Ericsson’s primary finding is that rather than mere experience or even
raw talent, it is dedicated, slogging, generally solitary exertion —
repeatedly practicing the most difficult physical tasks for an athlete,
repeatedly performing new and highly intricate computations for a
mathematician — that leads to first-rate performance. And it should
never get easier; if it does, you are coasting, not improving. Ericsson
calls this exertion “deliberate practice,” by which he means the kind
of practice we hate, the kind that leads to failure and hair-pulling
and fist-pounding. You like the Tuesday New York Times crossword? You have to tackle the Saturday one to be really good.
Take figure-skating. For the 2003 book Expert Performance in Sports,
researchers Janice Deakin and Stephen Cobley observed 24 figure skaters
as they practiced. Deakin and Cobley asked the skaters to complete
diaries about their practice habits. The researchers found that élite
skaters spent 68% of their sessions practicing jumps — one of the
riskiest and most demanding parts of figure-skating routines. Skaters
in a second tier, who were just as experienced in terms of years, spent
only 48% of their time on jumps, and they rested more often. As Deakin
and her colleagues write in the Cambridge Handbook,
“All skaters spent considerably more time practicing jumps that already
existed in their repertoire and less time on jumps they were attempting
to learn.” In other words, we like to practice what we know, stretching
out in the warm bath of familiarity rather than stretching our skills.
Those who overcome that tendency are the real high performers.