Expertise as peak performance.

Play and expertise. Play is a word that is used for so many things that it has lost its meaning. We can pay an instrument, play sport, play ball, play chess, play hard, or pay for fun. But among all these different meanings there are two that are diametrically opposed. Play can mean both something that we do just for the fun of it and also something at which we are expert. It can mean something at which we are both a rank amateur and also something we do professionally. If we say we play football it may mean we are expert at it or it may mean we play it just for fun. When we say children play we mean the latter usually, because children are not expected to be expert at anything. But if we say a child plays chess it may very well mean the child is an expert. The point is that there should be two different words to differentiate play as having fun and play as being an expert.

Learning to improve and learning for fun. All learning can be approached as something done purely for our own amusement or something that we are working at to become expert and both are called play. Now it is not impossible to do both of these things simultaneously, we may be motivated to play for its amusement value and also in order to become expert. However, we now live in a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so because of our expanding fascination with the so called gifted and the glorification of talent. This is causing many unfortunate problems for the future of learning. Why? Because both of these sorts of intrinsic motivation are essential for any sort of learning, especially for beginner learners and we seem cerebrating one at the expense of the other.

Curiosity and interest. These are intrinsic motivations connected to the intrinsic motivation to improve and intrinsic motivation to have fun. Curiosity motivates us to explore but only if our experiences with exploration have proved to be enjoyable or fun. Interest motivates us to learn more about a subject in order to improve our knowledge in the subject or improve our skill at an activity we have already had some pleasurable experience of. In both cases our previous pleasurable experience with learning the subject or skill motivates to continue learning that subject or skill. In both cases we predict that future learning in the subject or skill will be pleasurable because our previous experience with them has been pleasurable. We are also motivated to improve the skill and improve our knowledge of the subject. In this case we predict that improvement in anything will be pleasurable because all or most of our previous experience with improvement has been pleasurable.

Curiosity, interest and expertise. Interest lures learners on toward eventual expertise. But curiosity is what allows learners to become interested in the first place. In this way both are essential to all learning. When we are young we need the motivation to explore a lot of new things and to begin learning in all those domains. Children need this motivation because this is the way they can find things to be interested in and can start making their way to be expert in those domains or activities. But children, especially, also need to find domains and skills that they can indulge in just for fun, hobbies or pursuits that they do at leisure in order to play. In this case play means something people do purely and exclusively for enjoyment and relaxation.

Expertise and the trade offs between the depth and breadth of learning. This is to say that there is a trade off between how soon and greatly we specialize in learning an area of knowledge and how many areas of knowledge we can engage in learning. The more we specialize in learning a single subject or domain of knowledge the less time and energy we have to devote to learning other subjects or domains of knowledge.

The trade off between early specialization and remaining unspecialized. There is also a trade off between early specializing in a subject matter in order to become expert more quickly and more early and a number of concerns about the general quality of all learning. While it can in many ways be advantageous to becoming expert earlier in life and to show proficiency more quickly there are serious disadvantages to doing so as follows.

  1. The corruption of parents, guardians and caregivers. The most obvious detriment for children specializing early is the unfortunate effect it can have on parents, guardians and care givers. Parents, guardians and care givers are those people who are in the best position to influence the early learning of children and if they influence this early learning badly it can be difficult to correct in later life. Because of western culture's fascination with prodigies, parents etc. can become overly enthusiastic about a child showing early promise in some field of study or some culturally highly prized skill. Skills like playing chess, playing an instrument, singing, playing any number of sports, even spelling can lure parents etc. into trying to guide or control the rate and amount of learning and the interest the child is displaying. Parents doing any of this are likely to have the opposite effect of reducing interest and making the specific learning less pleasurable. Nobody likes to be controlled, least of all children, especially in something they started doing because of the immense pleasure it gave. Such parents may be driven to do many other things that are detrimental to their child's learning by pride in the child's achievement, if the child is socially recognized as gifted. This will be discussed elsewhere.

  2. Choosing the wrong path. Early specialization can cause children to commit to a specialty long before they are sufficiently emotionally and intellectually able to make such a momentous commitment and decision. Specialization of this sort requires a lifetime commitment. Children, after all, have very little experience with either decision making or commitment.

  3. Preparation for specializing. Learning just a little in many fields of learning and learning a little in many many skills is a good way to learn which skill or area of learning provides the most pleasure. By learning a about great many different things and making early forays into numerous skills children can easily compare them and judge among them which he or she might eventually choose to specialize in.

  4. Premature abandonment of important knowledge domains. Early specialization may result in the far too early abandoning of subject matters that the child enjoys and which would be highly necessary to the future of all subsequent learning.

  5. Play deprivation. Early specialization can also can significantly impact child play. This is the kind of play children indulge in strictly for its amusement value and in order to be sociable. Such interactions with their peers are essential for good development of social skills that are indispensable life skills. Early obsession with a subject or skill, to the point of abandoning such play, is a likely outcome for early specialization.  

Children and the early or late adoption of specialization. When considering whether children should specialize early or not in order to become experts research seems to indicate we should be guided by the desires of the child in question. If a child develops an early obsessive interest in a knowledge domain or in some particular skill it is unlikely the child can be dissuaded from continuing to learn that subject or skill nor is it wise to try to dissuade them. However, they should not be overly encouraged in this pursuit. Indeed the discarding of other interests in order to concentrate on that one thing should be actively discouraged. Not only that but such children should be further encouraged to continue to try learning in as many and as varied new knowledge domains as possible and to continue to try as many and as varied new skills as possible. For children there are more important things to learn than becoming an expert. They need to indulge in childish play and they should be acquiring a vast breadth of interests that will eventually put them in a position of advantage in making decisions and prepare them to eventually consider specialization but only in early adulthood.   

What is expertise?

Superior knowledge. Expertise is being judged by our peers or some objective panel of experts to be superior in the amount of knowledge we have in some field of learning. 

Superior skill. Expertise is being judged by our peers or some objective panel of experts to be superior in the performance of some group of skills that define a sport, an art or any other type of competitive activity like a vocation.

Inborn talent and expertise.

It was once thought that expertise was produced by luck in a genetic lottery. In ancient times people tended to horde anything that gave them power and influence over others. They horded their knowledge their skill and more importantly they horded how knowledge and skill could be obtained. They reasoned that if they passed on how to obtain knowledge and skill they would be creating rivals in power and influence. How to become expert was hidden away. It was a secret. But when others saw the experts' knowledge and skills it seemed amazing and magical. They could not imagine that such amazing attributes could be learned and assumed that people were born with such abilities or at the very least they were born with unique potentials. Those that had expert knowledge and skill encouraged this type of thinking and thus the idea of inborn talent came into existence. It is not too surprising that the most obvious remnant today of this type of thinking is in the field of stage magic. This myth of inborn talent has seeped down though the ages and clouded our understanding of expertise until now.

However, in recent times, study after study has shown that expertise is achieved by learning and that this in turn is the result of practice, causing the idea of inborn talent to be abandoned in science. The idea that genetic potential differs greatly from one person to another has been found to be simply wrong. Many factors go into learning such as our beliefs, our motivation, our persistence, etc. and while genetic potential is one of these factors it has proved to be one of little significance. The amount of real difference in potential among most humans has been shown to be usually minor.

Shaping your potential.

In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson suggests, that like talent, potential, for the most part, is not innate. He says:

"The traditional approach [to learning] 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 you comfort zone. In this view, all that you are doing with practice - indeed, all you can do - is to reach a fixed potential. 

Ericsson suggests that potential is not fixed at all and that when we practice we reshape both our bodies and our brains to such an extent that what was impossible before becomes possible. He continues:

"...the goal is not just to reach your potential but to build it... 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."

Expertise is the ultimate guide to learning.

The true major factor in becoming expert has been demonstrated to be 'learning' and the attendant features of human behavior that enable learning to take place. If we can discover how to learn sufficiently well enough to create an expert in any field, then we will truly have learned how to learn. The study of experts and expertise becomes the ultimate guide to learning how to learn and thus the ultimate guide to learning itself.


Habits are both the reason why we can do so much in learning skills, and the same time, why it is so difficult to learn skills to a level of expertise. The reason habits can help us learn is that our bodies and minds are habit constructing tools. Our minds, in particular, spend a good deal of their processing power on constructing habits. Why is this? Well, habits enable us to react reflexively which is very fast compared to anything that requires thinking and decision making. Thinking, whether it is fast or slow thinking, is much slower than no thinking at all. Habits do not involve thinking. We simply perceive some preset or premarked scene, object, set of objects or interacting objects in our external environment, which activates, in response to a cue, a preset template for action (a schema). A schema is a program, a series of nerve impulse instructions for running the action or habit. Once activated this schema drives an action to be automatically performed. No thought has to take place so the action can happen very fast.


Learning habits. 

But habits have to be learned. If we are to be in control of our habits we must direct that learning and we can. Unlike habits themselves, the learning of habits does require thinking, if we want them to work for us. The learning of habits takes time and progress is often slow. While we are learning a habit we are in the process of changing an action by creating variants of the action in order to improve the action. We create a variant of an action and then assess whether it is an improvement or not. If we judge it to be an improvement we repeat it until it becomes normal for the action. At this point it replaces the previous version of itself. This process continues until the action becomes what we consider to be perfect and at that point the action becomes automatic and it sinks into our unconscious. 

The magic of unfinished habits. 

This process by which we forge habits can become the true miracle of learning if we continue to create new variant actions and never be satisfied with an action. When we do this the potential habit never gets finished. This is in fact how we learn skills. The same process that occurs when we are learning a habit also occurs when we are learning a skill. Skills then would seem to be unfinished habits. A skill is simply the early part of the habit formation state, before it is completely fixed. Skills are the flexible progressively improving actions that preceded true habit formation. They are the unfinished variants we create in order to improve an action. The more we repeat an action the more it tends to sink to an unconscious level where it becomes automatic. If we want it to remain in its flexible form, so we can continue to improve it, we have to continue creating these variants. If we do this our actions steadily improve, and there is no point where they cannot be improved more. As this continues we become experts in our field. When performing (not when we are learning) our actions become seemingly magical, not only to others, but often to ourselves. Our actions become fluid, unbelievably fast and sometimes partially and sometimes fully automatic, for short periods of time. In sports this is called being in the zone.

In his book "Trying not to Try" Edward Singerland explains that this kind of spontaneous acting without thinking is both a highly desirable state and an essential part of motivation to reach expert levels. He says:

"The importance of being in the zone is perhaps nowhere more appreciated than in professional sports, where the competitive edge provided by complete absorption is the stuff of myth. A 2005 piece in Sports Illustrated consists solely of quotations from professional basketball players about what it feels like to be on fire:" 

"There are books you can read about getting into the shooting zone, how to prepare yourself, but its never something you can predict. The ball feels so light, and your shots are effortless. You don't even have to aim. You let it go, and you know the ball is going in. Its wonderful... Its like a good dream, and you don't want to wake up." -Pat Garrity, Orlando magic forward

"Its like an out of body experience, like your watching yourself. You almost feel like you don't even see the defense. Every move you make, you feel God, that guy is slow. You're going bye people. You don't even hear the regular noise you hear. It's muffled. You go to practice the next day and you say 'God why can't I do that every night?' Guys have wanted to bottle that feeling." -Joe Dumars, former NBA All-Star guard

Fixed habits as skills.

If, on the other hand, we do not continue creating action variants the action tends to gets repeated in a single form. When this happens the actions tend to sink to a mental place that is out of our control. It becomes reflexive, an automatic action, a habit. When a habit is formed in the sense it has sunk into the unconscious mind and is activated by cues in the exterior environment it becomes both hard to reach and hard to change. Such habits are fixed. Many habits of this sort are formed without us being conscious of the fact that they are even forming. Some activities like walking and driving become fixed habits but this is not always so. Racing drivers have a skill that remains unfinished and ever improving. Walking can, in some circumstances, such as tight rope walking or walk racing, remain unfixed also. The actions we repeat often, for the most part, tend to sink to this unconscious level and become automatic but the generation of new variants prevent this happening. Cues to activate habits also form without our minds consciously creating them. We can with a huge effort and hard work, however, make these habits flexible again. We can also take control of cues. 


What we call skills can be habits. Singing, dancing, playing music, martial arts are all fields of learning where certain actions and parts of actions are allowed to become standard or usual and become part of one's repertoire. But other actions, as explained above, are never perfected, nor can they be, and thus must remain in the intermediate stage of being unfinished and flexible. These actions have not consolidated into a fixed habit and yet they can be still mostly fully automatic. It is a flexible form that can still be changed fairly easily by creating a new variant. To create an improved version or variant we need to identify how the previous version is falling short and make adjustments to that version. We do this by combining the new aspects or elements of the action with those aspects or elements in the original version that were already good. As this new variant becomes the norm it replaces the older version becoming a flexible kind of skill or a flexiskill. Flexiskill is a new word created here to symbolize this new concept. 

 Learning by means of practice.

All learning requires practice. Practice is how we build spontaneous actions that become habits and skills. Although we tend to think of practice as something we do to improve physical actions it also applies to the improvement of mental actions. That is to say the things we do to acquire information and turn it into knowledge are also actions that respond by improving with practice. Although mental actions are not as accessible to study, it turns out that, what we have learned about the practicing of physical skills, is equally applicable to the skills for acquiring knowledge.


Spontaneity seems to be often misunderstood as a concept. In time past it seems to have been thought of as a sort of possession like voodoo practitioners who are taken over by a loa. Something takes over our bodies and minds causing them to act without thought or input of any kind from ourselves. We become mere observers and passengers in our own skin. Yet at the same time spontaneity is often considered to be our most authentic personal form of action and expression. In truth, spontaneity is neither of these things. Neither our bodies nor our minds can act much without having first learned how. Thus a spontaneous action is one which at one time or another must have been learned. These actions can come unbidden and without thought but in time past they were practiced long and often. What seems automatic in the present may have its roots in years of past practice. What makes spontaneous action spontaneous is not the new or unique activity it is, but rather its lack of conformity for the performer in the context in which it occurs. If we do something spontaneous it is simply not what we usually do. It does not have to be new or unusual it simply has to be unusual for us in that particular context. 

Mental representations.

When we are learning anything we have to assess the new against the past. With actions we have to be able to assess if the new variant action we have produced is superior to the action that preceded its creation. If we have a coach or teacher they can provide us with feedback about what we are doing wrong and when we have done it right. We also have media to provide feedback. However, in the end it is our own ability to discriminate, what we are doing wrong and when we have done something right, that is the most critical factor in improving our skill. To do this effectively we need to be able to build accurate mental representations.   

Elsewhere on this site reality patterns are talked about. These are one form of mental representation. They are the mental representations with which we build to understand reality. They are models of or aspects of external reality and they in turn come together to produce a map of reality and how it works. It is the glue that holds together our knowledge, connects our knowledge and makes reality understandable. But mental representations may come in other forms as well. With the learning of actions and the building of them into skills another sort of mental representation may be necessary. These are the representation of actions themselves and how we feel when we perform those actions. In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson puts it like this:

"Even when the skill being practiced is primarily physical, a major factor is the development of the proper mental representations. Consider a competitive diver working on a new dive. Much of the practice is devoted to forming a clear mental picture of what the dive should look like at every moment and, more importantly, what it should feel like in terms of body positioning and momentum.

Of course, the deliberate practice will also lead to physical changes in the body itself - in divers, the development of the legs, abdominal muscles, back, and shoulders among other body parts - but without the mental representations necessary to produce and control the body's movements correctly, the physical changes would be of no use."

But it is also possible that these action representations may not be different to reality patterns at all. Reality patterns may also include action elements. Our understanding of a ball is not just a picture of a ball, it is our entire experience of balls compressed down into a gist. Our understanding of a ball is not just how it looks but how it sounds, how it feels and even how it smells. More importantly it is also how it changes when it moves and bounces and our experience of catching it and throwing it. Our skill with a ball is part of our understanding of what it is. As our skill with a ball improves so does our understanding of what a ball is. However in his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson explains that all expert performance requires the ability to recognize patterns. Such patterns can only be recognized because we have built up accurate mental representations of them: 

"This is most obvious in team sports. Take soccer, for instance. You have eleven players on a side moving around in a way that to the uninitiated seems a swirling chaos with no discernible pattern beyond the obvious fact that some soccer players are drawn to the soccer ball whenever it comes near. To those who know and love the game, however, and particularly those who play the game well, this chaos is no chaos at all. It is all a beautifully nuanced and constantly shifting pattern created as the players move in response to the ball and the movements of the other players. The best players recognize and respond to patterns almost instantaneously, taking advantage of weaknesses or openings as soon as they appear. 

...we showed them [some soccer players] videos of real soccer matches and suddenly stopped the the video when a player had just received the ball. Then we asked our subjects to predict what would happen next. ...We found that the more accomplished players were much better at at deciding what the player should do with the ball. ...We concluded that the advantage better players had in predicting future events was related to their ability to envision more possible outcomes and quickly sift through them and come up with the most promising actions. In short, the better players had a more highly developed ability to interpret the pattern of action on the field."  

In any case the action part of any mental representation seems likely to take place in what are being called mirror neurons. These are specialized neurons (in our brains) that seem to be there to enable us to imitate others. When we see an action taking place, imagine performing an action, or even think about an action, these special neurons light up like Christmas lights. It seems very likely then, that our first attempts at performing an action come from these neurons. We see an action performed and wish to duplicate it ourselves. We try and probably fail. But this provides the first mental representation of the action.


This first attempt at action is probably not very good, but we try to improve on it by creating a variant of it. At this point we have to judge if the new variant is better and in what ways it might be worse than the mental representation we have of it. We can do this by putting it up against our new mental representation and see how closely it resembles it. How it is better and how is it worse become easier to judge as we have a yard stick. If the action is worse than the mental representation we can see where the flaws are and can generate ways of adjusting our action to over come those flaws. If the new variant is better than the mental representation we can then upgrade the mental representation to bring it up to the same level.


It turns out that we now know a lot about practice and its relationship with learning much of which comes from the study of experts conducted by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. It is important to note, however, that the word 'practice' conjures up the idea of repetition, which, if you think about it, could not account much in the way of improvement in actions. As this site has pointed out elsewhere (specifically on the the iteration page) what we really do when we practice is not just repetition. In fact, what we do, is create a variant of any action we wish to improve. We then perform it and assess whether it is an improvement or not, using such feedback as is available, and discard it if it isn't an improvement. If it is an improvement, we then try to repeat it until such time as it becomes normal for the action at which point it replaces the earlier version of the action. This continual approaching of an improved action by means of creating and running variant action schemas and selecting the better ones is iteration, rather that repetition, even though some actual repetition may be involved.


Ordinary practice, purposeful practice and deliberate practice.

Practice, beyond this point will be used to mean that which improves an action. This kind of practice comes in a variety of types. Ericsson in his book "Peak" distinguishes three types of practice. He chose to divide practice into three types to correspond to the three levels of seriousness in which people practice. It turns out however that the three different types of practice (ordinary practice, purposeful practice and deliberate practice) also have very different rates of improvement. Ordinary practice is the one most of us are familiar with. We all use this kind of practice to learn new skills where we need to be good enough at doing something. We need to be good enough to play a sport, good enough to get a job, good enough to be accepted in our social circle. Purposeful practice is that which is used by those who want to be really good at something. Purposeful practice enables us to excel. Deliberate practice is that used by professionals to hone their skills into such proficiency as to make them members of a fraternity of world class practitioners of those skills. 

Motivation and hard work.

All practice requires motivation. Ordinary or naive practice requires a little, purposeful practice requires a lot more and deliberate practice a huge amount. Motivation is not to be found in practice. Practice is no fun. It is arduous hard work. In every field that he investigated, Anders Ericsson found that that every student (would be expert) hated practicing. Motivation, of course, comes from the intrinsic satisfaction performers get from being able to perform well, the degree to which their identity is bound up in the field, and the honor and adulation they receive from those who love their performance. In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson set out to discover, what it was that kept people motivated until they reached expert levels. He explains:

Intrinsic motivation. "Studies of expert performers tell us that once you have practiced for a while and can see the results, the skill itself can become part of your motivation. You take pride in what you do, you get pleasure from your friends' complements. You begin to see yourself as a public speaker or a piccolo player or a maker of origami figures. As long as you recognize this new identity as flowing from the many hours of practice that you devoted to to developing your skill, further practice comes to feel more like an investment than an expense."

He understood that the initial motivation was in the goal that had been set and the anticipation of pleasure in reaching that goal. He realized, however, that such motivation would not last very long, and that other types of motivation had to come into play between the time that this initial motivation petered out, and when intrinsic satisfaction and adulation cut in. He discovered the following  motivations:

Self belief. "In order to push yourself when you really don't feel like it, you must believe that you can improve and - particularly for people who are shooting to become expert performers - that you can rank among the best. The power of such belief is so strong that it can even trump reality."

Social motivation. "This can take several forms. One of the simplest and most direct is the approval and admiration of others. Young children are often motivated to practice a musical instrument or a sport because they are looking for their parents' approval. Older children, on the other hand, are often motivated by positive feedback for their accomplishments. After having practiced long enough to reach a certain skill level, they become known for their abilities - this child is an artist, that child plays the piano well, and that one is a phenomenal basket ball player - and this recognition can provide motivation to keep going. Many teenagers - and more than a few adults - have taken up a musical instrument or a sport because they believed that expertise in that area would make them more sexually attractive.

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 there is not only motivation to practice but also motivation not to practice. Practice is at the very least uncomfortable, it is tiring, and usually painful. Whether we are motivated to practice is actually a function of the balance of these positive and negative motivations. Ericsson puts it like this:

"Maintaining the motivation that enables a regimen has two parts: reasons to keep going and reasons to stop. When you quit something that you initially wanted to do, its because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to to continue. Thus to maintain your motivation you can either strengthen you the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit. Successful motivation efforts generally include both. There are various ways to weaken the reasons to quit."

Set a practice time clear of distractions. "One of the most effective [ways to weaken] is to set aside a fixed time to practice that has been cleared of all other obligations and distractions."

This works well because you are not tempted to do anything else because your schedule is clear and also because a specific time can act as a cue to set the practice in motion automatically.

Habituation. "Fortunately, you will find that as you maintain your practice over time it will seem easier. Both your body and your mind will habituate to the practice. Runners and other athletes find that they become inured to the pain associated with their exercise."

Look after your health. "If you're tired or sick, its that much harder to maintain focus and that much easier to slack off."

Get enough sleep. "...the violin students were all careful to to get a good nights sleep each night, and many of them would take an early afternoon nap after their morning practice." 

Not only does getting enough seep improve your health but there are now indications in research that sleep may actually be essential to any kind of learning. It may be necessary for both memory and the consolidation of practice. For more information about this click here.

Limit your practice to an hour. "You can't maintain intense concentration for much longer than that - and when you're first starting out, its likely to be less. If you want to practice longer than an hour, go for an hour and take a break."


Ordinary or naive practice.

When we learn we normally have to have a goal in mind. If we observe an action our mirror neurons may prompt us to form the goal of performing that action. With this action goal in mind we will try to perform the action in a way that matches the rudimentary mental representation that is the goal. We try to reproduce this mental representation. We fail of course. But if we are vigilant we can notice how our performance differs form the goal. If we can do that, then, we have clues as to how we might perform the action better by avoiding the things we did wrong. This is not repetition. It is a kind of iteration where we keep some aspects of an action and abandon other aspects. The new action is partly the old action but also is partly something new. It can look a bit like repetition but it is actually a variant of itself. What we often call repetition is not repetition until we can almost perfectly produce the action in the form that was set by that original goal. Only then is true repetition even possible. If we do repeat the action then, in so far as we can, it is likely that the action will begin to become fixed. If this happens further progress will be difficult as the action will have started to become automatic and will have begun to sink into the unconscious mind where it is difficult to change. In this way further repetition can be said to prevent further improvement.

Ordinary practice, or naive practice, is what most people do to learn a skill. We want to learn something so we do what we think we need to do in practice in order to learn it. We set certain vague goals for ourselves. We may get a lesson or two from a professional, but only just enough to learn the basics, because we are not ambitious, and do not expect to able to become highly skilled. Our desire is only to be good enough to play or take part. If competition is normal, such as with a sport, we begin to play with others who are only marginally better than ourselves. Despite this we assume we will be able to continue to improve a little by practicing.

Essentially though, after learning the rules and a few basic actions, our only understanding of practice is to repeat the basic actions we have already learned. We erroneously assume that just trying to repeat the basic actions somehow causes improvement in those actions. Its like we believe that mere repetition of an action will by itself magically turn the action into a master stroke. What it actually does though, is to fix the action as a habit, which prevents further improvement. In learning skills this is called reaching a plateau. The problem is we have reached our goals and without setting new goals. We stop generating variants of our actions because we did not know we were generating them in the first place. The myth of repetition's miraculous improvement properties distorts our thinking. We are sure it will work and are disturbed when when it does not.

Purposeful practice.

In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson suggests a number of characteristics of what he calls purposeful practice and these characteristics force practice out of its repetitious mode. They enable practice to be the creation of variants and the assessment of those variants. 

Firstly he says: "Purposeful practice has well defined, specific goals." Ericsson explains that what he means by specific goals is how small goals build into larger goals. Ericson puts like this: "Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer term goal. ...Break it down and make a plan. ...The key thing is to take that general goal - get better - and turn it into something specific that you can work on with realistic expectation of improvement."

What Ericson does not say but implies is that these goals also need to be unfinalized or unfinished. For instance, he points out that the goal for remembering digits was simply to remember one more digit each time through. This is unfinished in that the moment that goal is reached it is instantly transformed into the next one more. He also implies that goals can be stacked one inside another. You can have an immediate goal, within a weekly goal, within a yearly goal, within a long term goal. In this way as soon as one goal is reached another takes its place and you are never left without a goal. These unfinished goals not only continually encourage the formation or creation of variants of actions, and thus continual improvement in those actions, but they also prevent those actions being finalized into fixed habits.

Secondly he says: "Purposeful practice is focused." If you are going to be able to assess or judge if the the action you just performed is better or worse than its previous iteration you need to be fully focused on that performance. You have to attend to as many aspects of the performance as you can and be processing as much sensory feedback data as is possible about that performance. This focus also has the added benefit of making the learner aware of his/her improvement and in this way is generating intrinsic motivation that helps the learner to maintain persistence in the face of alternative pleasures that could distract from practice. 

Thirdly he says: "Purposeful practice involves feedback." "You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not how you're going wrong." There are only three paces you can get feedback from. One is from our own internal discriminating abilities (which has to be learned). Another is the feedback you can get from machines. Finally the other feedback is what you get from other people. Some types of practice have built in feedback like the right or wrong attached to the end of spelling words or remembering digits. But other actions are less easy to assess as an action may be wrong in one circumstance and right in another and you have to determine its correctness yourself. However as Ericson explains: "Generally speaking, no matter what you are trying to do, you need feedback to identify exactly and how you are falling short. Without feedback - either from yourself or from outside observers - you cannot figure out what you need to do to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals."

Fourthly he says: "Purposeful practice requires getting out of one's comfort zone." This is perhaps the most important characteristic of purposeful practice. Doing nothing is comfortable, but once you have developed actions, that have a high quality of expertise, it is comfortable to just perform them the same way over and over again. Of course that means the action sinks into the unconscious and becomes a habit preventing any further improvement. The thing is, creating variants of our actions and assessing them, is painful hard work. To do it we must get out of our comfort zone. You must do the hard work. 

Plateaus can become cliffs to fall from. When fixed habits form and Improvement seems to stop after a while even though a learner is still trying to create variant actions. This is because our brains are wired to create habits. We may think we are producing new action variants but it can end up with learners just reproducing the habit action. Then the more the learner tries to create a variant action the more he/she ends up reinforcing the habit. The way around this is to try to do something different. Take a break from the action or find a new approach to creating variant actions. This creates a new variant and breaks the cycle. Plateaus are also connected to choking because we tend to worry when we can't seem to improve.

Choking, the tragedy of trying not to try. Choking occurs when we start to worry for some reason about what we are doing with automated actions. We can panic and start thinking while we are performing the action. The thinking can slow down the action or even interrupt the flow of the action causing it to falter or come out in a variant form that is worse than that which we wanted and expected. This makes us panic more and think more causing further deterioration in the action. It can become a self defeating spiral of anti learning. Ericson in his book gives the following advice for getting around these sorts of barriers:

"Generally the solution is not to 'try harder' but rather try differently. It is a technique issue in other words... The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction..."

Deliberate practice.

In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson suggests deliberate practice requires the same characteristics as purposeful practice with a few additions.

Goals. He Says: "Deliberate practice... often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement, Once an overall goal is set, a teacher or coach will develop a plan for making a series of small changes that will add up to the desired larger change."

Focus. He Says: "Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is to say it involves a person's full attention and conscious actions. It isn't enough to simply follow the a teacher's or coach's directions. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice."

Feedback. He Says: "Deliberate practice involves... modification of effort in response to... feedback. Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires effective mental representations." 

Discomfort. He Says: "Deliberate practice... requires a student to try things just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands a near maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable."

Mental representations. He says: "Deliberate practice both produces and depends of effective mental representations... Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance. They show the right way to do something and allow one to notice when doing something wrong and to correct it."

Foundations. He says: "Because of the way that new skills build on top of existing skills, it is important for teachers to provide beginners with the correct fundamental skills in order to minimize the chances that the student will have to relearn those fundamentals skills when at a more advanced level."

In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson also suggests that in addition to the above, and more importantly, deliberate practice requires a well developed pool of knowledge and a highly trained and skilled teacher or coach to pass on that pool of knowledge:

He says: "First, it requires a field that is already fairly well developed - that is, a field in which the best performers have attained a level of performance that clearly sets them apart from people who have just entered the field. We're referring to activities like musical performance (obviously) ballet and other sorts of dance, chess, and many individual and team sports in which athletes are scored for their individual performance, such as gymnastics, figure skating, or diving." "Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established."

He says: "Second, deliberate practice requires a teacher who can provide feedback and practice activities designed to help a student improve his or her performance. Of course, before there can be such teachers there must be individuals who have achieved a certain level of performance with practice methods that can be passed on to others." "The practice regime should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed."

Without a teacher students are basically reinventing the wheel. Of course it is possible to train without a guide or coach, but it is a long laborious route. The trouble is without a guide to the pool of knowledge that has been developed by numerous masters over many years the student only has what he/she has seen others do, and his/her ability to self monitor to enable progress. The student will therefor try many many action variants that do not work. This is a long arduous toil of solving problems, most of which, will have been solved already, and creating action variants that have already been crafted in a better form by true masters of the field.

With a highly skilled teacher these unnecessary variant actions may never be tried at all, and those that are tried are quickly corrected by the teacher's sharp eye and skillful instant feedback. A good teacher will see what a student is doing wrong and provide exercises specifically designed to correct such missteps. Indeed a master class teacher can design exercises specifically for a specific student. Such teachers have at their fingertips a vast reservoir of secrets handed down by all the great masters of the field, a concentrated heritage of skill. This heritage is a short cut to mastery. It enables students to become skilled faster, and become expert where they might never reach expertise at all. Without a teacher a student can still tap into that reservoir of knowledge in the form of books, videos, and demonstrations on you tube. But such feed back, as that provides, will never be as good as the feedback of a skillful teacher, who can see critical flaws in a student's actions that the student might never see.

The important thing about a highly skilled teacher is that such a teacher is in high demand and his/her time is highly valuable. It is then up to the student to make the best use of the time the teacher is available to the student on a one to one basis. Ideally a student might like such a teacher to spend all his/her time on one to one instruction with the student. But this is unlikely to be possible. 

In his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson discusses superior student musicians studying violin at the Berlin Academy as follows :

"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. Among serious students - such as the ones who ended up in the Berlin academy - its not unusual for ten and eleven-year-olds to be spending fifteen hours a week on focused practice, during which time they are following lessons designed by their teachers to develop specific techniques. And as they get older, the serious students generally increase their amount of weekly practice."

With a highly skilled teacher each student's one to one interactions were restricted to only about an hour a week. The teacher would assess their progress at these once a week sessions, give detailed feedback about their weaknesses, and give them specific exercises designed to correct those weaknesses. Each student tackled these exercises in isolated solo practice. This solo practice was deliberate practice even though the skilled teacher was not available to give feedback, because the students had already developed accurate mental representations that developed each time the teacher gave feedback. These mental representations served the students sufficiently to enable them to judge whether each exercise was bringing them closer to what was required or not. It also enabled them to determine whether each new iteration of each action was an improvement or not. With effort, by the time they returned to the teacher for more feedback, they had already fixed the previous problems and could move on to fixing other problems.

In skill fields that are not as well developed as music it is still possible for students to do deliberate practice. If no teachers exist it may be possible to create teachers by selecting the top performers in the field and asking them to be teachers. This is exactly what they did with the top gun program for navy pilots in the USA. If that is not possible the student can still learn a lot by watching closely the actions or work of top performers in a field and trying to duplicate them. On top of that students can seek criticism from others who are learning and performing in the same field especially experts when they are available. Performing for anyone where they give feedback can be useful. Comedians, for instance, often hone their craft by working in little known places trying out new material and seeing what works to make the audiences laugh.   

Are there limits to what can be accomplished with  practice?

From what has been uncovered about practice so far it seems there are no limits to what can be accomplished by means of practice. We have been improving in every form of sport or other competitive activity since we acquired the ability to record performances. The marathon is being performed today 30% faster than in 1908 Olympics. In the same 1908 Olympics the double somersault was banned as being too dangerous while today it is an entry level dive.  In the 1930's Alfred Cortot's musical performances were considered the best in the world. Today those same performances are offered as examples of how not to play. As Ericsson says:

"One way to think about this is simply as a reflection of the fact that, to date we have found no limitations to the improvements that can be made with particular types of practice. As training techniques are improved and new heights of achievement are discovered, people in every area of human endeavor are constantly finding ways to get better, to raise the bar on what what was thought to be possible, and there is no sign that this will stop. The horizons of human potential are expanding with each new generation."

The further reaches of skill.

Without limits skills will improve with each successive generation. The iterative process through which this can take place has been examined and speculated upon on three other pages of this site. For more information about this click here for information on the page iteration, here for information on the page skillcoaching and here for information on the page blink.


The 10,000 hour rule and what Gladwell was right about.

Although Ericsson believes that Malcolm Gladwell misquoted his research by simplifying it down to a rule that was applicable to all forms of expertise, he does admit that Gladwell got something right. He says:

"Gladwell did get one thing right, and that is worth repeating because it's crucial: becoming accomplished in any field in which there is a well-established history of people working to become experts requires a tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years. It may not require exactly ten thousand hours, but it will take a lot...

Gladwell's ten thousand hour rule captures this fundamental truth - that in many areas of human endeavor it takes many many years of practice to become one of the best in the world - in a forceful, memorable way, and that's a good thing.

On the other hand, emphasizing what it takes to become one of the best in such competitive fields as music chess, or academic research, leads us to overlook what I believe is a more important lesson... While some might take this as a challenge... many will see it as a stop sign. Why should I even try if its going to take me ten thousand hours to get really good? As Dogbert observed...

But I see the core message as something else altogether: In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement... but you have only scratched the surface. You can keep going, getting better and better. How much you improve is up to you."

Where to go once you have become an expert. Be creative.

In many fields where people become expert there is a built in ultimate goal where knowledge and skill turns into creativity. The expert ballet dancer can make use of his/her years of arduous training to become a choreographer and produce works of art. The expert scientist can use his/her hard won skills and knowledge to make break-throughs in his/her field. The expert musician can make use of his/her painfully acquired skills and knowledge to become a composer. 

But in any field which is highly developed in which experts absorb a large body of skill there is another way in which they can have an ultimate goal of being creative. Eventually the expert will run out effective training techniques to learn. While this body of knowledge is large, it is possible to learn it all. When this body of knowledge is completely absorbed, the thought processes of those past experts who figured out those effective training techniques become more transparent. Somebody has to build on these techniques and create new techniques that can further expand these bodies of knowledge. The expert who has run out of training techniques to learn can simply invent his/her own.

The lessons of expertise for teachers.

Expertise has much to teach us about teaching and how it can be improved. At the end of his book "Peak" Anders Ericsson points out the following:

" has always been surprising to me when I talk to full time athletes and their coaches how many of them have never taken the time to identify those aspects of performance that they would like to improve and then design training methods aimed specifically at those things. In reality much of the training that athletes do is - especially athletes in team sports - is carried out in groups with no attempt to figure out what each individual should be focusing on.

Furthermore very little has been done to learn about the mental representations that successful athletes use. The ideal approach to fixing this would be to have athletes verbally report their thinking while they are [training] performing, which would make it possible for researchers, coaches and perhaps even the athletes themselves to design training tasks to improve their representations of the game situations..."

The acquiring of skills is acquiring of knowledge in a superior form.

While it would be nice if all sports could develop a body of effective training techniques, Ericson is more concerned about how this knowledge, about how expertise works, might be brought to bear on how teaching in general might be improved to enable students to acquire knowledge more effectively. He points out that the difference between ordinary learning (the acquiring of knowledge) and becoming expert has to do with the emphasis expertise gives to skills. He believes that acquiring skills inadvertently enables the acquiring of knowledge and in a superior manner. He explains: 

"If you teach a student facts, concepts, and rules those things go into long-term memory as individual pieces, and if a student then wishes to do something with them - use them to solve a problem, reason with them to answer a question, or organize and analyze them to come up with a theme or a hypothesis - the limitations of attention and short-term memory kick in. The student must keep all these different, unconnected pieces in mind while working them toward a solution. However, if this information is assimilated as part of building mental representations aimed at doing something, the individual pieces become part of an interconnected pattern that provides context and meaning to the information, making it easier to deal with. don't build mental representations by thinking about something; you build them by trying to do something; you build them by trying to do something, failing, revising and trying again, over and over. [A process of iteration.] When you're done, not only have you developed an effective mental representation for the skill you were developing, but you have also absorbed a great deal of information connected with that skill."

The fact is, all knowledge has a practical side where the knowledge is used to do something, and any student is expected to know how to do those things after just assimilating the knowledge. The idea of learning by trying to do those things, trying and revising (practicing) is a bit foreign to normal pedagogy. Nevertheless such practice might bring better recall and better understanding to the practice of teaching. Ericsson explains:

"...imagine what might be possible with the efforts that are inspired and directed by a clear scientific understanding of the best ways to build expertise. And imagine what might be possible if we applied the techniques that have proved so effective in sports and music and chess to all the different types of learning that people do, from the education of schoolchildren to the training of doctors, engineers, pilots, businesspeople, and workers of every sort. I believe that the dramatic improvements we have seen in those few fields over the past hundred years are achievable in pretty much every field if we apply the lessons that can be learned from studying the principles of effective practice." 

Ericson goes on to discuss the teaching experiment conduced by Wieman and his colleagues:

"The first thing that Wieman and his colleagues did in designing the class was to speak to traditional instructors to determine exactly what the students should be able to do once they finished the section. ...When preparing a lesson plan, determining what a student should be able to do is far more effective than than determining what the student should know. It turns out that the knowing part comes along for the ride.

Once Wieman and his colleagues had put together a list of what things their students should be able to do, they transformed them into a collection of specific learning objectives. Again this is a classic deliberate practice approach: when teaching a skill, break down the lesson into a series of steps that the student can master one at a time, building from one to the next to reach the ultimate objective. While this sounds very like the scaffolding approach used in traditional education it differs crucially in its focus on understanding the necessary mental representations at each step of the way and making sure that the student has developed the appropriate representations before moving to the next step.

To help the physics students in their class to develop... mental representations, Wieman and his coworkers developed sets of clicker questions and learning tasks that would help them reach the learning objectives the instructors had previously identified. The clicker questions and tasks were chosen to trigger discussions that would lead the students to grapple with and apply the concepts they were learning and ultimately use those concepts to answer the questions and solve the tasks.

Finally the classes were structured so that the students would have the opportunity to deal with various concepts over and over again, getting feedback that identified their mistakes and showed how to correct them. Some of the feedback came from fellow students in the discussion groups and some from the instructors, but the important thing was that the students were getting immediate responses that told them when they were doing something wrong and how to fix it."

Each step is a specific activity the student needs to be able to do. Each is tackled in an iterative process where the student tries, determines the improvement or where the activity is flawed, and revises (creates variants of the activity until until determining he/she has performed it correctly). Basically the ordinary acquiring of knowledge has been turned into one of deliberate practice.

Why should we become experts?

Why should we become experts? It may seem obvious that the world would be a better place with more experts and that it is experts and their knowledge that solve the world's problems and keep the world on the right path. But expertise will not accomplish these things by itself. To create successful, creative people who can work together for the greater good we need not only people who are experts, but people who who also have many other skills and qualities that are not expert, but simply good enough. We need experts that can use their expertise in the world to make it a better place. We need people to choose to become experts and not be forced or manipulated to become expert. We should become experts because we are intrinsically motivated to do so. Experts fashioned by others through external pressure become unbalanced people of little use to themselves or others.

Tiger mothers want their kids to be experts so badly, they are willing to force them be expert.

Sure, we now know how to create experts, but should we make them just because we can? If it means creating people with expert knowledge that can not function properly in society, the answer is no. Parents are imbued with a fierce desire to protect their children, but his desire to protect can become through fear an aberration, one so oppressive as to hold their children back from learning life's most essential lessons. We call parents in the grip of this aberration stage mothers, helicopter parents and tiger mothers. Tiger mothers want their children to be successful and therefor to become experts in many fields of study. To this end they schedule their children with hours and hours of extra curricula practice in those fields of study. They manipulate and force their children to become expert.

Tiger mothers, by making all the choices for their children, stop their children learning how to make choices themselves. By making all the decisions for their children, they prevent their children learning how to make decisions. By cleaning up their children's messes, they prevent their children learning how to clean up after themselves, and take responsibility for their actions. By smoothing away the obstacles in their children's lives and overcoming their children's challenges they deprive their children of the joy and accomplishment of overcoming obstacles and challenges themselves. By scheduling so many hours of practice in many subject fields they deprive their children of opportunities to interact with other children and so learn interpersonal skills such as communication and teamwork. But most importantly by depriving their children of time to play they curtail many skills and qualities that are essential for life. Without play, creativity, curiosity, trust, self control, empathy and knowing where to draw the line, can disappear.

Expertise must be chosen freely. 

Expertise is now something we know how to create. But it is important to note that if it is not chosen freely it can be it can become a millstone round a person's neck crushing the human spirit out of them. Expertise involves thousands of hours of hard work which though it can to some extent be accomplished with extrinsic motivation, it cannot be maintained. If children become highly skilled in some subjects solely because of external pressure, they'll most likely come to dislike it even even if they become expert in the subject. In her book "The Self-motivated Kids" Shimi Kang M.D. explains it like this:

"I see this all the time in my practice and it often it often happens around high school. Many of those tiger cubs that were bolting out the gates and destroying the competition as children start to plateau and are often passed over by others who may have experienced a more relaxed dolphin approach to to their academic extracurricular activities. Some don't care that they are falling behind, and are even thankful, because they are burnt out. Others can't handle being less than the 'best' and fall apart instead of trying harder because they're as fragile as a teacup."  

Unbalanced individuals and society.

Even as expertise begins to form through extrinsic motivation the locus of identity moves outside the self with a result that is often so unstable that the children so motivated tend to crash and burn, even turning to alcohol and drugs in order to escape their situation. Parents that push children to become expert, waste their lives on fruitless and thankless effort. Their children in turn become unbalanced individuals who are able to make little use of any expertise they might attain.

Of course parents, teachers and those in society's power want people to become expert so that those children and students can be successful and excel and so that society can be healthy and function efficiently. This unfortunately leads parents teachers and those in power to the erroneous conclusion that they can shape children and students into all becoming experts. This is a serious mistake. It even produces the opposite of what they want. It produces children and students that fail and often never recover and a society that is inefficient and sickly. 

Most experts are likely to remain life long learners and how all learners could glimpse this.

Experts who do not love the subjects they are expert in are not likely to remain life long learners. They are not self motivated. When the pressure to continue learning from parents, teachers and society eases after leaving school so does their desire to continue learning. However most experts are intrinsically motivated.  

Experts who are intrinsically motivated, are people who have already spent a good part of their lives devoted to learning. They enjoy learning and their intrinsic motivation keeps them learning. The only way they will be tempted to stop is, if for some reason the skill they have developed becomes unusable for some reason, or they become incapacitated in their ability to perform that skill. Obviously a severe sports injury can put an end to a career in a sport. A violinist who has broken or lost a hand would be struggling to continue. An editor who looses his/her sight would be struggling. The trouble with becoming an expert in some field is that all the skills they learn are very specific to their field. However despite these problems intrinsically motivated experts enjoy learning and improving in their expertise and so are likely to be and continue to be life long learners.

However, experts have learned one thing that most non experts will never learn, and that is that it is possible for them to become an expert. They have already become an expert once so there is no reason for them to suspect that they could not do it again. Many experts have been known to make this transition despite horrific injuries. Also an expert's life so far has been one of every day practice, probably at the same time every day. They have the habit of practicing. They have the habit of learning. They are cued to go and practice and to learn at the same time every day. Breaking that habit would be very difficult even for somebody with a severe injury.

Also, although skills themselves do not generalize to other fields, and are specific only to one field, one part of skill building is somewhat transferable. Ericsson explains it as follows:

"Having students create mental representations in one area helps them understand exactly what it takes to be successful not only in that field but in others as well. Most people, even adults, have never attained a level of performance in any field that is sufficient to show them the true power of mental representations to plan, execute, and evaluate their performance in the way expert performers do. ...Once they do understand what is necessary to get there in one area, they understand, at least in principle, what it takes in other areas.

...Our schools should give all students such an experience in some domain. Only then will they understand what is possible and also what it takes to make it happen."

Yes, schools could provide such an experience for all students. But schools should do it only if they can do so by means of enabling the formation of intrinsic motivation in each student, and thus awaken the student's desire for such an experience. Without promoting this internal drive such an experience would have little use.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Thin Slicing Expertise Self Determination Self Theories Answers Iteration