Let’s face it – some people are able to do much better than us. In fact, some people are consistently much better than us at pretty much anything they choose. How do these people continually get better and outperform others? Is it some natural talent or is it hard work?
We believe you have to have some base talent and then you have to work hard towards continuous improvement. In his latest book Peak, performance guru Anders Ericsson argues, “If you don’t try hard, no matter how much talent you have, there’s always going to be someone else who has a similar amount of talent who outworks you, and therefore outperforms you”.
And here’s something comforting, “With the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.”
Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. Not just volume of practice but the quality and the nature of the practice. What we tend to call talent, is in fact more of an accumulation of ability that is caused by, what Ericsson calls, deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. Which helps explain why a pianist from 80 or 100 years ago who was considered the gold standard is now considered not very good, because the instruction is built on top of itself to get people better faster. Same thing in sports, where new techniques will allow individuals to reach kind of a higher level and practice more effectively than previous generations.
Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable. If you’re just doing things that feel comfortable and go out and jog, we basically won’t change. In order to actually change your aerobic ability, people now know that the only way you can do that is if you practice now at a heart rate that is above 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. So it would be maybe around 140 for a young adult. And you have to do that for about 30 minutes at least two or three times a week. If you practice at a lower intensity, the body will actually not develop this difficult, challenging biochemical situation, which will elicit now genes to create physiological adaptations.
Similarly, when you are preparing for tough exams, you need to practice at or above your proficiency level. You have to be constantly challenged. You also need feedback in order to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you should be making. If you don’t have a clear criterion here for what it is that you were doing, then it’s unclear how you actually are going to improve if you get subsequent opportunities to do the same thing. So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.
People who continue to get better never allow themselves to go on automatic pilot; they’re continually breaking down the element they are trying to do and working on pieces and then putting it back together.
To learn more about deliberate practice, you can listen to this wonderful coverage by Freakonomics Radio.