How does a person become an expert? Does it require talent you’re born with, or can you become an expert through practice? And what does it mean to be an “expert” in the first place? To answer these questions, psychologist Anders Ericsson conducted groundbreaking research into the science of expertise.
“Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” (written by Ericsson and co-author Robert Pool), originally published in 2016, is worth a revisit as more of us seek new career options and flexibility, the kind that comes from having expertise.
Ericsson studied what it takes to be a standout performer in just about any endeavor. He spent decades studying how athletes, musicians, chess champions, and others achieve “peak” performance. He found that gaining a level of expertise has less to do with innate ability or natural talent than many think. Instead, Ericsson’s research indicated that deliberate, purposeful practice is the key to outstanding achievement.
In “Peak,” Ericsson explained it this way: “Those of us in the expertise field investigate what sets these exceptional people apart from everyone else… the most effective approaches to improving performance all follow a single set of general principles. We named this universal approach ‘deliberate practice.’” According to Ericsson, deliberate practice is “both purposeful and informed.”
In other words, it is not sheer effort that makes the difference, but practice with a goal in mind. Attaining expertise is guided by an understanding of the best performers’ accomplishments, and developing well-defined, specific goals to achieve a targeted performance level.
Most of us assume that to truly become an expert at something, you need some basic talent, and practice only serves to enhance that natural talent. While it is true that developing expertise in some fields can benefit from natural gifts (such as height for a basketball player), there are many areas in which practice alone is all you need. Ericsson studied musicians, for example, and followed their development throughout many years. The ones who practice more, starting early on, are more likely to excel. Those little violinists become so good at such a young age not by innate talent, but by relentless, deliberate practice.
But what about adults who want to develop more expertise in their chosen field, or perhaps achieve expertise in a new field? Ericsson’s research with adult learners demonstrated that you are never too old to learn new skills. The exciting thing for adult learners is that the brain is adaptable, and even adult brains can be trained to develop skills that didn’t exist before. Dedicated training drives changes in the brain, allowing us to discover and create our own potential.
In one of his studies with adult learners, Ericsson had participants memorize an increasingly long sequence of digits. He found that those who used a mental model could memorize a growing list of twenty, thirty, and forty plus digits without a problem. According to Ericsson, “the key to improved mental performance of almost any sort is the development of mental structures.” Those mental structures can help us deal with large amounts of information and can help us “have a picture in mind” of what excellence looks like. This helps us direct our practice.
While Ericsson’s research served as the foundation for “Peak,” the authors’ note written by Ericsson and Pool tells us that the book was a collaboration between a “psychological scientist” (Ericsson) and a “science writer” (Pool). This is what gives the book its easy readability. The statistics, research results, and data about the science of learning never become ponderous. They are well integrated with stories and examples. We get to see how the science plays out in the real world, with relatable situations from sports, the arts, education, and business. Finding ourselves in these stories, we can imagine how we might pursue excellence in similar circumstances.
Ericsson shares stories from various walks of life, emphasizing that the average person can develop skills that might seem out of reach, but are in fact attainable in remarkable ways. Developing mental models and a plan for practice can be integrated into what we’re currently doing. For example, those of us in the business and professional world can benefit by identifying top performers and determining what sets them apart, giving us a mental model of excellence. We can set goals that can be achieved through regular practice, transforming normal business activities into opportunities to develop expertise. Ericsson notes that even the most basic business meeting can offer a chance for deliberate practice.
What’s compelling about Ericsson’s research is it shows that expertise is developed in so many different fields by using the same approach. For career changers, entrepreneurs, and anyone wanting to reinvent themselves, this is inspiring. We are more adaptable than we think, and our works and hobbies need not be static; there is always the possibility of rebirth. We can develop expertise at any age, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to where we’re at today.
Our rating: 4 stars (out of 5)