Anders Ericcson on deliberate practice

Repetition is the mother of skill

Tony Robins*

Tony Robins is mostly right.

10,000 hours

You’re probably familiar with the 10,000 hour rule as ‘discovered’ by Anders Ericcson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Outliers‘. If you haven’t heard much about this before, I highly recommend Freakonomics Radio episode 244, “How to Become Great at just about Anything.” It’s a great summary of the research, and has one of my favourite stories of someone who was pretty average learning to be excellent through deliberate practice – I won’t spoil it by saying more.

This post used quotes from that episode to sums up some key ideas. Here’s the first piece of the puzzle:

In the 1900 Summer Olympics, the men played two 18-hole rounds; the American golfer Charles Sands won the gold medal with scores of 82 and 85, which, these days, wouldn’t get you on a good high school team in some parts of the country. Yeah, the equipment and ball have changed, a lot. But still: the undeniable fact — whether it’s golf or running the marathon or playing the piano — is that as a species we have improved a lot at just about everything. How? Have we been selectively breeding for talent? Perhaps.

But that is not what Anders Ericsson thinks is largely responsible. He thinks we’ve gotten so much better primarily because we’ve learned how to learn. And that if you study the people who have learned the best, and if you codify the techniques and strategies that they use, then we can all radically improve. But let me warn you: there’s no magic bullet.

Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”? The idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to become great at something? That idea originates from the research of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German academy.

ERICSSON: We found that the average of that elite group was over 10,000 hours by the time they reach 20.

Stephen Dubner and Anders Ericsson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

Quantity and quality

Of course, quantity – lots of repetitions – isn’t enough. They need to be (or aspire to be) good repetitions. Ericsson describes two varieties:

Purposeful Practice

ERICSSON: Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.

Anders Ericcson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

Deliberate Practice

ERICSSON: We think of deliberate practice requiring a teacher that actually has had experience of how to help individuals reach very high levels of performance.

DUBNER: I want to go through one by one the components of deliberate practice and have you explain a little bit more if necessary, or acknowledge why they are important. So you write that “deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. … Which I guess helps us explain why a pianist from 80 or 100 years ago who was considered the gold standard is now considered not very good, because the instruction is built on top of itself to get people better faster

You write that “deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals, and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance. It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.” Do you think that is a mistake that many people make when they’re trying to, “get better at something?” A “vague, overall improvement”?

ERICSSON: I think that is one of the most important pieces that we’re advocating, because you need feedback in order to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you should be making. If you don’t have a clear criterion here for what it is that you were doing, then it’s unclear how you actually  are going to improve if you get subsequent opportunities to do the same thing. So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.

DUBNER: Here’s another component. You write: “Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.” That sounds horrible, first of all. You write, “Further thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.” So you just discouraged everyone from ever wanting to do deliberate practice. But why is that important? Do you want to get out of what’s comfortable because that enables you to try harder in a way that you otherwise can’t?

ERICSSON: Well, I think this has to do with the body. If you’re just doing things that feel comfortable and go out and jog, the body basically won’t change. In order to actually change your aerobic ability, people now know that the only way you can do that is if you practice now at a heart rate that is above 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. So it would be maybe around 140 for a young adult. And you have to do that for about 30 minutes at least two or three times a week. If you practice at a lower intensity, the body will actually not develop this difficult, challenging biochemical situation, which will elicit now genes to create physiological adaptations. 

DUBNER: Let’s say I’m a crummy piano player, and I want to become a good piano player. For something like that, or for something like writing, or for something like selling insurance, what does it mean to get outside of one’s comfort zone and why does that improve my ability to get good?

ERICSSON: Deliberate practice relies on this fact that if you make errors, you’re going to find ways to eliminate those errors. So if you’re not actually stretching yourself outside of what you already can do, you’re probably not engaging in deliberate practice.

Stephen Dubner and Anders Ericsson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

So what?

So… decide what you’d like to get better at. Start doing it. Then start practicing purposefully. If you can, find a (good) coach.

You. Will. Get. Better.

* I didn’t know this was a Tony Robbins quote – and I’m sure it’s a very old idea.

Seth Godin on the placebo effect (feat. Kevin Kelly)

In this context, the placebo effect is a metaphor for the story or the ‘show’ that you make around your work that isn’t necessary, but makes it better.

The question is this: does something that makes people think your product or service is better (or more fun, or tastier) actually make it better? If what you’re doing is ethical – and it’s helping people get what they want and need – I think the answer is yes.

Here’s Seth Godin on a recent episode of the excellent Cool Tools podcast with Kevin Kelly and Mark Frauenfelder.

Kevin Kelly: I’m not an audiophile by any measure… but I understand that there’s sort of a level of highfalutin B.S. in parts of this realm [of high fidelity audio)… How do you know that this is not part of [that]?

Seth Godin: There’s a technical term for “highfalutin B.S.”, and the tecnhical term is “the placebo effect.” And the placebo effect is your greatest bargain. There are no side-effects, you can’t overdose, it works great every time. Is there a placebo effect in stereo equipment? There’s no doubt about it. But if for $400 you can buy something that for the next 4000 hours of listening makes you think your stereo sounds better, that seems like a bargain to me.

Seth Godin and Kevin KellyCool Tools Podcast, Ep.196

Seth has written a lot about the placebo effect:

Akimbo Podcast:

Don’t Fear Placebos (Akimbo, Episode 6)

Seth’s Blog

… and many more posts here.

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Maximising components vs maximising systems

Some examples to illustrate what it means to maximise components rather than systems – and why it’s best avoided:

  • Sports teams with star players that don’t gel as a team – maximising individual talent at the cost of collaboration, team spirit and collective hunger. (See Leicester City’s 2016 Premiership win as an example of the opposite). This applies to all kinds of team.
  • Building your their upper body but skipping leg day.
  • Maximising your professional life at the expense of the rest of your life.
  • Maximising for beauty or wealth in a partner at the expense of character and shared values.
  • Maximising for short-term income or attention at the expense of longer term impact, relationships and trust.
  • Running too fast at the start of a marathon (see Fast Starts = Slow Finishes).
  • Focusing on lead generation rather than delivery and finishing projects (and getting paid) – or the opposite.
  • Getting really efficient at doing unimportant things.
  • Building an economy that makes us richer but destroys the world in the process.
  • Running a hospital or organisation (or your life) efficiently and at maximum capacity… but with no slack for the unexpected.
  • Winning a family boardgame in a way that ruins everyone’s afternoon (winning a finite game at a cost to the wider, infinite game).

Just a start – contributions welcome!

Peter Drucker on metrics as misdirection

Business, like any other institution, has important results that are incapable of being measured.

Any experienced executive will know companies or industries that are bound for extinction because they cannot attract or hold able people. This, every experienced executive also knows, is a more important fact about a company or an industry than last year’s profit statement.

Yet the statement can’t be defined clearly, let alone “quantified.” It is anything but “intangible”; it is very tangible indeed. It is just nonmeasurable. And measurable results will not show up for a decade.

A balance between the measurable and the nonmeasurable is therefore a central and constant problem of management and a true decision area. Measurements that do not spell out the assumptions with respect to the nonmeasurable statements that are being made misdirect, therefore.

They actually misinform. Yet the more we can quantify the truly measurable areas, the greater the temptation to put all-out emphasis on these – the greater, therefore, the danger that what looks like better controls will actually mean less control, if not loss of control all together.

Peter Drucker – Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices in The Daily Drucker

A long queue

A long queue for what you’re selling is a good problem to have. It means people want what you have, and are willing to pay the price you’re asking and pay the additional time it takes them to queue to get it.

It means that what you’re selling is scarce – you might even have a monopoly. The question is, what are you going to do with it?

A queue represents an opportunity to your competitors, especially if you’re selling a commodity. Competitors don’t need to undercut you on price, just shorten the queue by serving your customers more efficiently.

A queue also represents an opportunity to you:

  • It could be part of your story, like the line for a popular restaurant. It says “We are popular,” and perhaps “We are exclusive.”
  • It probably highlights an opportunity to serve your customers better – what can you do to serve your customers better and faster?
  • If the queue is unavoidable – if only in the short term – you might still be able to turn it into an asset. What could happen in the queue that would add value and delight the people you’re serving? What would make them look forward to queueing next time? What would turn it into a game?

And of course, if there isn’t a queue yet, the question for you is, “What would our product, service and story need to be like to make people cross the street and eagerly queue up for what we’re offering?”

Seth Godin on creating a (generous) monopoly

Every successful business has a monopoly—a monopoly on what it makes that someone else can’t make the way they make it.

That leaves out commodity businesses—people who bring coal out of the ground. I don’t think of those businesses as particularly successful. I think of them as useful. I’m glad if I need a bag of coal someone’s doing it, but it’s a really lousy way to make a living. Brilliant entrepreneurship is around figuring out that thing you can do in the marketplace that people are willing to cross the street to get. It’s so people understand, “This is the one and I need it.” And we’re going to keep coming back again, again, and again today to this idea of, “What is it you’re going to have a monopoly on?”

If you know about the company 37 Signals in Chicago, they are really killing Microsoft in a tiny segment of the market, which is project management on the web. They have a product called Basecamp, which cost $20 bucks a month to use. If four of your colleagues are managing a project on Basecamp and you want to participate in the project you can’t shop around. They have a monopoly on that project. You have to do it on Basecamp. And you don’t get to say, “Well, it costs too much money,” because they’re already using it. So you have to use it too.

That is a fundamental distinction from the way industrialist thought in 1930 and in 1940 when the board game came out. In those days the thought was, “We’re going to figure out how to make these machines work just a little better and we’re going to figure out to make this factory work just a little faster, and so we’ll be able to sell a car just a little cheaper.” The industrial mindset, the one we all grew up with, starts with this idea that you have to build a better mousetrap and make it cheaper.

That’s not the kind of entrepreneurship I’m here to propose to you today. I’m not talking about one that is based on the industrial economy, but on the connection economy. And one of the easiest ways to build a monopoly, a tiny profitable monopoly, is to be the center of connections. Because connections are so valuable to people compared to stuff.

When there is a line out the door at Grand Central Station to buy coffee, something is going on here. The coffee is $4. That’s expensive, if you live in Duluth. But if you’re in Grand Central Station and you need caffeine, $4 is a bargain; it’s worth $6. Basically there is someone behind the counter handing out $2 bills all day long. Because you’re getting something for $4 that you’d be willing to pay $6 for. How did they do that?

They have a monopoly on a brand name.

They have a monopoly on a story.

They have a monopoly on expectations.

And thanks to the MTA, they have a monopoly on that actual piece of real estate. There isn’t a place right next door that sells coffee for $3. If there were, there’d probably be more of a line in front of that one What they’ve done so brilliantly is they’ve carved out attention and a system so they get paid all day long giving value to people.

Seth Godin – Startup School, Episode 1

I still think Startup school is one of the most helpful things Seth has done, and this idea of a generous monopoly – generous because you’re making something available that people choose to have – is one of his best.

Full .pdf transcript by Kev Evans here

Yardstick: more capacity

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or that progress is slow, it may help to look back at last year, when you probably felt the same.

A good question to ask is “How much capacity do we have now, compared with this time last year?”

Ultimately, this question is about contribution and impact – are you getting more done, to a better standard, and with better results?

But look also at the available inputs:

  • People and their skills
  • Relationships inside and outside the organisation
  • Your reputation and wider network
  • Processes and systems that enable you to get more done with the same or less effort
  • Money and physical resources

If your capacity is growing – if you’re doing more with the same or less resources or effort, if you have more good people working on the right things with increasing independence – you’re probably on the right track.

If it’s not – if you find yourself with fewer resources, fewer good people and partners, working harder but achieving less – it’s time to re-evaluate what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Most of all, it’s time to find friends and champions.

The assumption that underpins all of your work

… is that people can change, and that things can get better.

If you didn’t believe this already you probably wouldn’t be reading this.

The question is, do you act as if it’s true?

  • Which areas of your own life and skill set do you turn a blind eye to: “I can grow in these areas, but I’m just not an X person”?
  • Which people do you – consciously or not – treat as if they can’t change?

One of the keys for unlocking growth and learning in yourself and others is taking firm hold of the believe that growth and learning are possible for anyone – and helping others to see this too.

We also need to recognise that change – especially in habits and ways of thinking – is often slow, hard work. It’s slow, hard work in our own lives, let alone in the lives of the people we serve – our students, children, friends, clients. We don’t change unless we (or they) recognise our need for change and have a will to make it happen (this may take a “Holy Sh!t Moment“).

It helps to recognise that rather than being a sign of stupidity, struggle is often a sign of opportunity. It’s precisely in the struggle – and in persevering, and finding a way – that we do our most valuable learning.

This makes perseverance and tenacity incredibly valuable learning tools. In the absence of a motivating crisis, you may find it helps to learn with others, and for others (in the sense of service, not approval.)

DriverlessBookadile: Contents v.0.2

This post is part of the working draft of the DriverlessCrocodile Toolkit (read more here). I’d love comments, links to resources related to the theme, and original contributions.

What goes in?

This is a working document reflecting the current plan for the contents of the DriverlessCrocodile Toolkit, in order:

0. Take Action (Do it now)

This is Chapter 0. I’m alternating between thinking it’s best to have Action as a first principle, or Foundations. I started this series with posts on Foundations, but I’m leaning back towards action first. When I revisited Seven Habits for this post I was surprised to rediscover that that’s how Stephen Covey did it too…

1. Build Foundations (How to be, and the change you seek)

A chapter covering values, vision and mission – the foundations of building an organisation.

2. Learn to See (How change happens)

A chapter about lenses you can use to improve your understanding of how change happens, with the aim of identifying the levers at your disposal for making change. This chapter starts with the reminder that almost everything we see around us was made by people like us and highlights some lessons about how innovation happens.

3. Find Friends (Share the story)

A chapter about the importance of allies, colleagues, partners and mentors, and some tools for building networks – including resources about communicating well through writing and presentation.

4. Grow a market (Starting up)

A chapter about the search for customers and a (charitable?) business model that enables you to serve them. Covering small beginnings and minimum viable products, iteration and customer-development… tied into marketing and applying skills and approaches from Chapter 3 to telling your story to customers.

5. Managing

The meaty, unglamorous work of actually executing on your ideas. Resources about getting things done, and on leading and managing organisations – including the managing money.

6. Hinterland (Seeing further)

A chapter that identifies useful lenses that I think are the most useful (and often overlooked until people start building things) for understanding how change happens, including: history, including economic history, technology and the digital revolution, systems thinking and network theory.

So that’s it for now. What do you think? What’s good, what’s missing, what’s in the wrong order or wrongly grouped?

Amazon: working backwards and other stories

I’m late to the party on this, but I’ve just come across this very helpful technique for developing products and services, as used at Amazon. Essentially, you start by immediately writing a customer-facing press release for the finished product, and work backwards from there:

Each consists of a one-page “press release” (for an offering that doesn’t even exist and might never be commercialized), a six-page set of FAQs (frequently asked questions that customers can be anticipated to have about the offering, and their straightforward answers), and often a bit more descriptive material, sometimes even a mockup or prototype.

The process we’re calling the heart of Amazon’s renowned innovation prowess is called “working backwards” and it takes its cue from Amazon’s long-established leadership principles. The first of them starts: “Customer obsession. Leaders start with the customer and work backwards …” Following that principle, these documents constitute a visualization mechanism. They force a person with an inventive idea to get very clear on the objective, and to describe it in a way that others can also grasp without ambiguity. The documents don’t just go into email boxes. Their authors present them internally with the kind of energy they would deserve if this were really the day  the offering was launched.

If the discussion wows its audience – a manager or set of managers in a position to allocate resources to develop it further – then the question quickly becomes: how do we accomplish everything it would take to get there? It’s fine if, as the work gets underway, discoveries suggest that the vision should change somewhat; and in that case the “PR/FAQ” gets revised. Wilke stresses that these are “living documents.” But still, “as you begin to iterate on the product, and you revise those docs,” he stresses, “you periodically compare them to the original ones to make sure you haven’t drifted so far from the vision that you’re not happy with what you’re actually building.”

Jeff Dyer and Hal GregersenHow Does Amazon Stay at Day One (Forbes)

Here’s a bit more on the process:

A press release is usually the very last step in the product development and launch process. It tells the world: “Here I am, this is what I can do, and this is why you should care.”

To be effective, the author must step back from the technobabble trap and communicate in terms that resonate with the target customer.

“One important element of the press release is that it is written in so-called ‘Oprah-speak’. Or in other words, a way that is easy to understand,” says Nikki Gilliard of Econsultancy. “This essentially allows Amazon to cut through tech-jargon and any descriptions that would only confuse the customer, in order to deliver a mainstream product.”

The starting point for the product definition is a customer-centric document, unconcerned with implementation details, technology or user interface design. Then, the focus shifts to what encompasses a truly great solution for the customer. If the press release is compelling, then you’re onto something.

“Iterating on a press release is a lot quicker and less expensive than iterating on the product itself,” says Amazon’s Ian McAllister. “If the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck. Keep working at it until the outline for each paragraph flows.”

Heather McCloskeyWhy the Most Forward-Thinking Product Teams Work Backwards (ProductPlan)

I love this idea. I’ve been thinking a lot about how important (and hard) it is to write good specs recently, and writing the press release and FAQs seems like a powerful way to keep customer focused even at the earliest stages. The idea of iterating on the press-release and FAQs in conversation with customers (‘spec as minimum viable product’) makes it better still.

The rest of the Forbes article is great too – highly recommend.