Anders Ericsson became famous for his work on what he called "deliberate practice", a set of recipes that could help someone gain expertise in an area. In this readable and well-researched book he expands upon this concept and brings several time-tested and scientifically reviewed ideas to bear on the search for perfection in our lives. Ericsson and his co-author Robert Pool are good storytellers and they pepper their ideas with dozens of case studies and examples from diverse fields like music, sports and medicine.
In the first part of the book Ericsson dispels the myth that most "prodigies" or experts achieve what they do by innate talent. I thought he was a bit biased against the truly brilliant individuals like Mozart which humanity has produced, but he makes the good point that even Mozart adopted certain strategies and worked very hard - often helped by his father - to become famous. Similarly Ericsson examines several other extraordinary individuals mainly in the realm of sports, music and recreational arithmetic such as Paginini, Picasso and Bobby Fischer and tells us of their intense and often grueling routine of practice. What he perhaps fails to mention is that even the intense ability to focus or to work repeatedly with improvement has an innate component to it. I would have appreciated his take on recent neuroscience studies investigating factors like concentration and mental stamina.
Once the myth of some kind of an innate, unreachable genius is put to rest, Ericsson explains the difference between 'ordinary' practice and 'deliberate' practice. In this difference lies the seed for the rest of the book. When it comes to deliberate practice, the key words are focus, feedback, specific goals and mental representations. Unlike 'naive' practice which involves doing the same thing again and again and expecting improvement, deliberate practice involves setting specific goals for oneself, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, making mental representations of paths leading to success, getting out of your comfort zone and getting constant feedback.
Much of the book focuses on those key last three factors. Mental representations are patterns or heuristics that allow you to become successful in a task and do it repeatedly with improvement. Ericsson provides examples from calculating prodigies and chess grandmasters to illustrate the utility and power of mental representations. Getting out of your comfort zone may sound obvious but it's equally important; helped in his narrative by neuroscience studies which illustrate how the brain strengthens neural connections in certain areas when you push yourself, Ericsson provides good tips for exerting yourself just a little bit more than you did the previous time when you attempt to get better at a task.
Lastly, he shows us how getting constant feedback on results is of paramount importance in becoming an expert. Ericsson calls this the 'Top Gun' method based on a reference to the elite US Navy pilots who became much better when they got feedback on their combat maneuvers at the Navy's Top Gun flight school. The lack of feedback can explain many seemingly paradoxical results. For instance Ericsson spends several pages describing studies showing that more experienced doctors aren't always necessarily better at diagnosis, mainly because they often work alone, don't change their methods and have no peers to provide feedback; in a nutshell, the work they put in daily contributes to ordinary practice but not deliberate practice. Doctors who made positive changes in all three areas were much better, and so can the rest of us. In fact it is startling to realize how little feedback we get from our daily work. Other studies from the areas of motivational speaking and business management showed similar trends; breaking up jobs into parcels and getting regular feedback on these can make an enormous difference.
As an aside, Ericsson offers a good critique of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" in which Gladwell made the "ten thousand hour rule" so popular; Ericsson cautions us that Gladwell misunderstood many details of that rule including its limited utility as an average and its inapplicability to some of the examples he cites in his book.
Overall I found the book very readable and interesting, with scores of recognizable and thought-provoking examples thrown in. The only caveat to deliberate practice is one Ericsson himself states in the middle of the book: it is mainly applicable only to "highly developed fields" like sports or music where there have been hundreds of years of published and known case studies and data and widely agreed upon metrics for the field, and where there are several world-class experts to whom one can compare themselves when trying to improve. Ericsson himself states that the principles for deliberate practice don't work as well for professions like "engineer, teacher, consultant, electrician and business manager". I would think that these professional titles apply to millions of people around the planet, so those people will probably benefit a bit less from Ericsson's principles. Nonetheless, in a world constantly competing with itself, Ericsson's book offers some timely and well-researched advice for self-improvement.
- Paperback: 307 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (11 April 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0544947223
- ISBN-13: 978-0544947221
- Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.2 x 20.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 295 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 30,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)