Every so often people will ask me to play chess with them. The problem with that is that I hate chess, but not for the normal reasons. I loved chess as a boy, playing against my father and brother. I joined chess clubs at my school and I played regularly until the age of about 13 or 14, but slowly stopped enjoying it after that.
The problem with chess is that people believe it to be a proxy for intelligence. People who thought I was intelligent wanted to beat me at chess to demonstrate themselves smarter than me. When my intellectual weight became tied to a board game, and games became value judgements, I stopped enjoying the game. I have barely played it since.
One conclusion that could be drawn from this experience is that people in their late teens are idiots who make juvenile sport out of minor victories to establish a social hierarchy. Most people, we hope, mature out of this phase of life. The other conclusion is that people love using chess as a way to study how the mind works and how expertise in any given subject might be achieved.
Becoming good at anything
A few years ago I picked up a magazine at a book store. It was the August 2006 issue of Scientific American, and the title article was “Secrets of the Expert Mind: Become Good at Anything.” The cover image featured a shadowy figure playing chess across six hovering chessboards.
The article was a great vindication for me. Quite apart from demonstrating that chess is more about pattern recognition, entrained instincts, and intensive practice over many years, not a skill that necessarily translates to or from other cognitively demanding arenas, the article also describes the 10-year principle. It’s not such a new idea, but has been brought to popular attention by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers where it’s framed as the 10,000 hour rule.
The deliberate practice hypothesis
Recently, out of interest, I was reading a paper by K. Anders Ericsson et al., from 1993, titled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Try getting a copy here or here.
In this article the authors refute the idea that intelligence, measured through aptitude tests, always correlates with success, and that genetic influences are uniquely deterministic in a person’s ability. Instead, the reason that so few people are truly exceptional is that mere experience with a subject, like say playing piano, or chess, or physics, is insufficient to become exceptional at it. Neither is practice sufficient.
Suppose you wanted to learn how to play the piano. You know that practice is involved. You might practice for a little bit each day, getting better and better. Your initial progress will start to plateau, however, after you’ve reached a modest degree of skill. At this point, you have to make a choice: either continue to “practice” each day, playing the same pieces over and over again, polishing things up a little here and there, doing the same exercises that you’ve already mastered…
you can begin deliberate practice. You were probably already doing deliberate practice right when you started. Learning new pieces was hard! Learning difficult scales was boring. Getting the mood and dynamics of a piece right took time. You stopped doing these things once you got reasonably good at them. You stopped practising deliberately.
K. Anders Ericsson et al. define deliberate practice as follows:
In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.
In a future post I intend to write about what limits deliberate practice and our ability to achieve expert-level performance. For most people, the major reasons are closely-related: motivation and effort. The struggle that most people have with motivating themselves to become better—better at their jobs, better with their finances, better with their health and fitness—is probably the major reason that personal improvement blogs have proliferated in recent years. Some examples include Ramit Sethi, who likes to dissect the psychology of why we make bad financial and career decisions; or Cal Newport, who often mentions the importance of deliberate practice for crafting a remarkable life; or Leo Babauta, who writes about living simply and setting goals.
The title of this post you may find misleading. Where does talent come from? I don’t discount that there is such a thing natural giftings or talent. But far more important in determining the impact that your life has, and the expertise you achieve, is how much time you have for deliberate practice. Ironically, despite the inherent difficulty, devotees of deliberate practice routinely find it takes them less time to learn new subjects and master difficult material. Examples are many, but include Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot who uses deliberate practice to teach himself a new language in three months; or Scout Young who did the 4-year MIT computer science curriculum by himself, online, in 12 months… through deliberate practice.