Why are some people so good at what they do whereas others struggle with the most basic of tasks? Have you ever wondered if you were capable of achieving more in your work and life?
This question is what researcher Anders Ericsson has spent most of his career pondering. And the answers might surprise you.
In his recent book, Peak, Ericsson points out the obvious fact that many people in our world appear as if they are endowed with certain genetic gifts and abilities that seem downright superhuman. But where do these gifts actually come from? Can anyone become an expert? Or is that category reserved for only the elite?
Take the example of famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who at the age of seven years old appeared to have “perfect pitch.” He understood music at a level of expertise that is uncommon for most adults.
Surely, that was a gift. Wasn’t it? Maybe not.
Starting at the age of four, young Wolfgang began working full-time with his father, who was also a musician, on practicing the violin, keyboard, and other instruments. By the age of seven, he had put in more hours than most students graduating from Juilliard School in New York City.
So was Mozart born with some special ability to discern musical notes in a way that most people cannot? According to science, no. Nonetheless, Mozart was gifted. He had the same gift we all have. He had his brain, a brain that is capable of achieving a level of performance that looks a lot like magic to those who don’t understand it.
The “gift” that we often talk about is your ability to learn, and grow, and adapt. And that’s a gift we all are born with. In other words, you’re closer to reaching your personal peak than you may realize.
I learned this in writing my last book, The Art of Work, in which I studied Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice and compared it to my own study of individuals who had discovered their life’s work. And what I learned surprised me.
The hundreds of people I interviewed, people who appeared to be “gifted,” were, in fact, no more gifted than you or I. They had just learned how to practice.
So here are three tips for how to accelerate your performance and reach your own peak sooner:
- Master your mindset. What you think about, you become. And if you are still caught up believing that some people are “just born with it,” that’s going to create a limitation on what you think is possible. Ericsson encourages another mindset that he calls the “deliberate-practice mindset,” which argues that anyone can get better if they take the right approach. So this approach begins with thinking a personal breakthrough is even possible.
Practice with purpose. Not all practice is necessarily equal. Sometimes, trying harder doesn’t get you better results. “If you are not improving,” Ericsson says, “it’s not because you lack innate talent; it’s because you’re not practicing the right way.” To reach peak performance, you must push yourself past what you think is possible. If you’re not doing that, then you aren’t really practicing. You’re just spinning your wheels. You have to put in the hours, but you also have to put in the effort.
Get around greatness. It’s not just mindset or practice that affects our performance. It’s also our environment. This means that putting yourself around others who will challenge you and help you grow is essential to mastering any skill. In Peak, Ericsson shares a fascinating study about London cab drivers, in which the cabbies’ brains were measured before they became licensed cab drivers and then years after. What they found was the part of the brain responsible for navigation had grown significantly larger after years of intense daily training in the same environment. So if you’re not achieving greatness, then it may be time to surround yourself with others who will challenge you to grow.
We all love heroic tales of overnight success, but the truth is expertise is never an accident. Without the right training, peak performance is practically impossible.
The good news, though, is anyone can achieve expert status if they understand the process and are willing to do the work.
Remember: it starts in the mind, works itself out in your daily practice, and is cemented by the company you keep.