date Sep 30, 2016
authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
reading time 30 mins

Reading Period: 10 September 2016 - 30 September 2016

Nurture > Nature

And over time I’ve come to understand that, yes, these people do have an extraordinary gift, which lies at the heart of their capabilities. But it is not the gift that people usually assume it to be, and it is even more powerful than we imagine. Most importantly, it is a gift that every one of us is born with and can, with the right approach, take advantage of.

Mozart and perfect pitch

While we don’t know exactly what exercises Mozart’s father used to train his son, we do know that by the time Mozart was six or seven he had trained far more intensely and for far longer than the two dozen children who developed perfect pitch through Sakakibara’s practice sessions. In retrospect, then, there should be nothing at all surprising about Mozart’s development of perfect pitch. So did the seven-year-old Wolfgang have a gift for perfect pitch? Yes and no.

Right kind of training

Nonetheless, Mozart was indeed born with a gift, and it was the same gift that the children in Sakakibara’s study were born with. They were all endowed with a brain so flexible and adaptable that it could, with the right sort of training, develop a capability that seems quite magical to those of us who do not possess it.

Wrong belief of genes

You might need a certain amount of practice to bring that innate talent into full bloom, and if you didn’t get this practice, your perfect pitch might never develop fully, but the general belief was that no amount of practice would help if you didn’t have the right genes to start with.

Adult vs child

Still, both the brain and the body retain a great deal of adaptability throughout adulthood, and this adaptability makes it possible for adults, even older adults, to develop a wide variety of new capabilities with the right training.

Main gift is within us all…

But the clear message from decades of research is that no matter what role innate genetic endowment may play in the achievements of “gifted” people, the main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us.


The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.

Practice a lot…

But while the abilities are extraordinary, there is no mystery at all about how these people developed them. They practiced. A lot.

Over years, over decades

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.

Understanding with science and interconnectedness

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.

Recognise which skill you wanna peak at

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.

Activity !== improvement. Experience in years !== better

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 twenty years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.

automaticity !== improvement

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 twenty 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.

Purposeful practice

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.

Knowing what to improve

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.

Getting out of comfort zone

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.

Purposeful practice vs just playing

So Ben Franklin was brilliant, and he spent thousands of hours playing chess, sometimes against the best players of the time. Did that make him a great chess player? No. He was above average, but he never got good enough to compare with Europe’s better players, much less the best. This failing was a source of great frustration to him, but he had no idea why he couldn’t get any better. Today we understand: he never pushed himself, never got out of his comfort zone, never put in the hours of purposeful practice it would take to improve.

How to improve?

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.

Immutable limit means given up

In all of my years of research, I have found it is surprisingly rare to get clear evidence in any field that a person has reached some immutable limit on performance. Instead, I’ve found that people more often just give up and stop trying to improve.

Changing brain

These studies of brain plasticity in blind subjects—and similar studies in deaf subjects—tell us that the brain’s structure and function are not fixed. They change in response to use. It is possible to shape the brain—your brain, my brain, anybody’s brain—in the ways that we desire through conscious, deliberate training.

Just outside your comfort zone

This explains the importance of staying just outside your comfort zone: you need to continually push to keep the body’s compensatory changes coming, but if you push too far outside your comfort zone, you risk injuring yourself and actually setting yourself back.

Practising same skill vs learning a new one

In the brain, the greater the challenge, the greater the changes—up to a point. Recent studies have shown that learning a new skill is much more effective at triggering structural changes in the brain than simply continuing to practice a skill that one has already learned. On the other hand, pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and ineffective learning.

More work == more grey matter

Could it be that people like Einstein are simply born with beefier-than-usual inferior parietal lobules and thus have some innate capacity to be good at mathematical thinking? You might think so, but the researchers who carried out the study on the size of that part of the brain in mathematicians and non-mathematicians found that the longer someone had worked as a mathematician, the more gray matter he or she had in the right inferior parietal lobule—which would suggest that the increased size was a product of extended mathematical thinking, not something the person was born with.

Brain in physical activities

Even in the case of what we usually think of as purely “physical skills,” such as swimming or gymnastics, the brain plays a major role because these activities require careful control of the body’s movements, and research has found that practice produces brain changes.

Good enough vs practice

These are the sorts of things that require far more practice than most people are willing to devote, but—and this is important—they are also the sorts of abilities that can be developed because the human body is so adaptable and responsive to training. The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.”

Traditional approach

And here is the key difference between the traditional approach to learning and the purposeful-practice or deliberate-practice approaches: The traditional approach is not designed to challenge homeostasis. It assumes, consciously or not, that learning is all about fulfilling your innate potential and that you can develop a particular skill or ability without getting too far out of your comfort zone.

Learning to create destiny

With deliberate practice, however, the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it, to make things possible that were not possible before. This requires challenging homeostasis—getting out of your comfort zone—and forcing your brain or your body to adapt. But once you do this, learning is no longer just a way of fulfilling some genetic destiny; it becomes a way of taking control of your destiny and shaping your potential in ways that you choose.

Analysis > Practice

You analyze a position in depth, predicting the next move, and if you get it wrong, you go back and figure out what you missed. Research has shown that the amount of time spent in this sort of analysis—not the amount of time spent playing chess with others—is the single most important predictor of a chess player’s ability. It generally takes about ten years of this sort of practice to reach the level of grandmaster.

Rot memorizing vs representations

A key thing about these representations is that they allow a chess player to encode the positions of pieces on the board in a much more efficient way than simply remembering which piece is on which square. This efficient encoding underlies a master’s ability to glance at a chessboard and remember the positions of most of the pieces and, in particular, the ability to play blindfold chess.

Mental representation

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

Developing mental models during deliberate practice

Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.

Domain specific mental models

A key fact about such mental representations is that they are very “domain specific,” that is, they apply only to the skill for which they were developed.

No generalist

This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or for people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or a sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player.

Why mental models?

Any relatively complicated activity requires holding more information in our heads than short-term memory allows, so we are always building mental representations of one sort or another without even being aware of it. Indeed, without mental representations we couldn’t walk (too many muscle movements to coordinate), we couldn’t talk (ditto on the muscle movements, plus no understanding of the words), we couldn’t live any sort of human life.

Expert performance == recognising patterns

In pretty much every area, a hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well developed mental representations. In other words, experts see the forest when everyone else sees only trees.

Compounding effect

The more you study a subject, the more detailed your mental representations of it become, and the better you get at assimilating new information.

Decide what is a good performance…

This makes sense: if there is no agreement on what good performance is and no way to tell what changes would improve performance, then it is very difficult—often impossible—to develop effective training methods. If you don’t know for sure what constitutes improvement, how can you develop methods to improve performance?

Doing solitary practice

Because most students spend the same amount of time each week with the music teacher—an hour—the primary difference in practice from one student to the next lies in how much time the students devote to solitary practice.

Practice either way, any way…

Everyone from the very top students to the future music teachers agreed: improvement was hard, and they didn’t enjoy the work they did to improve. In short, there were no students who just loved to practice and thus needed less motivation than the others. These students were motivated to practice intensely and with full concentration because they saw such practice as essential to improving their performance.

Some areas are difficult to guage including engineering

What areas don’t qualify? Pretty much anything in which there is little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies, for instance, and many of the jobs in today’s workplace—business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on. These are not areas where you’re likely to find accumulated knowledge about deliberate practice, simply because there are no objective criteria for superior performance.

Improving mental representations

Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.

Principles of deliberate practice

This is the basic blueprint for getting better in any pursuit: get as close to deliberate practice as you can. If you’re in a field where deliberate practice is an option, you should take that option. If not, apply the principles of deliberate practice as much as possible. In practice this often boils down to purposeful practice with a few extra steps: first, identify the expert performers, then figure out what they do that makes them so good, then come up with training techniques that allow you to do it, too.

Be careful with authority bias

The lesson here is clear: be careful when identifying expert performers. Ideally you want some objective measure of performance with which to compare people’s abilities. If no such measures exist, get as close as you can. For example, in areas where a person’s performance or product can be observed directly—a screenwriter, say, or a programmer—the judgment of peers is a good place to start, while keeping in mind the possible influence of unconscious bias.

Keep doing, and tweaking

In all of this keep in mind that the idea is to inform your purposeful practice and point it in directions that will be more effective. If you find that something works, keep doing it; if it doesn’t work, stop. The better you are able to tailor your training to mirror the best performers in your field, the more effective your training is likely to be.

Performance !== practise

But an hour of playing in front of a crowd, where the focus is on delivering the best possible performance at the time, is not the same as an hour of focused, goal-driven practice that is designed to address certain weaknesses and make certain improvements—the sort of practice that was the key factor in explaining the abilities of the Berlin student violinists.

A decade of practice

We have seen this in chess and the violin, but research has shown something similar in field after field. Authors and poets have usually been writing for more than a decade before they produce their best work, and it is generally a decade or more between a scientist’s first publication and his or her most important publication—and this is in addition to the years of study before that first published research.

Learning to ask yourself

Over time the students learned to ask themselves the questions, as it was more comfortable than hearing them from the instructors, and each day they would take the previous session’s lessons with them as they flew. Slowly they internalized what they’d been taught so that they didn’t have to think so much before reacting, and slowly they would see improvement in their dogfights against the Red Force.

Some fields where costs of mistake is high

While there aren’t too many fields in which the price of poor performance can be death or a prison camp, there are many in which the costs of mistakes can be unacceptably high. In medicine, for example, while doctors’ lives aren’t at stake, patients’ lives can be. And in business situations a mistake can cost time, money, and future opportunities. To its credit, the navy was able to devise a successful way to train its pilots without putting them in much danger.

Top performers

What I do mean is that if you follow the principles of deliberate practice you can develop ways to identify the top performers in a field and train other, lesser performers and bring them up closer to that top level. And by doing that it is possible to raise the performance level of an entire organization or profession.

Avoid stagnation and gradual decline

The second myth holds that if you do something for long enough, you’re bound to get better at it. Again, we know better. Doing the same thing over and over again in exactly the same way is not a recipe for improvement; it is a recipe for stagnation and gradual decline.

Learning while working

One benefit of “learning while real work gets done” is that it gets people into the habit of practicing and thinking about practicing. Once they understand the importance of regular practice—and realize just how much they can improve by using it—they look for opportunities throughout the day in which normal business activities can be transformed into practice activities.

Principles of deliberate practice:

  • Does it push people to get outside their comfort zones and attempt to do things that are not easy for them?
  • Does it offer immediate feedback on the performance and on what can be done to improve it?
  • Have those who developed the approach identified the best performers in that particular area and determined what sets them apart from everyone else?
  • Is the practice designed to develop the particular skills that experts in the field possess?
  • A yes answer to all those questions may not guarantee that an approach will be effective, but it will certainly make that much more likely.

Getting accurate feedback after your work is done

The main problem, as I saw it, was that radiologists do not have the chance to practice their readings over and over again, getting accurate feedback with each attempt. So this is what I suggested: You’d start by collecting a library of digitized mammograms taken from patients years ago along with enough information from those patients’ records to know the ultimate outcome—whether there actually was a cancerous lesion present and, if so, how the cancer progressed over time.


In short, this sort of training with immediate feedback — either from a mentor or even a carefully designed computer program—can be an incredibly powerful way to improve performance.


One of the implicit themes of the Top Gun approach to training, whether it is for shooting down enemy planes or interpreting mammograms, is the emphasis on doing. The bottom line is what you are able to do, not what you know, although it is understood that you need to know certain things in order to be able to do your job.

Traditional - knowledge. Deliberate-practice - doing!

This distinction between knowledge and skills lies at the heart of the difference between traditional paths toward expertise and the deliberate-practice approach. Traditionally, the focus is nearly always on knowledge.

No expertise from just experience in years!

Certainly the younger doctors and nurses will have received more up-to-date knowledge and training in school, and if continuing education doesn’t keep doctors effectively updated, then the older they get, the less current their skill will be. But one thing is clear: with few exceptions, neither doctors nor nurses gain expertise from experience alone.

Moving forward

If you find yourself at a point where you are no longer improving quickly or at all, don’t be afraid to look for a new instructor. The most important thing is to keep moving forward.

Solitude work!

If you want to get better at bowling, those Thursday nights with your bowling league team won’t do much good. You’ll want to spend some quality alley time on your own—ideally, working on difficult pin configurations in which being able to control exactly where the ball goes is essential. And so on.

Relaxing !== practicing

Remember: if your mind is wandering or you’re relaxed and just having fun, you probably won’t improve.

Do for improving or do for relaxing

The singing lesson had made the amateurs, but not the professionals, happy. The reason for the difference lay in how the two groups had approached the lesson. For the amateurs it was a time to express themselves, to sing away their cares, and to feel the pure joy of singing. For the professionals, the lesson was a time to concentrate on such things as vocal technique and breath control in an effort to improve their singing.

Focus, but no joy - very counter-intuitive!

There was focus but no joy. This is a key to getting the maximum benefit out of any sort of practice, from private or group lessons to solitary practice and even to games or competitions: whatever you are doing, focus on it.

Working your mind

Researchers who have studied long-distance runners have found that amateurs tend to daydream or think about more pleasant subjects to take their minds off the pain and strain of their running, while elite long-distance runners remain attuned to their bodies so that they can find the optimal pace and make adjustments to maintain the best pace throughout the whole race.

Deliberate practise

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better.

Change and correct

Note that these students weren’t simply doing the same thing over and over again: they were paying attention to what they got wrong each time and correcting it. This is purposeful practice. It does no good to do the same thing over and over again mindlessly; the purpose of the repetition is to figure out where your weaknesses are and focus on getting better in those areas, trying different methods to improve until you find something that works.

Figure our opportunities to practise

Comedians do something very similar. There is a reason that most of them have spent time in standup comedy clubs. They get a chance to try out their material and their delivery, and they get immediate feedback from the audience: either the jokes work, or they don’t.

To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs:

  • Focus
  • Feedback
  • Fix it

Start by copying

And in art, aspiring artists have long developed their skills by copying the paintings and sculptures of the masters. Indeed, in some cases they have done this in a way very similar to the technique Franklin used to improve his writing, that is, by studying a piece of art by a master, attempting to reproduce it from memory, and then comparing the finished product with the original in order to discover the differences and correct them.

Why people stop improving

The plateau Josh encountered is common in every sort of training. When you first start learning something new, it is normal to see rapid—or at least steady—improvement, and when that improvement stops, it is natural to believe you’ve hit some sort of implacable limit. So you stop trying to move forward, and you settle down to life on that plateau. This is the major reason that people in every area stop improving.

Challenge your brain in a new way

What we learned from Steve’s experience holds true for everyone who faces a plateau: the best way to move beyond it is to challenge your brain or your body in a new way. Bodybuilders, for instance, will change the types of exercises they are doing, increase or decrease the weight they’re lifting or the number of repetitions, and switch up their weekly routine.

Committed over long period of time

But the answers the students gave to our questionnaire told a very different story: they didn’t like studying at all. None of them did, including the very best spellers. The hours they had spent studying thousands of words alone were not fun; they would have been quite happy to do something else. Instead, what distinguished the most successful spellers was their superior ability to remain committed to studying despite the boredom and the pull of other, more appealing activities.


In answering that question the first thing to note is that, despite the effort that it takes, it certainly is possible to keep going. Every world-class athlete, every prima ballerina, every concert violinist, every chess grandmaster is living proof that it can be done—that people can practice hard day after day, week after week, for years on end.

Habits and lives

The ones who are successful in losing weight over the long run are those who have successfully redesigned their lives, building new habits that allow them to maintain the behaviors that keep them losing weight in spite of all of the temptations that threaten their success.

Devote time every day

As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration. Maintaining the motivation that enables such a regimen has two parts: reasons to keep going and reasons to stop. When you quit something that you had initially wanted to do, it’s because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to continue.


One of the best ways to create and sustain social motivation is to surround yourself with people who will encourage and support and challenge you in your endeavors.


Of course, at its core, deliberate practice is a lonely pursuit. While you may collect a group of like-minded individuals for support and encouragement, still much of your improvement will depend on practice you do on your own. How do you maintain motivation for hour after hour of such focused practice?

Path breakers

But it doesn’t stop there. One of the hallmarks of expert performers is that even once they become one of the best at what they do, they still constantly strive to improve their practice techniques and to get better. And it is here at the frontier that we find the pathbreakers, those experts who go beyond what anyone else has ever done and show us all what it is possible to achieve.


At this stage, the parents of children who are to become experts play a crucial role in the child’s development. For one thing, the parents give their children a great deal of time, attention, and encouragement. For another, the parents tend to be very achievement-oriented and teach their children such values as self-discipline, hard work, responsibility, and spending one’s time constructively.

Next stage

With Susan Polgár that point came when she lost interest in the chess pieces simply as toys and became intrigued by the logic of how they moved around the board and interacted with other pieces during a game. At such a point, a child is ready to move to the next stage.

Able to reproduce elements of those before you - skills!

One thing we do know about these innovators is that they, almost without exception, have worked to become expert performers in their fields before they started breaking new ground. It makes sense that this should be so: After all, how are you going to come up with a valuable new theory in science or a useful new technique on the violin if you are not intimately familiar with—and able to reproduce—the accomplishments of those who preceded you?

Ability to improve on your own

The most important lesson they gleaned from their teachers is the ability to improve on their own. As part of their training, their teachers helped them develop mental representations that they could use to monitor their own performances, figure out what needs improving, and come up with ways to realize that improvement.

Moving forward

That’s how it always is. The creative, the restless, and the driven are not content with the status quo, and they look for ways to move forward, to do things that others have not. And once a pathfinder shows how something can be done, others can learn the technique and follow. Even if the pathfinder doesn’t share the particular technique, as is the case with Richards, simply knowing that something is possible drives others to figure it out.

Progress made

Progress is made by those who are working on the frontiers of what is known and what is possible to do, not by those who haven’t put in the effort needed to reach that frontier.

Long extended intense practise

As it happens, I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies, and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.

Solitary practise and mental representations

With enough solitary practice, the mental representations become so useful and powerful in playing the game that the major thing separating two players is not their intelligence—their visuospatial abilities, or even their memory or processing speed—but rather the quality and quantity of their mental representations and how effectively they use them. Because these mental representations are developed specifically for the purpose of analyzing chess positions and coming up with the best moves—remember, they are usually developed through thousands of hours of studying the games of grandmasters—they’re far more effective for playing chess than simply using one’s memory and logic and analyzing the collection of pieces on the board as individually interacting items.