Stop repeating mistakes
According to Professor Anders Eriksson of the University of Florida, 60 minutes spent doing “the right job” is better than any amount of time spent learning without a focused approach. Identifying areas that need work and then developing a focused plan to work on them is critical. Ericsson calls this process “deliberate practice.”
Ericsson has spent the better part of three decades analyzing how the best specialists, from musicians to surgeons, reach the top of their field. According to him, developing the right mindset is more important than just talent. “It has always been believed that in order to be the best, you had to be born that way, because it is difficult to create high-level masters, but this is wrong,” he says.
Advocates of intentional practice often criticize the way we are taught in school. Music teachers, for example, start with the basics: sheet music, keys, and how to read music. If you need to compare students with each other, you need to compare them on simple objective measures. Such training facilitates grading, but can also distract beginners who can’t imagine reaching their ultimate goal, which is to play the music they like because they’re doing tasks that don’t matter to them. “I think the right way to learn is the reverse,” says 26-year-old Max Deutsch, who has taken fast learning to its extreme. In 2016, San Francisco-based Deutsch set a goal of learning 12 ambitious new skills to a very high standard, one per month. The first was memorizing a deck of cards in two minutes without errors. Completion of this task is considered the threshold for Grandmastership. The last one was to teach myself how to play chess from the very beginning and beat Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen in the game.
“Start with a goal. What do I need to know or be able to do to reach my goal? Then create a plan to get there and stick to it. On the first day, I said, “This is what I’m going to do every day.” I predetermined each task for each day. This meant that I didn’t think, “Do I have the energy or should I put it off?” Because I predestined it. It became an integral part of the day,” Deutsch says.
Deutsch was able to accomplish this task by working full-time, commuting an hour a day and not missing an eight-hour nap. 45 to 60 minutes each day for 30 days was sufficient to complete each trial. “The structure did 80% of the hard work,” he says.
Deliberate practice may sound familiar to you, as it was the basis of the 10 hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. One of Eriksson’s first articles on intentional practice suggested spending 000 hours, or roughly 10 years, on targeted training to reach the top in your field. But the idea that anyone who spends 000 hours on something will become a genius is a delusion. “You have to practice with purpose, and that requires a certain type of personality. This is not about the total time spent on practice, it should correspond to the abilities of the student. And about how to analyze the work done: correct, change, adjust. It’s not clear why some people think that if you do more, making the same mistakes, you’ll get better,” Eriksson says.
Focus on skill
The sports world has adopted many of Ericsson’s lessons. Former footballer-turned-manager Roger Gustafsson led Swedish football club Gothenburg to 5 league titles in the 1990s, more than any other manager in Swedish league history. Now in his 60s, Gustafsson is still involved in the club’s youth system. “We tried to teach 12 year olds to do the Barcelona Triangle through deliberate practice and they developed incredibly fast in 5 weeks. They reached the point where they made the same number of triangle passes as FC Barcelona in competitive play. Of course, this is not exactly the same as saying that they are as good as Barcelona, but it was incredible how quickly they could learn,” he said.
In deliberate practice, feedback is important. For Gustafsson’s players, video has become such a tool to provide immediate feedback. “If you just tell the player what to do, they may not get the same picture as you. He needs to see himself and compare with the player who did it differently. Young players are very comfortable with videos. They are used to filming themselves and each other. As a coach, it is difficult to give feedback to everyone, because you have 20 players on the team. The intentional practice is to give people the opportunity to give themselves feedback,” says Gustafsson.
Gustafsson emphasizes that the sooner a coach can speak his mind, the more valuable it is. By correcting mistakes in training, you spend less time doing everything wrong.
“The most important part of that is the intent of the athlete, they need to want to learn,” says Hugh McCutcheon, head volleyball coach at the University of Minnesota. McCutcheon was the head coach of the US men’s volleyball team that won gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, 20 years after his previous gold medal. He then took on the women’s team and led them to silver at the 2012 games in London. “We have a duty to teach, and they have a duty to learn,” says McCutcheon. “The plateau is the reality that you will struggle with. People who go through this are working on their mistakes. There are no transformation days where you go from log to expert. Talent is not uncommon. Lots of talented people. And the rarity is talent, motivation and perseverance.”
Why Structure Matters
For some of the tasks Deutsch took on, there was already a predetermined method of learning, such as memorizing a deck of cards, where he says 90% of the method is well practiced. Deutsch wanted to apply deliberate practice to a more abstract problem that would require developing his own strategy: solving the New York Times Saturday crossword puzzle. He says that these crossword puzzles were considered too difficult to solve systematically, but he thought he could apply the techniques he had learned in previous problems to solve them.
“If I know the 6000 most common clues, how well will that help me solve the puzzle? An easier puzzle will help you find the answer to a more difficult one. Here’s what I did: I ran a content scraper from their site to get the data, and then I used a program to memorize it. I learned those 6000 answers in a week,” Deutsch said.
With enough diligence, he was able to learn all of these general clues. Deutsch then looked at how the puzzles were built. Some letter combinations are more likely to follow others, so if part of the grid is complete, it can narrow down the possibilities for remaining gaps by eliminating unlikely words. Expanding his vocabulary was the final part of the transition from novice crossword solver to master.
“Typically, we underestimate what we can do in a short amount of time and overestimate what it takes to get something done,” says Deutsch, who excelled at 11 of his 12 problems (winning a chess game eluded From him). “By creating structure, you are removing mental noise. Thinking about how you will achieve your goal of 1 hour a day for a month is not a lot of time, but when was the last time you spent 30 hours consciously working on something specific?