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I’ve always had this vision of what it’s like to be an expert at your craft – a virtuoso musician, or a top astrophysicist, or a professional basketball player.
Every day you wake up psyched to get back to work, and while you’re practicing, you’re in a state of complete bliss – there’s nothing you’d rather be doing at this moment.
Unfortunately, that vision might not jibe with the reality of becoming the best in your field.
I recently spoke with Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University who specializes, among other topics, in the science of peak performance.
Ericsson and his colleagues suggest that the only way to reach expert status is to engage in “deliberate practice,” a process that involves trying activities beyond your current abilities and working with a teacher who gives regular feedback on your performance.
A key characteristic of deliberate practice is that it’s effortful – which means that it’s generally not enjoyable.
In his new book, “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” cowritten with the journalist Robert Pool, Ericsson highlights findings from a study of violinists that he published in 1993. Ericsson and Pool write:
One of our most significant findings was that most factors the students had identified as being important to improvement were also seen as labor-intensive and not much fun; the only exceptions were listening to music and sleeping. Everyone from the very top students to the future music students agreed: Improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work they did to improve.
These students were motivated to practice only because they saw the light at the end of the tunnel – the stellar performance they hoped to achieve.
When I spoke with Ericsson in May, he cited research on figure skaters (which appeared in this book) that helps explain why deliberate practice isn’t much fun. According to the study, elite skaters spent more time practicing jumps and spins, while the less skilled skaters spent more time going over routines they had already mastered.
While the researchers didn’t specifically measure the number of times the skaters fell, Ericsson said you can infer that the elite skaters would have stumbled more often.
“Practice really involves failing a lot until you eventually reach your goal,” Ericsson told me.
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Ericsson is careful to explain that engaging in deliberate practice is different from being in a state of “flow,” a term coined by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe a state of effortless absorption in a particular activity. Ericsson has written that flow states are “incompatible” with deliberate practice, in which people engage in a training activity, get feedback on their performance, and try again.
It’s only once they’ve achieved their goal (and before they’ve moved onto the next one) that aspiring experts experience some joy.
Ericsson said that he personally has often sacrificed enjoyment for the sake of improving his performance as a researcher. Every article he’s published, as a postdoctoral researcher and afterward, was the result of multiple drafts and feedback from the psychologists he was working with. He wrote in an email:
Nearly every time I get critical feedback it smarts and I get defensive (mostly just internal dialogue) and then I calm down and start trying to understand what the criticisms address and what needs to be changed. Then there is a period of hours, days, and occasionally weeks, when I think about how to best address the problems. After the changes are implemented there is a phase of elation and even joy.