I just finished reading Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. I read a lot of books, but there are few that I include in the category I call life enhancing. I’ll be adding this one to the list.
I first heard about the book on episode #244 of the Freakonomics Radio podcast titled How to Become Great at Just About Anything this past April. Stephen Dubner was interviewing Anders Ericsson about the book and its main concept: deliberate practice. The short of it is that if you practice the right way and with the right support, you can get better at just about anything; no matter your age and no matter your skill level or inate abilities.
In the book, Ericsson also invites us to revisit our beliefs in natural talent and prodigies. He argues that in every case, what appears to be natural talent is the result of exposure to an environment and to practice habits that are not the norm. That's a powerful statement that puts many pursuits back in the realm of the possible for most of us.
In order to improve in any area, Ericsson makes it clear that individuals need to meet the following conditions:
- Have a plan
- Follow a schedule (including a good night’s sleep)
- Have measurable goals
- Engage in deliberate practice (often with the help of a coach or teacher)
- Showcasing your skills at some point as this fuels your practice - it’s the payoff
The book has lead me to look a number of things I do/aspire to do and to question personal beliefs regarding my abilities and limitations. It’s lead me to consider my potential in these areas quite differently.
It’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. I guess these feelings always follow a realization of the burden/opportunity of taking personal responsibility. *Sigh.*
It’s been the most powerful vehicle thus far to enable me to challenge my self-limiting beliefs. I either have to:
- decide not to get better at something because I don’t want to (not a priority), not because I can’t or
- decide to get better and make a thoughtful plan to get there.
My Plan for Deliberate Practice
I’ve reviewed my wish list and discarded many activities as things I don’t want to get better at and have honed in on four skills/abilities that I want to work on because I know I’m likely to stick with the process and reap the benefits of the improvement:
- Strength Training
I already do all of these things, but I haven’t focused on getting better, and that’s the key. The power is in the word “deliberate”. Just going through the motions doesn’t make us better. There’s nothing particularly wrong with doing something we enjoy, but expecting improvement just by going through the motions is a fallacy most of us believe. I certainly thought it at least helped. I was wrong. In fact, it can make us worse.
To illustrate the tenets of deliberate practice, I’ve elaborated on my plan for each of these activities below and expect to keep at these throughout the year, assuming I don’t choose to “hang up my skates” on any of them.
1. Writing (5 days a week, 2,300 word minimum)
I write on most days, but I’ve been avoiding a challenging project in favour of other writing because it's pushing me out of my comfort zone. What’s the challenge? Writing chapters as opposed to blog posts. I’ve set a 50,000-word goal for the month of June to work on this challenging project and I’ll be measuring my daily output. Why 50,000? Because it will enable me to finish the project and to likely write far more than I need to (I've reached 18,700 so far). The more I push myself to write, the easier it should become and the closer I’ll get to my goal of finishing the project.
Here’s how I’ll make time for this endeavour: if I’m not at least on track toward 50,000, I don’t get to write or read anything else. Now that’s incentive to really get into the groove and get over this mental block/fear of success that’s holding me back.
How will I measure quality? I’ll be working with an editor as soon as I’m done and that will help me improve the first draft, and the second, and the third…knowing there will be eyes on this work at the end of this period is a great way of staying honest with myself. Plus, she sounds brutal. Perfect.
2. Speaking (1 hr, 2 days a week, plus speech preparation)
I do a fair amount of speaking. I always have, but what I find doesn’t happen often is receiving constructive feedback from co-workers, superiors, clients and audience members. Only the ones who like what I do will tell me face to face and very few people leave constructive comments on evaluation sheets.
That’s why I decided to join Toastmasters after being away for nearly ten years. I’ve shopped around for Toastmasters clubs and I’ve found one that suits my needs: it’s close to home, the meeting time fits my schedule, and more importantly I know that some of the members I’ve met will help me stretch my speaking/presentation skills. Ironically, it’s called “Peak Performers”— I can’t make this up!
I’ll be working through the Advanced Communication Library and my goal is to complete 2 of the booklets this year, a total of 10 speeches, documenting and paying attention to incorporating the feedback I receive as I move along. Given the audience, I know I’ll push myself and then be able to bring best practices into my external speaking engagements.
3. Strength Training (1 hr, 4 days a week)
As I’ve mentioned in this post, back in March my appendix decided it didn’t like me anymore. That’s lead to time away from my training. I’ve been active but there’s a difference between being active and lifting really heavy things :). I want to at least get back to what I used to lift. I’ll be measuring my progress based on whether or not I’ve reached or exceeded my previous personal bests.
I’ll be tracking my progress toward the following: 135 lb bench press, 245 lb deadlift, 160 lb back squat, 103 lb overhead squat,100 lb snatch, and 125 lb clean & jerk. I’m currenly at about 60-75% of each of these, in part due to my need to be cautious. I’ll be touching on each of these lifts regularly, with four gym sessions per week, focusing on the weaknesses in each lift and taking care to be careful not to hurt myself in the process, given it takes up to six months to be fully recovered from surgery.
4. Archery (1 hr, 3 days a week)
Before my unexpected time off, I was quite enjoying my time at the archery range. But, I wasn’t progressing and, if anything, I was likely getting sloppier. I’ve been back since, but I know I need some guidance to improve and I want to prepare for a competition. Though I’m late in the game for a competition this year, I’ve signed up for coaching at Heartland Archery (my second lesson is today) and want to learn about proper scoring to track my progress. My goal is to improve by practicing weaknesses identified at each of my (at least) monthly coaching sessions and using my scoring to track that progress.
Note: As a taste of what’s to come, I was at the range yesterday and was shocked at how tired I was after spending one hour paying close attention to what I was doing. I used to spend two or more hours at a time but it’s the level of focus that makes the difference. Quality over quantity matters.
Tracking and Reporting Is Key
I’ve started a booklet or spreadsheet for each of these four activities to track my personal progress and I’ll document it here to share how my application of Ericsson’s principles helps me get further along than I likely would have with the status quo.
I’m looking forward to learning more about deliberate practice and what I can accomplish through its use.
What about you? Have you applied any principles of deliberate practice? How has this improved your performance?