Sunday, July 12, 2020

Peak - Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

Anders Ericsson is the world's reigning expert on expertise. His article 'The Making of an Expert' in the Harvard Business Review gave me a glimpse into his wonderful ideas around this fascinating subject and so I eagerly picked up this book when Sridhar suggested it to me. Anders Ericsson's paper on the subject of expertise was what spurred Malcolm Gladwell to coin the catchy '10000-hour rule' to expertise which became a rage and made the book 'Outliers' such a hit. Though Ericsson says its not as simple as merely practising for 10000 hours, he says Gladwell made it amply clear to people across the world that expertise is not easy. Anders Ericsson teamed up with Robert Pool to write this book.

Our Potential is Not Fixed - We Can Create Our Own Potential
To begin with, let's be clear that the capacity of the body and mind is not fixed - it can be improved. While we know that the body can be strengthened and its progress measured, we aren't sure about other aspects - for example, brain. We believed in the vague idea of 'god-given talent' until studies proved that the human brain is adaptable and what's more, parts of it grew in size when people put those parts to work and developed expertise in relevant areas.

What it means is that our growth, our potential is not fixed - we can create our own potential. We can also become experts. We can grow way beyond what we believe is our limit.

The Memory Experiment - We can Do 10x of Our "Limits"
One cannot become an expert by merely working hard. A particular kind of effort and practice is required to grow beyond our normal limits. Ericsson termed it "deliberate practice". To illustrate this kind of practice and its results, Ericsson cites his work with Steve Faloon, a student, on a memory exercise. Steve was given the task of memorising numbers read out in order by Ericsson and to repeat them back in the same order. By the fourth session, Steve could memorise a string of nine numbers. That was when he hit a wall. (Ericsson knew that human short term memory had a limit, but the idea was to develop ways to convert this into long term memory and remember.) Steve thought he had reached his limit and could find no other way. But the team persevered. Now, Steve was a marathon runner who liked challenges, and was keen to go past his 'limit'.

So he hung in there and devised new ways to memorise. He used self-talk, motivated himself, clapped and pounded on the table when he succeeded and kept at it. In two years, Steve, with this structured kind of practice, could memorise up to 81 numbers at a time, making him at that time, the leading champion in that area. Every time they hit a wall they found new ways to go to the next level. (Today the string of number remembered by a person is 481 or something.)

After Steve, Ericsson worked with another student who stagnated at 20 and a third student Dario Donatelli (who was allowed to take guidance from Faloon) who reached 100! Compare 9 with 81 and you can see what deliberate practice can achieve.

Normal Practice vs Purposeful Practice
The usual form of practising we do (the naive approach to practice) is to start with friends, take a few lessons, get to a level where we feel we are 'good enough' and stagnate there. We master the easy stuff but don't really work on our weaknesses which hampers further improvement.

It is important to remember here that the human body and mind prefer stability (homeostasis). But when challenged the body and mind adapt by developing new abilities. Clearly, we do not need to stop at a good enough stage (like Steve stopped at nine numbers) but can do 10x, by adopting deliberate practice.

Purposeful Practice
As opposed to normal practice, if we are more purposeful and practice with well-defined and specific goals, design a bunch of baby steps that will help us reach a longer-term goal we can get way better. An example of being purposeful with practice is for a bowler (in cricket) to say 'without making a mistake, bowl six perfect outswingers in a row' instead of having a vague goal like 'become a better bowler'. As with any good goal, it must be challenging and big enough, so we must break down the larger goal into workable components, make a plan to achieve those, and monitor our progress.

The features of purposeful practice which is growth-oriented are -
- it is focussed
- has clear goals
- has a plan to reach the goals
- involves feedback
- requires you to go out of your comfort zone
- requires a mechanism to monitor progress.

The mantra is not the vague 'try harder' but 'try differently' and specifically.

Mental Representations - The Key to Deliberate Practice
The story of Alekhine, the chess grandmaster played against 26 challengers blindfolded, drives home the importance of creating mental representations. In 'deliberate practice' we develop preexisting mental representations that make it easier for us to understand the situation quicker. For example, a set of random words will be hard to reproduce but if a sentence is composed from them, we can easily reproduce all the words because we have a mental representation of it. Chess players call these mental representations 'lines of forces' or 'lines of power' and these are what guide them when they play blindfolded. Similarly, all experts figure out these mental representations for themselves at various levels. The memory players had their own mental representations that helped them remember numbers in sequences.

When our mental representation is clear, we have the ability to address both the forest and the trees, the overall map and the detail. In fact, Ericsson says we all have learned to walk, talk, and perform basic functions, by creating mental representations and imitating them (the quality and quantity of our exposure helps in forming superior or inferior mental representations).

Experts develop highly specialised mental representations which are a big part in their armoury. It is this knowledge that they possess in such distilled and organised fashion that makes it accessible to them, so they are able to come up with many possible options. Superior organisation of information is a major key to expertise. Timothy Gallwey's concept of 'feelmages' in his classic 'Inner Game of Tennis' is exactly this - plus the feeling aspect.

What Diffrentiates Experts
In his HBR article Ericsson says the proof of expertise is only when the exert can - consistently come with better than class performances, produce concrete results and should be able to reproduce the same results in the lab. It means that not only can they perform better than others, they also know why they perform better than others.

Experts are good because they detect their mistakes (based on mental representations) by themselves. Expert level students feel physically 'off' when things are not going right with their performance. While the non-expert might not be able to even know that he or she is making a mistake unless told, expert students have the ability to detect when they made a mistake, identify difficult sections to focus their effort on and have more effective practice techniques. For example, pianists form artistic images of pieces by sight-reading the piece on paper - and then play it.

Deliberate Practice - The Gold Standard
Deliberate Practice is the gold standard of practices if one wants to achieve expertise in any given field.

Deliberate Practice requires
- a field that is well developed
- teachers to help improve
- need students to go out of comfort their zone
- well defined and specific goals on one aspect of performance
- constant and specific feedback
- self-correcting mechanisms
- clear mental representations
- building and modifying previous skills and adding new skills.

In fields which are evolved, improvement is hard and not enjoyable. But those who are pursuing expertise persist intensely with full concentration. Deliberate practice is draining. In a study of violin students of three levels - classified as entry level, better players and best players it was discovered that they had, on comparable basis, practised on an average 3420 hours, 5301 hours and 7410 respectively.  The key to remember is that the best students, apart from mere quantity also focussed on the quality of practice. For them an hour at 100% was more important than four hours at 70%.

Deliberate practice is purposeful and informed - it knows where it is going and how to get there. It is not about going through the motions, it is about full engagement. a conscious action working towards a specific goal. The key is to focus, feedback and fix. They identify expert performances and figure out what makes the experts so good and come up with training to reach that level.

Deliberate Practice at Work
Using Deliberate Practice at work the US Navy employed their best fighter pilots to train their next level fighter pilots through intense practice sessions with role-play and after-action reports (where the trainee pilots were questioned on why they did what they did and grilled intensely until they figured where they were going wrong and improved). Focus-Feedback-Fix. Corporate trainer Art Turock uses his 'learning while real work gets done' method which involves role-play in corporate sales meetings (which normally are a drab presentation of sales forecasts) - presentations are made, feedback given by peers and the presenter comes back with the fixed presentation. It is videotaped so they can see the difference. The difference is phenomenal.

Ericsson says that we can transform normal business activities into training activities -  practice in the 'focus-feedback-fix' method become the normal. While training, if you're the trainer, ask yourself -
- are you pushing them out of their comfort zone
- is there immediate feedback
- can we match up to best performances
- is it developing skill.

The concept of 'See one, Do one and Teach one' used by surgeons also works on similar methodology.

Deliberate Practice in Everyday Life
We can use deliberate practice in everyday life and get 10x better at stuff we do. An interesting case is that of Dan McLaughlin who gave up his career at the age of thirty to use deliberate practice (10000 hours) by the end of which he aimed to play the PGA. He started with a handicap of 8.7 and was at 3-4 by the time the book was written - some three years after he began his journey.

As with all learning curves, we will plateau even here. When you plateau, - figure what's holding you back, where the mistakes are and when you are making them, figure what is breaking first and develop practices to improve that area. Always find new ways to get around the problem when you feel you hit a wall.

Motivation is a big thing here. To motivate yourself - the best way is to set aside a fixed time for practice that is clear of all distractions. stay fit. Do one-hour intense sessions with complete concentration for best effects. And of course, create a support group.

Reaching for Extraordinary - The Polgar Story
Ericsson givesthe example of the Polgars, parents Lazlo and Klara, who decided to homeschool their three daughters and teach them chess in an organised and intense fashion to disprove that women players are inferior to men players. All three girls went on to achieve great glory at a young age - Susan was the first-ever woman grandmaster, Sofia was sixth-ranked and beat several male players and Judit was Grandmaster at 15. While narrating their story Ericcson charts the three phases in the journey of becoming an expert - Starting off (early interest), Becoming serious (seeing potential and doing well) and Commitment (desire to be the best).

Ericsson goes to great lengths to make a case against natural born talent and cites the case of Niccolo Paganini, who would play the violin on one string after the other three strings broke, Mozart's extraordinary story as a musical prodigy and a high school high jump prodigy Donald Thomas. Paganini, says Ericsson, practised playing the violin on one string before (to woo a lady-love) and therefore could wow his unsuspecting audiences who thought it was spontaneous, Mozart had early practice with his father and sister and Thomas learned the Fosbury flop which meant he had some exposure to high jump and was not a novice. However, I felt this was not really important. Its important that we know how to better ourselves.

Carl Wieman's Experiment - Improving Learning in Classroom
Perhaps the most important experiment came at the end when the authors cite the case of Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman and his Physics Education Technology project. He chose 850 students from 3 sections, focused on 2 sections. One section continued as normal while the other section was taken over by Wieman's associates, a post-doctoral student and a graduate student, who had never taught a class and had only served as teaching assistants with brief knowledge on how to teach.

The experiment required students to read assigned sections and complete an online test before coming to class. In class, small groups were formed and students were asked clicker questions which they answered electronically. Students discussed within their groups, discussed answers and corrected themselves. They were given an active learning task and each student individually wrote answers and submitted them. While students discussed, the teachers walked amongst the groups, listened and corrected problem areas.

The student engagement through the new process was double that of the normal. Thanks to the high level of engagement, immediate feedback and the process which urged the students to think, the results between these two groups were as follows - the section with no intervention scored 41%while the section where this method waa adopted scored 74%.

In conclusion, Ericsson says that our objective must be skill and not knowledge. To learn a skill follow this cycle  - observe experts, create mental representations, create a step by step, repetition and feedback cycle. Voila!

'Peak' is a wonderful book which opens up the world for so many of us to be 10 times better than what we are. The use of Deliberate Practice as a method to 10x your performance, to achieve your potential, to go ten times beyond what you thought was your limit, is a game-changer for the world. Read in conjunction with books like 'Mindset' by Carol Dweck, 'The Inner Game of Tennis' by Timothy Gallwey and 'Measure What Matters' by John Doerr, this book makes a case for all of us - students, parents, teachers, managers, coaches to imbibe the principles of deliberate practice and 10x their results. Highly recommended.