We’ve all just spent two weeks glued to the TV, watching the best athletes in the world jump, hurdle, throw, wrestle, flip, swim and run.
Most likely, you had the same conversation we had in our house: What does it take to be really good at something, perhaps the best in the world?
In their book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool unlock the secrets to that age-old question, laying out the steps to becoming a master, whether it’s in your career or hobby.
Here’s the bad news: There are certain things that in order to master, it’s better to start at a young age. If you’re reading this and you’re past the age of 15, chances are it’s too late to embark on a star-studded career in gymnastics.
But there’s good news: The human mind and body have almost unlimited potential for improvement. Just look at how those Olympic records continue to get smashed, year after year. Just when we think the human body can’t get any faster, that the human mind is incapable of another discovery, we are proven wrong. So, despite what you’ve read or heard about the limits of age, it’s almost never too late to become a master.
Most of us have heard about the 10,000-hour rule, but it’s not that simple. After all, you can practice the piano for 10,000 hours with poor instruction and bad technique and pretty much guarantee that you will never be a master.
So while practice time is a key element to success, it is only one factor.
First, the authors say to improve on a new skill, one must find a good teacher. A good teacher is someone who is both accomplished in their field and able to convey those skills in a productive way.
Second, a person must engage in purposeful, deliberate practice, according to the authors. Practice is not the same as repetition. It means focusing and improving with each step. It also involves breaking down skills into sizable chunks. It involves taking oneself outside one’s comfort zone and achieving specific goals.
Purposeful practice is rarely fun: Think of jogging with a friend for two miles, versus running intense intervals around a track. The first might leave you feeling happy and relaxed. The second would wipe you out. That’s the kind of practice that will lead to improvement.
It’s not enough to go for a run, hammer out a short story or sit down with a box of watercolors — not if you want to absolutely master something.
I knew a young boy, training to be a violinist, who told me his dad’s philosophy: You can have 45 minutes of hard practice or two hours of wasted time.
This type of studied focus is how Benjamin Franklin mastered writing and how the best chess players, golfers and musicians rise to the top of their field.
But what about motivation? Most of us have sky-high ambitions: to run a marathon, write that book, climb that mountain, lose that weight, start that successful website or learn to quilt.
Motivation is what separates those who finish, who constantly improve, from those who don’t.
In an extensive interview with the top middle school spelling bee champions, the authors wrote, “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.”
They found that those who maintained purposeful practice had developed the right kind of habits to help them continue. This may involve extrinsic factors, such as praise and adoration of others, as well as internal motivators.
As the authors wrote, social motivation is a huge component of success, so surround yourself with people who will both encourage and inspire. I think of those famous intellectual groups who inspired each other to produce some of literature’s most enduring works, from Tolkien and Lewis’ the Inklings to the Bloomsbury Group, which included such notables as E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Woolf.
For some, the best motivator is simply the belief that you can succeed.
When my son was 7 and fairly new to the violin, he prepared several weeks for his first recital.
His piece, “Perpetual Motion,” had an upbeat tempo that he found hard to control with both his bow and his fingers on the strings. No matter how much we practiced, the song just didn’t come together right.
The day before the recital, his teacher decided that instead of playing the entire piece, he would simply play the first three lines.
Preston was nervous on the day of the recital, and still uncertain about his ability to play. After warming up, we walked into the recital hall. He glanced down at the program. He was first on the list, under the title “Excerpt of Perpetual Motion.”
He read his name and his eyes lit up.
“Mom,” he said, waving the program in the air, “it says I’m an expert of ‘Perpetual Motion!’”
Imbued with sudden confidence, he marched onto the stage and played beautifully.
The purpose of a book like “Peak” is to remind us that mastery is more than prodigy. It is greater than innate talent or genetics. It’s the work of the human mind and body to reach further, higher and faster.
It’s not just for a select few, but for all of us.