So what if self-improvement did not require such a huge investment of time? Are there special qualities that people who strive for the top possess that allow them to rise above the rest? BBC Capital asked a gold-medal winning Olympic coach, a record-holding football manager and a super learner. Stop repeating mistakes Sixty minutes spent doing ‘the right thing’ is better than any amount of time spent learning in an unfocussed way, according to professor Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. Identifying areas that need work then devising a purposeful plan to correct them is crucial. Ericsson calls this process ‘deliberate practice’. Ericsson has spent the best part of three decades analysing how elite performers from musicians to surgeons reach the very top of their field. Developing the right mindset, he says, is more important than raw talent. “There was always this discussion that in order to be good you had to be born with the attributes because it was difficult to produce high-level performers, which is wrong,” he says.Practitioners of deliberate practice often criticise the way we are taught at school. Music teachers, for example, start pupils off with the basic elements; the notes, the keys, how to read music. If you need to grade students against each other you need to compare them on simple, objective measures. Teaching like this makes grading easier, but it might also turn off beginners who cannot imagine reaching their end goal of playing the music they enjoy because they are doing tasks that have no meaning to them.
Start with the goal, then create a plan to get there and stick to it“I think the right way to learn is the reverse,” says Max Deutsch, 26, who has taken rapid learning to the extreme. In 2016, San Francisco-based Deutsch set himself the target of learning 12 ambitious new skills to a very high standard, one each month. The first was memorising a deck of cards in two minutes without a mistake. Accomplishing this task is considered the threshold for a grandmaster of memory. The last was to teach himself how to play chess, from the beginning, and to beat grandmaster Magnus Carlsen in a game. “Start with the goal,” says Deutsch. “What is it that I would have to know, or be able to do, to get to my goal? Then create a plan to get there and stick to it. On day one I declared ‘This is what I’m going to be doing each day’. I predefined every task for every single day. This meant I didn’t think ‘Do I have the energy or should I put this off?’ because I had predefined it. It became a non-negotiable part of the day.” Deutsch says he was able to take on this challenge while holding down a full-time job, commuting for an hour a day and ensuring he had eight hours’ sleep. Forty-five to 60 minutes each day for 30 days was enough to complete each challenge. “The structure did 80% of the hard work,” he says. If deliberate practice sounds familiar to you, it formed the basis of the 10,000-hour rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell. One of Ericsson’s first papers on deliberate practice suggested that elite performers spend 10,000 hours, or approximately 10 years, training in this focused way before they reach the top of their field. But it is misleading to think that anyone who spends 10,000 hours doing anything will somehow become world-class. “You need to be practising with purpose, and it takes a certain type of person, psychologically, to do that,” says Ericsson. “It’s not about the total time spent practising, it needs to be matched with the commitment of the student,” he says. “Are they correcting, are they changing what they do. It’s not clear why some people think that doing more of making the same mistakes will make you better.” ‘Focus on mastery’ The sporting world has adopted many of Ericsson’s lessons. “It’s the players who do the work. They have to be very determined to be a player who reaches the top,” says Roger Gustafsson. A former footballer-turned-coach, Gustafsson managed IFK Goteborg to five league titles in the 1990s – more than any other manager in Swedish league history. Now in his 60s, Gustafsson is still involved in the youth system at the club. “We tried to teach 12-year-olds [in the IFK Goteborg youth system] the Barcelona passing triangle through deliberate practice and they developed incredibly [fast] in five weeks. They reached a point where they were doing the same number of triangle passes as Barcelona in competitive games. It’s not quite like saying they were as good as Barcelona, of course, but it was incredible how quickly they could learn.”
Five tips for deliberate practice
1. Start with your goal. What are you trying to achieve: to be the best in the world, or something else? Without knowing where you want to get to, you cannot plan. 2. Work backwards from your goal, what do you need to do to get there? Eliminate things from your training that are unnecessary for meeting your goal. 3. Break up your plan into smaller steps. Set yourself deadlines. This way you will know if you are starting to fall behind or have plateaued. 4. Ask for feedback from someone experienced, or film yourself at your task. If you want to be a good public speaker, film yourself presenting and compare it to other videos of speakers. 5. If you plateau you might need to work backwards. What do other people do that you do not? Getting worse before you get better is a real possibility.