
The first step to achieving world class performance is to identify what it looks like. This is easier in some fields that offer clear criteria for success, like chess, many athletic endeavors and classical music, but harder in others, such as management, sales and education, where performance is subject to an enormous number of variables and contexts.
But Ericsson points out that even in hard to evaluate areas, performance can be significantly improved through deliberate practice and points to United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, otherwise known as “Top Gun,” as an example. The best US pilots are sent there to develop best practices and then share them with their squadrons at their home base, increasing the level of performance across the organization.
He also explains how the “Top Gun” approach can be applied to a variety of fields. For example, managers must perform variety of tasks, which makes overall performance difficult to evaluate and improve. However, some tasks, such as giving a PowerPoint presentation of delivering feedback to an employee, are simpler skills to identify and improve.
The key is to break down skills into “mental representations” of what great performance should look, feel and sound like. Once you have a clear idea of what top level performance is, you can get to work on improving yours.
Pinpointing Areas of Weakness
Another important element of deliberate practice is getting constant feedback on your performance so that you can identify weaknesses and begin to correct them. In some areas, like surgery, feedback is a natural part of the activity, because you know immediately know when you make an error. But in most cases, you need someone to observe and coach you.
Ericsson illustrates the concept in an article where he uses golf as an example. He explains that after 50 hours of practice, most people can become reasonably adept golfers. Yet after that, few improve. Golf becomes a social outing that they engage in for fun. They are, in some sense, practicing by putting in hours, but it doesn’t make them any better.
Professional golfers, on the other hand, work with coaches in addition to the many hours they spend practicing alone. This isn’t because they need motivation or someone to tell them what to do — you don’t get to be a professional if you aren’t able to self-motivate and know a lot about the game of golf — but to provide feedback and point out areas for improvement.
World-class performers are always working to identify their weaknesses, which is why professional athletes also spend so much time in the film room, looking for even minor flaws in their technique. The only way you can make great performance even better is to identify areas that still need work
Design Training To Improve
Creating clear mental representations and identifying weaknesses are both important, but they are useless if you don’t design training that caters specifically to the areas you need most to improve. This is where most training programs often fall short.
Think back to the way you practiced for a sport in high school. The coach probably gave you some basic instructions and led you through group drills. You may have watched some film and were able to identify some flaws in your performance, but were rarely given individual drills to perform on your own to address those flaws. That sort of training won’t get optimal results.
To see why, let’s return to the golf example. Professional golfers don’t practice by simply going out and playing 18 rounds. They repeat specific shots over and over, paying special attention to the ones they tend to miss. This is really hard work, which is why so few people ever subject themselves to it and become among the best at what they do.
As a competitive athlete, one thing I noticed as I progressed was that drilling the basics became a bigger part of training. In high school wrestling, we mostly just learned different moves and relied on athletic ability to make the difference. But in college, the focus shifted drilling on our own. When I began to work out at the Foxcatcher training center, I noticed that the Olympians were spending even more time perfecting the most basic techniques.
How Deliberate Practice Can Improve Your Organization’s Performance
Go through Ericsson’s work and it becomes clear that many of the principles apply not only to individual performance, but organizations as well. We desperately need to improve the way organizations are designed and managed.
Most professionals go through four years of college, then some initial on-the-job training and then maybe some intermittent seminars and offsites that focus on building skills. The notion of consistent practice, however, is largely absent from the corporate world. You are rated by things like title and responsibility, but rarely skills.
That’s a pretty large oversight, especially considering the fact that once you’ve been in the workforce more than a decade, most of the skills you learned as a student and entry level employee are out of date. Without consistent practice, skills decay and performance declines. So the longer you’ve been at your job, the worse you probably are at it.
The absence of practice also leaves an enormous opportunity on the table. One finding of Ericsson’s work that is rarely talked about is that there is no limit for improvement. After more than a century, Olympic records are consistently broken every four years. In every event, each generation of athletes performs better than the last.
Yet strangely, we don’t expect the same type of improvement in our professional lives. Like weekend golfers, most of us learn enough skills to get by and then never improve beyond that. We can do better.