In just our fourth session together, Steve was already beginning to sound discouraged. It was Thursday of the first week of an experiment that I had expected to last for two or three months, but from what Steve was telling me, it might not make much sense to go on. “There appears to be a limit for me somewhere around eight or nine digits,” he told me, his words captured by the tape recorder that ran throughout each of our sessions. “With nine digits especially, it’s very difficult to get regardless of what pattern I use—you know, my own kind of strategies. It really doesn’t matter what I use—it seems very difficult to get.”
Steve, an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, where I was teaching at the time, had been hired to come in several times a week and work on a simple task: memorizing strings of numbers. I would read him a series of digits at a rate of about one per second—“Seven ... four ... zero ... one ... one ... nine ...” and so on—and Steve would try to remember them all and repeat them back to me once I was done. One goal was simply to see how much Steve could improve with practice. Now, after four of the hour-long sessions, he could reliably recall seven-digit strings—the length of a local phone number—and he usually got the eight-digit strings right, but nine digits was hit or miss, and he had never managed to remember a 10-digit string at all. And at this point, given his frustrating experience over the first few sessions, he was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to get any better.
What Steve didn’t know—but I did—was that pretty much all of psychological science at the time indicated that he was right. Decades of research had shown that there is a strict limit to the number of items that a person can retain in short-term memory, which is the type of memory the brain uses to hold on to small amounts of information for a brief period of time. If a friend gives you his address, it is your short-term memory that holds on to it just long enough to write it down. Or if you’re multiplying a couple of two-digit numbers in your head, your short-term memory is where you keep track of all the intermediate pieces: “Let’s see: 14 times 27 ... First, 4 times 7 is 28, so keep the 8 and carry the 2, then 4 times 2 is 8 ...” and so on. And there’s a reason it’s called “short-term.” You’re not going to remember that address or those intermediate numbers five minutes later unless you spend the time repeating them to yourself over and over again—and thus transfer them into your long-term memory.
The problem with short-term memory—and the problem that Steve was coming face-to-face with—is that the brain has strict limits on how many items it can hold in short-term memory at once. For some it is six items, for others it may be seven or eight, but the limit is generally about seven items—enough to hold on to a local phone number but not a Social Security number. Long-term memory doesn’t have the same limitations—in fact, no one has ever found the upper limits of long-term memory—but it takes much longer to deploy. Given enough time to work on it, you can memorize dozens or even hundreds of phone numbers, but the test I was giving Steve was designed to present digits so fast that he was forced to use only his short-term memory. I was reading the digits at a rate of one per second—too fast for him to transfer the digits into his long-term memory—so it was no surprise that he was running into a wall at numbers that were about eight or nine digits long.
Still, I hoped he might be able to do a little better. The idea for the study had come from an obscure paper I had discovered while searching through old scientific studies, a paper published in a 1929 issue of the American Journal of Psychology by Pauline Martin and Samuel Fernberger, two psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania. Martin and Fernberger reported that two undergraduate subjects had been able, with four months of practice, to increase the number of digits they could remember when given the digits at a rate of about one per second. One of the students had improved from an average of nine digits to 13, while the other had gone from 11 to 15.
I have devoted my career to understanding exactly how practice works to create new and expanded capabilities.
This result had been overlooked or forgotten by the broader psychological research community, but it immediately captured my attention. Was this sort of improvement really even possible? And, if so, how was it possible? Martin and Fernberger had offered no details about how the students had improved their digit memory, but that was exactly the sort of question that most intrigued me. At the time, I was just out of graduate school, and my main area of interest was the mental processes that take place when someone is learning something or developing a skill. For my dissertation I had honed a psychological research tool called “the think-aloud protocol” that was designed specifically to study such mental processes. So in collaboration with Bill Chase, a well-known Carnegie Mellon psychology professor, I set out to redo the old Martin and Fernberger study, and this time I would be watching to see exactly how our subject improved his digit memory—if indeed he did.
The subject we had recruited was Steve Faloon, who was about as typical a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate as we could have hoped to find. He was a psychology major who was interested in early childhood development. He had just finished his junior year. His scores on achievement tests were similar to those of other Carnegie Mellon students, while his grades were somewhat higher than average. Tall and thin with thick, dark-blond hair, he was friendly, outgoing, and enthusiastic. And he was a serious runner.
On the first day that Steve showed up for the memory work, his performance was dead-on average. He could usually remember seven digits and sometimes eight but no more. It was the same sort of performance you would expect from any random person picked off the street. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday he was a little better—an average of just under nine digits—but still no better than normal. Steve said he thought that the main difference from the first day was that he knew what to expect from the memory test and thus was more comfortable. It was at the end of that Thursday’s session that Steve explained to me why he thought he was unlikely to get any better.
Then on Friday something happened that would change everything. Steve found a way to break through. The training sessions went like this: I would start with a random five-digit string, and if Steve got it right (which he always did), I would go to six digits. If he got that right, we’d go to seven digits, and so on, increasing the length of the string by one each time he got it right. If he got it wrong, I would drop the length of the string by two and go again. In this way Steve was constantly challenged, but not too much. He was given strings of digits that were right at the boundary between what he could and couldn’t do.
And on that Friday, Steve moved the boundary. Up to that point he had remembered a nine-digit string correctly only a handful of times, and he had never remembered a 10-digit string correctly, so he had never even had a chance to try strings of 11 digits or longer. But he began that fifth session on a roll. He got the first three tries—five, six, and seven digits—right without a problem, missed the fourth one, then got back on track: six digits, right; seven digits, right; eight digits, right; nine digits, right. Then I read out a 10-digit number—5718866610—and he nailed that one as well. He missed the next string with 11 digits, but after he got another nine digits and another 10 digits right, I read him a second 11-digit string—90756629867—and this time he repeated the whole thing back to me without a hitch. It was two digits more than he had ever gotten right before, and although an additional two digits may not seem particularly impressive, it was actually a major accomplishment because the past several days had established that Steve had a “natural” ceiling—the number of digits he could comfortably hold in his short-term memory—of only eight or nine. He had found a way to push through that ceiling.
That was the beginning of what was to be the most surprising two years of my career. From this point on, Steve slowly but steadily improved his ability to remember strings of digits. By the 60th session he was able to consistently remember 20 digits—far more than Bill and I had imagined he ever could. After a little more than 100 sessions, he was up to 40, which was more than anyone, even professional mnemonists, had ever achieved, and still he kept going. He worked with me for more than 200 training sessions, and by the end he had reached 82 digits—82! If you think about that for a moment, you’ll realize just how incredible this memory ability truly is. Here are 82 random digits:
Imagine hearing all of those read out to you at one per second and being able to remember them all. This is what Steve Faloon taught himself to do over the two years of our experiment—all without even knowing it was possible, just by continuing to work on it week after week.
The rise of extraordinary performers
In 1908 Johnny Hayes won the Olympic marathon in what a spectator described as “the greatest race of the century.” Hayes’s winning time, which set a world record for the marathon, was 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 18 seconds.
Today, barely more than a century later, the world record for a marathon is 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds—nearly 30 percent faster than Hayes’s record time—and if you’re an 18- to 34-year-old male, you aren’t even allowed to enter the Boston Marathon unless you’ve run another marathon in less than 3 hours, 5 minutes. In short, Hayes’s world-record time in 1908 would qualify him for today’s Boston Marathon (which has about 30,000 runners) but with not a lot to spare.
That same 1908 Summer Olympics saw a near disaster in the men’s diving competition. One of the divers barely avoided serious injury while attempting a double somersault, and an official report released a few months later concluded that the dive was simply too dangerous and recommended that it be banned from future Olympic Games. Today the double somersault is an entry-level dive, with 10-year-olds nailing it in competitions, and by high school the best divers are doing four and a half somersaults. World-class competitors take it even further with dives such as “the Twister”—two and a half backward somersaults with two and a half twists added. It’s difficult to imagine what those early 20th-century experts who found the double-somersault dive too dangerous would have thought about the Twister, but my guess is that they would have dismissed it as laughably impossible—assuming, that is, that someone would have had the imagination and the audacity to suggest it in the first place.
We live in a world full of people with extraordinary abilities—abilities that from the vantage point of almost any other time in human history would have been deemed impossible.
In the early 1930s Alfred Cortot was one of the best-known classical musicians in the world, and his recordings of Chopin’s “24 Études” were considered the definitive interpretation. Today teachers offer those same performances—sloppy and marred by missed notes—as an example of how not to play Chopin, with critics complaining about Cortot’s careless technique, and any professional pianist is expected to be able to perform the études with far greater technical skill and élan than Cortot. Indeed, Anthony Tommasini, the music critic at The New York Times, once commented that musical ability has increased so much since Cortot’s time that Cortot would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now.
In 1973 David Richard Spencer of Canada had memorized more digits of pi than any person before him: 511. Five years later, after a rapid-fire series of new records set by a handful of people competing to claim the memorization title, the record belonged to an American, David Sanker, who had committed 10,000 digits of pi to memory. In 2015, after another 30-plus years of gains, the recognized title holder was Rajveer Meena of India, who had memorized the first 70,000 digits of pi—an accumulation that took him 9 hours and 7 minutes to recite—although Akira Haraguchi of Japan had claimed to have memorized an even more incredible 100,000 digits, or nearly 200 times as many as anyone had memorized just 42 years earlier.
These are not isolated examples. We live in a world full of people with extraordinary abilities—abilities that from the vantage point of almost any other time in human history would have been deemed impossible. Consider Roger Federer’s magic with a tennis ball, or the astounding vault that McKayla Maroney nailed in the 2012 Summer Olympics: a round-off onto the springboard, a back handspring onto the vault, and then a high, arching flight with McKayla completing two and a half twists before she landed firmly and with complete control on the mat. There are chess grandmasters who can play several dozen different games simultaneously—while blindfolded—and a seemingly unending supply of young musical prodigies who can do things on the piano, the violin, the cello, or the flute that would have astonished aficionados a century ago.
But while the abilities are extraordinary, there is no mystery at all about how these people developed them. They practiced. A lot. The world-record time in the marathon wasn’t cut by 30 percent over the course of a century because people were being born with a greater talent for running long distances. Nor did the second half of the 20th century see some sudden surge in the births of people with a gift for playing Chopin or Rachmaninoff or for memorizing tens of thousands of random digits.
What the second half of the 20th century did see was a steady increase in the amount of time that people in different areas devoted to training, combined with a growing sophistication of training techniques. This was true in a huge number of fields, particularly highly competitive fields such as musical performance and dance, individual and team sports, and chess and other competitive games. This increase in the amount and sophistication of practice resulted in a steady improvement in the abilities of the performers in these various fields—an improvement that was not always obvious from year to year but that is dramatic when viewed over the course of several decades.
One of the best, if sometimes bizarre, places to see the results of this sort of practice is in Guinness World Records. Flip through the pages of the book or visit the online version, and you will find such record holders as the American teacher Barbara Blackburn, who can type up to 212 words per minute; Marko Baloh of Slovenia, who once rode 562 miles on a bicycle in 24 hours; and Vikas Sharma of India, who in just one minute was able to calculate the roots of 12 large numbers, each with between 20 and 51 digits, with the roots ranging from the 17th to the 50th root. That last may be the most impressive of all of them because Sharma was able to perform 12 exceedingly difficult mental calculations in just 60 seconds—faster than many people could punch the numbers into a calculator and read off the answers.
I actually received an e-mail from one Guinness world record holder, Bob J. Fisher, who at one time held 12 different world records for basketball free-throw shooting. His records include such things as the most free throws accomplished in 30 seconds (33), the most in 10 minutes (448), and the most in one hour (2,371). Bob wrote to tell me that he had read about my studies of the effects of practice and had applied what he had learned from those studies in developing his ability to shoot basketball free throws faster than anyone else.
The most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible.
Those studies all have their roots in the work that I did with Steve Faloon in the late 1970s. Since that time I have devoted my career to understanding exactly how practice works to create new and expanded capabilities, with a particular focus on those people who have used practice to become among the best in the world at what they do. And after several decades of studying these best of the best—these “expert performers,” to use the technical term—I have found that no matter what field you study, music or sports or chess or something else, the most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles.
There is no obvious reason why this should be the case. Why should the teaching techniques used to turn aspiring musicians into concert pianists have anything to do with the training that a dancer must go through to become a prima ballerina or the study that a chess player must undertake to become a grandmaster? The answer is that the most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible. If you wish to develop a truly effective training method for anything—creating world-class gymnasts, for instance, or even something like teaching doctors to perform laparoscopic surgery—that method will need to take into account what works and what doesn’t in driving changes in the body and brain. Thus, all truly effective practice techniques work in essentially the same way.
These insights are all relatively new and weren’t available to all the teachers, coaches, and performers who produced the incredible improvements in performance that have occurred over the past century. Instead, these advances were all accomplished through trial and error, with the people involved having essentially no idea why a particular training method might be effective. Furthermore, the practitioners in the various fields built their bodies of knowledge in isolation, with no sense that all of this was interconnected—that the ice-skater who was working on a triple axel was following the same set of general principles as, say, the pianist working to perfect a Mozart sonata. So imagine what might be possible with efforts that are inspired and directed by a clear scientific understanding of the best ways to build expertise. And imagine what might be possible if we applied the techniques that have proved to be so effective in sports and music and chess to all the different types of learning that people do, from the education of schoolchildren to the training of doctors, engineers, pilots, businesspeople, and workers of every sort. I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice.
There are various sorts of practice that can be effective to one degree or another, but one particular form—which I named “deliberate practice” back in the early 1990s—is the gold standard. It is the most effective and powerful form of practice that we know of, and applying the principles of deliberate practice is the best way to design practice methods in any area. But before we delve into the details of deliberate practice, it will be best if we spend a little time understanding some more basic types of practice—the sorts of practice that most people have already experienced in one way or another.
The usual approach
Let’s begin by looking at the way people typically learn a new skill—driving a car, playing the piano, performing long division, drawing a human figure, writing code, or pretty much anything, really. For the sake of having a specific example, let’s suppose you are learning to play tennis.
You’ve seen tennis matches played on television, and it looks like fun, or maybe you have some friends who play tennis and want you to join them. So you buy a couple of tennis outfits, court shoes, maybe a sweatband, and a racket and some balls. Now you’re committed, but you don’t know the first thing about actually playing tennis—you don’t even know how to hold the racket—so you pay for some lessons from a tennis coach or maybe you just ask one of your friends to show you the basics. After those initial lessons you know enough to go out on your own and practice. You’ll probably spend some time working on your serve, and you practice hitting the ball against a wall over and over again until you’re pretty sure you can hold your own in a game against a wall. After that you go back to your coach or your friend for another lesson, and then you practice some more, and then another lesson, more practice, and after a while you’ve reached the point where you feel competent enough to play against other people. You’re still not very good, but your friends are patient, and everyone has a good time. You keep practicing on your own and getting a lesson every now and then, and over time the really embarrassing mistakes—like swinging and missing the ball completely or hitting the ball very solidly straight into your doubles partner’s back—become more and more rare. You get better with the various strokes, even the backhand, and occasionally, when everything comes together just so, you even end up hitting the ball like a pro (or so you tell yourself). You have reached a comfort level at which you can just go out and have fun playing the game. You pretty much know what you’re doing, and the strokes have become automatic. You don’t have to think too much about any of it. So you play weekend after weekend with your friends, enjoying the game and the exercise. You have become a tennis player. That is, you have “learned” tennis in the traditional sense, where the goal is to reach a point at which everything becomes automatic and an acceptable performance is possible with relatively little thought, so that you can just relax and enjoy the game.
At this point, even if you’re not completely satisfied with your level of play, your improvement stalls. You have mastered the easy stuff.
But, as you quickly discover, you still have weaknesses that don’t disappear no matter how often you play with your friends. Perhaps, for example, every time you use a backstroke to hit a ball that is coming in chest-high with a bit of spin, you miss the shot. You know this, and the cagier of your opponents have noticed this too, so it is frustrating. However, because it doesn’t happen very often and you never know when it’s coming, you never get a chance to consciously work on it, so you keep missing the shot in exactly the same way as you manage to hit other shots—automatically.
We all follow pretty much the same pattern with any skill we learn, from baking a pie to writing a descriptive paragraph. We start off with a general idea of what we want to do, get some instruction from a teacher or a coach or a book or a website, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For much of what we do in life, it’s perfectly fine to reach a middling level of performance and just leave it like that. If all you want to do is to safely drive your car from point A to point B or to play the piano well enough to plink out “Für Elise,” then this approach to learning is all you need.
No matter what you’re trying to do, you need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short.
But there is one very important thing to understand here: Once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance—your driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies—you have stopped improving. People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless. They assume that someone who has been driving for 20 years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been practicing medicine for 20 years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for 20 years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.
But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for 20 years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.
So what do you do if you’re not satisfied with this automated level of performance? What if you are a teacher with 10 years in the classroom and you want to do something to better engage your students and get your lessons across more effectively? A weekend golfer and you would like to move beyond your 18 handicap? An advertising copywriter and you want to add a little wow to your words?
This is the same situation that Steve Faloon found himself in after just a couple of sessions. At that point he had become comfortable with the task of hearing a string of digits, holding them in his memory, and repeating them back to me, and he was performing about as well as could be expected, given what is known about the limitations of short-term memory. He could have just kept doing what he was doing and maxing out at eight or nine digits, session after session. But he didn’t, because he was participating in an experiment in which he was constantly being challenged to remember just one more digit than the last time, and because he was naturally the sort of guy who liked this sort of challenge, Steve pushed himself to get better.
The approach that he took, which we will call “purposeful practice,” turned out to be incredibly successful for him. It isn’t always so successful, as we shall see, but it is more effective than the usual just-enough method—and it is a step toward deliberate practice, which is our ultimate goal.
Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.
Steve Oare, a specialist in music education at Wichita State University, once offered the following imaginary conversation between a music instructor and a young music student. It’s the sort of conversation about practice that music instructors have all the time. In this case a teacher is trying to figure out why a young student has not been improving:
Teacher: Your practice sheet says that you practice an hour a day, but your playing test was only a C. Can you explain why?
Student: I don’t know what happened! I could play the test last night!
Teacher: How many times did you play it?
Student: Ten or 20.
Teacher: How many times did you play it correctly?
Student: Umm, I dunno ... Once or twice ...
Teacher: Hmm ... How did you practice it?
Student: I dunno. I just played it.
This is naive practice in a nutshell: I just played it. I just swung the bat and tried to hit the ball. I just listened to the numbers and tried to remember them. I just read the math problems and tried to solve them.
Purposeful practice is, as the term implies, much more purposeful, thoughtful, and focused than this sort of naive practice. In particular, it has the following characteristics:
Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. Our hypothetical music student would have been much more successful with a practice goal something like this: “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge whether the practice session had been a success.
In Steve’s case there was no long-range goal because none of us knew how many digits one could possibly memorize, but he had a very specific short-term goal: to remember more digits than he had the previous session. As a distance runner, Steve was very competitive, even if he was only competing with himself, and he brought that attitude to the experiment. From the very beginning Steve was pushing each day to increase the number of digits he could remember.
Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal. If you’re a weekend golfer and you want to decrease your handicap by five strokes, that’s fine for an overall purpose, but it is not a well-defined, specific goal that can be used effectively for your practice. Break it down and make a plan: What exactly do you need to do to slice five strokes off your handicap? One goal might be to increase the number of drives landing in the fairway. That’s a reasonably specific goal, but you need to break it down even more: What exactly will you do to increase the number of successful drives? You will need to figure out why so many of your drives are not landing in the fairway and address that by, for instance, working to reduce your tendency to hook the ball. How do you do that? An instructor can give you advice on how to change your swing motion in specific ways. And so on. The key thing is to take that general goal—get better—and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.
Purposeful practice is focused. Unlike the music student that Oare described, Steve Faloon was focused on his task from the very beginning, and his focus grew as the experiment went along and he was memorizing longer and longer strings of digits. You can get a sense of this focus by listening to the tape of session 115, which came about halfway through the study. Steve had regularly been remembering strings of close to 40 digits, but 40 itself was not something he could yet do with any consistency, and he really wanted to reach 40 regularly on this day. We began with 35 digits, which was easy for him, and he started pumping himself up as the strings increased in length. Before I read the 39-digit string, he gave himself an excited pep talk, seemingly conscious of nothing but the approaching task: “We have a big day here! ... I haven’t missed one yet, have I? No! ... This will be a banner day!” He was silent during the 40 seconds it took me to read out the numbers, but then, as he carefully went over the digits in his head, remembering various groups of them and the order in which they appeared, he could barely contain himself. He hit the table loudly a number of times, and he clapped a lot, apparently in celebration of remembering this or that group of digits or where they went in the string. Once he blurted out, “Absolutely right! I’m certain!” And when he finally spit the digits back at me, he was indeed right, so we moved on to 40. Again, the pep talk: “Now this is the big one! If I get past this one, it’s all over! I have to get past this one!” Again the silence as I read the digits, and then the excited noises and exclamations as he cogitated. “Wow! ... Come on now! ... All right! ... Go!” He got that one right as well, and the session indeed became one in which he regularly hit 40 digits, although no more.
Now, not everyone will focus by hollering and pounding on a table, but Steve’s performance illustrates a key insight from the study of effective practice: You seldom improve much without giving the task your full attention.
Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong. In Oare’s example the music student got belated feedback at school with a C on the performance test, but there seems to have been no feedback during practice—no one listening and pointing out mistakes, with the student seemingly clueless about whether there were errors in the practice. (“How many times did you play it correctly?” “Umm, I dunno ... Once or twice ...”)
In our memory study, Steve got simple, direct feedback after every attempt—correct or incorrect, success or failure. He always knew where he stood. But perhaps the more important feedback was something that he did himself. He paid close attention to which aspects of a string of digits caused him problems. If he’d gotten the string wrong, he usually knew exactly why and which digits he had messed up on. Even if he got the string correct, he could report to me afterward which digits had given him trouble and which had been no problem. By recognizing where his weaknesses were, he could switch his focus appropriately and come up with new memorization techniques that would address those weaknesses.
Generally speaking, no matter what you’re trying to do, you need feedback to identify exactly where and how you are falling short. Without feedback—either from yourself or from outside observers—you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.
Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice. Oare’s music student shows no sign of ever pushing himself beyond what was familiar and comfortable. Instead, the student’s words seem to imply a rather desultory attempt at practice, with no effort to do more than what was already easy for him. That approach just doesn’t work.
Our memory experiment was set up to keep Steve from getting too comfortable. As he increased his memory capacity, I would challenge him with longer and longer strings of digits so that he was always close to his capacity. In particular, by increasing the number of digits each time he got a string right, and decreasing the number when he got it wrong, I kept the number of digits right around what he was capable of doing while always pushing him to remember just one more digit.
This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve. The amateur pianist who took half a dozen years of lessons when he was a teenager but who for the past 30 years has been playing the same set of songs in exactly the same way over and over again may have accumulated 10,000 hours of “practice” during that time, but he is no better at playing the piano than he was 30 years ago. Indeed, he’s probably gotten worse.
We have especially strong evidence of this phenomenon as it applies to physicians. Research on many specialties shows that doctors who have been in practice for 20 or 30 years do worse on certain objective measures of performance than those who are just two or three years out of medical school. It turns out that most of what doctors do in their day-to-day practice does nothing to improve or even maintain their abilities; little of it challenges them or pushes them out of their comfort zones. For that reason, I participated in a consensus conference in 2015 to identify new types of continuing medical education that will challenge doctors and help them maintain and improve their skills.
Getting out of your comfort zone means trying to do something that you couldn’t do before. Sometimes you may find it relatively easy to accomplish that new thing, and then you keep pushing on. But sometimes you run into something that stops you cold and it seems like you’ll never be able to do it. Finding ways around these barriers is one of the hidden keys to purposeful practice.
Generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” It is a technique issue, in other words. In Steve’s case, one barrier came when he hit 22 digits. He was grouping them into four four-digit groups, which he used various mnemonic tricks to remember, plus a six-digit rehearsal group at the end that he would repeat over and over to himself until he could remember it by the sound of the numbers. But he couldn’t figure out how to get past 22 digits, because when he tried to hold five four-digit groups in his head, he became confused about their order. He eventually hit upon the idea of using both three-digit groups and four-digit groups, a breakthrough that eventually allowed him to work up to using four four-digit groups, four three-digit groups, and a six-digit rehearsal group, for a maximum of 34 digits. Then, once he reached that limit, he had to develop another technique. This was a regular pattern throughout the entire memory study: Steve would improve up to a point, get stuck, look around for a different approach that could help him get past the barrier, find it, and then improve steadily until another barrier arose.
The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them.
K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., is Conradi Eminent Scholar and a professor of psychology at Florida State University. He studies expert performance in domains such as music, chess, medicine, and sports. His groundbreaking work has been cited in bestsellers from Moonwalking With Einstein to Blink to How Children Succeed.
Robert Pool has worked at Science and Nature, and has been published in Discover and Technology Review, among others. His books include Eve’s Rib: Searching for the Biological Roots of Sex Differences and Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology.
Excerpted from PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Copyright © 2016 by K. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Lead photo: Cultura RM Exclusive/Phil Fisk