March 20, 2017

Everything Else

I. The Power of Purposeful Practice

I’ve found that no matter what field you study, the most effective types of practice all follow the same set of general principles

Peak opens by detailing a ground-breaking experiment that becomes the scientific support for the rest of the journey. In the 70’s, Steve Faloon, an undergraduate student at CMU was recruited for a simple experiment: memorizing as many digits as possible, each day just trying to memorize a single digit more. Steve trained two hours, three times a week committing as many single-digit numbers to his short-term memory as possible for the period of two years. Scientific research prior to this experiment had concluded that our short-term memory has an upper-bound limit of around 9–10 items (one reason why it was decided that phone numbers would be 9 digits long).

By the end, Steve Faloon had to ability to hear once & repeat back a number string of a whopping 82 digits. The expected upper-limit bound of 9 items showed itself as predicted; Steve struggled to break past 10 digits more than any other digits up to 82. Why? And how did he get past it? The researched team postulated two reasons. First, Steve subconsciously had an incredibly difficult time getting past 10 because he had been told that that was the human limit. In other words, he was anchored to that suggestion.

The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction

Second, Steve was a track athlete, which the researchers attribute to his incredibly competitive persistence. This in turn, led to him subconsciously engaging in a form of practice that we’ll come to define as purposeful practice.

It’s at this point in the opening chapter that Ericsson & Pool come to list two of the three types of practice that everyone engages in, whether consciously or subconsciously: naive, purposeful & deliberative practice (to be defined later).

Naive practice is simply participating in an activity with no specific goal, feedback system or specific details in performance. It’s the difference between playing a pick-up game with your friends versus working on a weak part of your shot with a carefully selected exercise & goal.

Purposeful practice is a another level about naive practice, & is marked by the following principles:

  • Well-defined, specific goals for each practice period
  • Focused & concentrated on specific skill
  • Involves constant feedback
  • Requires getting out of the comfort zone

With the specific goal of simply remember one more digit than the day prior, consistent feedback from the CMU researchers, & consistent levels of uncomfortable-ness (pushed to improve daily) Steve Faloon had very clearly engaged in a form or purposeful practice. So what about deliberate practice?

A few months after Faloon’s trial, another CMU undergraduate student (Dario Donatelli) was selected to partake in the experiment but with a twist: Donatelli had access to Steve Faloon. Perhaps not surprisingly, Donatelli broke the “10” mark in about a fourth of the time that Steve Faloon had progressed. How? By following, implementing & improving on the mental models that Faloon pioneered.

II. Harnessing Adaptability

Could you remember 25,000 streets? 320 routes through London? You wouldn’t think so, yet the City of London legendary cab system held this as the standard for cab drivers for decades. “Knowledge Boys,” as they were known, seemed to defy academic research on the limits of memory. Which is why Elenaor Macguire, in 1968, decided to conduct a CAT scan on 50 London cab drivers & compare them to non-cab drivers — the results came to change our current understanding of our brains elasticity.

It was a previously held belief that our brain ceases to change as we age; neurons, after our mid-twenties, no longer rewire themselves or create new connections. Macguire’s CAT scan flew directly in the face of that idea: on average, she found that cab drivers hippocampus (part of the brain in charge of memory) was enlarged by 10% — 30% compared to a control group. We’ve known of the physical body’s incredible adaptability for as long as history has told, but this scientific proof that our brain is perhaps equally malleable throughout our life span, is nothing short of revolutionary in the field of learning.

Yet, for whatever reason, evolutionary or otherwise, our body’s default is set to “stability,” to homeostasis. The body grows muscles, physical or mental whenever it’s required to in order to re-stabilize homeostasis in it’s new environment. This explains the biological importance of staying just outside your comfort zone: you need to continually push to keep the body’s compensatory changes coming. Therein lies the fundamental, logical “why” behind the effectiveness of purposeful and deliberate practice: it is, in essence a method of harnessing the adaptability of the brain and body to develop abilities that would otherwise be out of reach. Regular training leads to changes in the part of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.

In a way, we’ve known this all along: “there’s no growth in the comfort zone.” But now the biological evidence is clear for us to see, so the more important question is, how do we build a system around this knowledge that we can apply to learning any activity?

III. Mental Representations

Chess grandmasters are notorious for demonstrating remarkable feats of memory. But are they recalling the position of each piece, or are they actually remembering patterns, where the individual pieces are seen as part of a larger whole?

That’s the question Bill Chase & Herb Simon sought out to answer by putting a group of chess grandmasters, & a control group, through a series of different memory exams. When it came to remembering chess boards arrangements, patterns & piece placements, every single chess expert demonstrated extraordinary accuracy; but when it came to the rest of the memory tests, they rarely ranked above average. This realization gave way to another ground-breaking learning theory that very much comes to define the majority of deliberate practice: mental representations.

A mental representation is a mental structure that corresponds to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concert or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.

Much of deliberate practice revolves around developing evermore efficient mental representations. The more complicated an activity becomes the more neural rewiring short-cuts need to be created to compensate for the heavy mental load on our short-term memory. It’s what separates extraordinary performers from the rest of us: the complexity & quality of their mental representation from years of experience. In almost all activities, it’s a hallmark of expert performance; the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less developed mental representations.

But still it’s almost paradoxical isn’t it? The most effective form of practice involves comparing your mental representation to the ideal mental representation & minimizing the error between them, yet how are you supposed to know the the ideal mental representation from the very beginning of training an activity?

IV. The Gold Standard

The previous question shines light on the two requirements for deploying deliberate practice. First, the activity must have a well-developed & studied field where the difference in experts can be measured by a set of standard metrics. Second, you must find someone who can provide informed, specific feedback on your performance from their more-built mental representation. If those two requirements are fulfilled, then the path to deliberate practice is amazingly uniform.

Deliberate practice…

  • Develops skills that others have established and for which effective training techniques have been established
  • Always takes place outside of one’s comfort zone, at near-maximal effort
  • Involves well-defined, specific goal; not vague overall improvement
  • Is deliberate — requires persistent concentration & conscious attention
  • Involves informed feedback & appropriate modification
  • Both produces & depends on effective mental representations; this goes hand in hand with measurable modifications based on informed feedback

This is it — the basic blueprint for maximizing improvement in any pursuit: get as close to deliberate practice as possible. Every other aspect from purposeful practice still holds true, deliberate practice simply builds on it. Focused practice near maximal effort paired with specific goals for long periods of time will make almost anyone great in any activity, but it’s applying mental representations & mentors, that’ll lead to extraordinary performance.

V. Principles of Deliberate Practice on the Job

We now know how the fundamental principles we’d use to structure an effective training program for an employee or team of employees. Even better, we understand & can communicate the reasons why, “I can’t,” “I’m doing the same thing,” & “I’m putting the time” no longer cut it. It’s not because you lack innate talent, it’s because you’re not practicing the right way.

I’d like to highlight the fact that deliberate practice very much emphasizes practicing in terms of doing. There is very much a clear distinction between knowledge & skills. Because of that, particularly in a work or group environment, one must be aware that it’s much cheaper & convenient for both trainers & trainees to engage in knowledge-based practice.

VI. Principles of Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life

The most valuable part of a a teachers guidance is the ability that one learns to self-critique a specific part of an activity due to a learned mental representation. But realistically, for most of us most of the time, hiring an expert teacher for private lessons on a daily or weekly schedule is not an option. So what’s to be done?

Without a teacher

Hit Google, find the most appropriate resource that’s just past your level of comfort & engage, engage, engage. If you’re not receiving instant, specific feedback from an established mental representation, then that means that you need to pay that much more attention & focus on your own performance: where are you weakest? where are you committing the most common mistakes? A little secret from the experts here is to self-check when you feel the most pressure in performing said activity. That’s probably a weak point. Focus, provide yourself feedback, fix it, & repeat.

Motivation & plateaus

The best way to move beyond a plateau is to challenge your brain or body in a new way. Steve Faloon did this while remembering digits. Instead of recalling individual digits “9”,”5",”4," he experimented by encoding larger numbers strung together (“954”).

Peak here brilliantly re-frames our perspective of motivation by breaking it down to two driving factors: reasons to stop & reasons to continue. Once your reasons to quit outweigh your reason to continue, you quit. This means that to increase overall motivation, you need to either weaken the reasons to quit, or strengthen the reasons to continue.

VII. The Road to Extraordinary

There are no big leaps, only developments that look like big leaps to people form the outside because they haven’t seen all of the little steps that comprise them.

Beethoven, van Gogh, Newton, Einsten, Jordan, Woods — the extraordinary path-breakers. Deliberate practice applied to any skill set will certainly outperform any other form of practice, but what journey leads to pinnacle pushing performance?

According to research, a life-long plan that’s generally marked by four different stages in one’s career:

  1. Starting Out

It’s no secret: the younger you start practicing, the better off you are in any activity. But, a key point to take away here is that a dominant trait in young path-breakers is that they commonly considered their practice as nothing more than play. Parent/adult positive reinforcement is critical here as well.

2. Becoming Serious

The working motto here evolves to: practice first, play later. This is usually when the teenager first encounters a coach/mentor figure; this is also the first time that he or she must be able to maintain a minimal level of motivation.

3. Commitment

This is the next stage, that’s very rarely reached because it requires an intense level of commitment. Make no mistake, those that commit to compete at this level are those that setting the personal goal to rank among the very best. This is also the stage where our maturing participant should seek to emulate the best available mental representation.

4. Path-Breakers

It’s only the expert performers that have the opportunity to leave their fields permanently changed, which makes sense. After all, you can’t see from the shoulders of giants unless you’ve climbed there first.

VIII. But What About Natural Talent?

I can report with confidence that I never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.

It’s not only factually incorrect to claim that anyone is capped in any activity due to innate talent, but it’s also borderline rhetorically dangerous to tell this to the unprotected mind. Why? Because earlier than imaginable, it starts becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy regardless on where the evidence actually stands. Once this “truth” is accepted as a reason to quit, it’s almost impoosible to overcome. When someone’s proficiency is described as supernatural, two simple questions must be asked: what is the talent? & what were the possible practices that led to the talent?

Bottom-line: there is no magic. The hundreds of hours of deliberate (or some lesser form) practice are either present or they’re not. Can someone with more talent but practicing purposefully keep par with someone of less talent that’s practicing deliberately? For some time, sure; but in the long run, it’s a non-negotiable: the quality of practice is by far the best predictor of extraordinary performance.

IX. Where Do We Go From Here?

While creation & awareness of this learning framework is nothing short of evolutionary for the individual; we, as a society, won’t fully reap the benefits until deliberate practice is the norm in any activity that requires practice. Elementary to post-graduate education, any form of employee development & all levels of competitive sports programs, for example, now need to re-structure their teaching schedules to follow deliberate practice principles.

But what’s stopping you from trying this out on that skill you keep putting off?

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