Which Way to Augusta National?
A critical review of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. New York: HMH Books, 2016
Everyone knows the old story about how the weary visitor to New York City stops a man on a Manhattan sidewalk to ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”, to which the wise man says, “Practice, practice, practice!”
To that point about practice, there is no scientist in the world who would know more about practice, and its role in enabling extraordinary performers “to get to Carnegie Hall”, or in our case, to get to Augusta National, than Dr. Anders Ericsson. It is a happy circumstance, or perhaps just a good plan on the part of his publisher that Ericsson’s first book will be in bookstores the week of the annual party at Augusta National. The book entitled Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (with Robert Pool, New York: HMH Books). Ericsson has written this book with intent to reach the average reader, as opposed to the elite scientific audience which Ericsson has always targeted for his lessons in exemplary achievement.
Ericsson is, of course, very well known and highly regarded in the world of science, even if people lean on Malcolm Gladwell, for their translation of the science for the so-called “Ten Year Rule” or “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell has an incredible skill for the discovery of fascinating phenomena in the behavioral or neurosciences and winding interesting tales around the thread of truth from research.
Less well known are Ericsson’s many other contributions to the psychological sciences. These important advances include the development of methods that enable researchers to better understand a research subject’s mental process through examination of “think out loud” procedures. In addition, he and his colleagues at Florida State have played an important role in developing various methodologies for examining the training experiences of the exemplars in fields as diverse as music and chess.
Ericsson is the Conradi Eminent Scholar at Florida State University. He has published (or edited) other books, of course, which find homes in ivory towers and not on nightstands. These books include: Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments (2009), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (2006), Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits (1991), and The Road To Excellence (1996).
One school of thought maintains a view of exceptionalism that great achievement is accessible only to a precious few people who are touched by the wand of greatness. Another faction, a larger and louder group, claims that “anyone can do it!”. One needs only to “think positively”, or buy the latest computer-based “brain games”, which will expand your horizons and your cerebral cortex, while at the same time being “easy” and “fast”.
Athletes and other prospective extraordinary performers, teachers, and coaches all owe a debt of gratitude to Ericsson for his careful research which points the way toward excellence. The feature of most interest in his model of extraordinary performers is the concept of “deliberate practice”, which is a highly specific form of training marked by its intensity, the effort required to challenge yourself each day at the edge of your current ability, and the fact that it needs to be scripted, in most cases, by an expert coach, one who clearly knows the way to get to Carnegie Hall. Most of what passes for practice for most athletes even for some at the higher levels of professional achievement, is what I have called “mindless low grade exercise”.
Many readers may know about the attempt to test the concepts of the 10,000 hour rule discussed briefly in Outliers. A 32 year old photographer quit his job and sought advice from Ericsson and several other scientists and practitioners in order to prepare for the PGA Tour. The project, called “The Dan Plan“, was initiated about 5 years ago, and many of the results are impressive. The program started with Dan putting from very short distances, applying the learning concepts of the Russian physiologist, Bernstein. Bernstein proposed that by “freezing” as many joints as possible, one could efficiently learn complex motor control problems. He reasoned that it is too difficult to consciously control so many independent parts of the human anatomy. Bernstein suggested that this “degrees of freedom” problem was what made learning of complex motor patterns so difficult. The learner attempts to simplify by freezing certain body parts. While there have been impressive gains in Dan’s golf development, this writer feels that other factors powerfully influence motor skill development, including the age of acquisition problem. Due to the greater neuroplasticity of younger beginning players, there are huge advantages that support neurogenesis. Dan was not an athlete as a child and was not exposed to desirable difficulties and highly effortful training. The Dan Plan is a brave experiment, but it should not be considered a test of Ericsson’s 10,000 hour rule.
While many scholars have contributed to the growing literature on eminence, there are none better than Ericsson. He is clearly the world’s leader in what he calls the “new science of expertise.” In PEAK, he displays a consuming passion when he describes his life’s work, and the many controversies that come with this territory. “PEAK” will captivate any reader who is fascinated by the minds of extraordinary performers. “PEAK” describes in vivid detail the obsessive mission that Ericsson has been on for nearly four decades to answer one of the most interesting and compelling questions in all of human history: How does one achieve greatness?
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