This is a book about the gift that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sakakibara’s
schoolchildren, and Ray Allen all shared—the ability to create, through the right
sort of training and practice, abilities that they would not otherwise possess by
taking advantage of the incredible adaptability of the human brain and body.
Furthermore, it is a book about how anyone can put this gift to work in order to
improve in an area they choose. And finally, in the broadest sense this is a book
about a fundamentally new way of thinking about human potential, one that
suggests we have far more power than we ever realized to take control of our
own lives.
Since antiquity, people have generally assumed that a person’s potential in any
given field is inevitably and unavoidably limited by that person’s inherent talent.
Many people take piano lessons, but only those with some special gift become
truly great pianists or composers. Every child is exposed to mathematics in
school, but only a few have what it takes to become mathematicians or physicists
or engineers. According to this view, each of us is born with a set of fixed
potentials—a potential for music, a potential for mathematics, a potential for
sports, a potential for business—and we can choose to develop (or not) any of
those potentials, but we cannot fill any one of those particular “cups” up past its
brim. Thus the purpose of teaching or training becomes helping a person reach
his or her potential—to fill the cup as fully as possible. This implies a certain
approach to learning that assumes preset limits.
But we now understand that there’s no such thing as a predefined ability. The
brain is adaptable, and training can create skills—such as perfect pitch—that did
not exist before. This is a game changer, because learning now becomes a way of
creating abilities rather than of bringing people to the point where they can take
advantage of their innate ones. In this new world it no longer makes sense to
think of people as born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an
expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives.
Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing
it. We can create our own potential. And this is true whether our goal is to
become a concert pianist or just play the piano well enough to amuse ourselves,
to join the PGA golf tour or just bring our handicaps down a few strokes.
The question then becomes, How do we do it? How do we take advantage of
this gift and build abilities in our area of choice? Much of my research over the
past several decades has been devoted to answering this question—that is, to
identify and understand in detail the best ways to improve performance in a
given activity. In short, I have been asking, What works and what doesn’t and
Surprisingly, this question has gotten very little attention from most of the
people who have written about this general subject. Over the past few years a
number of books have argued that people have been overestimating the value of
innate talent and underestimating the value of such things as opportunity,
motivation, and effort. I cannot disagree with this, and it is certainly important to
let people know that they can improve—and improve a lot—with practice, or
else they are unlikely to be motivated to even try. But sometimes these books
leave the impression that heartfelt desire and hard work alone will lead to
improved performance—“Just keep working at it, and you’ll get there”—and
this is wrong. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of
time leads to improvement. Nothing else.
This book describes in detail what that “right sort of practice” is and how it
can be put to work.
The details about this sort of practice are drawn from a relatively new area of
psychology that can be best described as “the science of expertise.” This new
field seeks to understand the abilities of “expert performers,” that is, people who
are among the best in the world at what they do, who have reached the very peak
of performance, and I have published several academic books on the topic,
including Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits in 1991,
The Road to Excellence in 1996, and The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and
Expert Performance in 2006. Those of us in the expertise field investigate what
sets these exceptional people apart from everyone else. We also try to assemble a
step-by-step accounting of how these expert performers improved their
performance over time and exactly how their mental and physical abilities
changed as they improved. More than two decades ago, after studying expert
performers from a wide range of fields, my colleagues and I came to realize that
no matter what the field, the most effective approaches to improving
performance all follow a single set of general principles. We named this
universal approach “deliberate practice.” Today deliberate practice remains the
gold standard for anyone in any field who wishes to take advantage of the gift of
adaptability in order to build new skills and abilities, and it is the main concern
of this book.
The first half of this book describes what deliberate practice is, why it works
as well as it does, and how experts apply it to produce their extraordinary
abilities. To do that we will have to examine various types of practice, from the
least to the most sophisticated, and discuss what differentiates them. Because
one of the key differences among different types of practice is the extent to
which they harness the adaptability of the human brain and body, we will take
some time to discuss that adaptability and what triggers it. We’ll also explore
exactly what sorts of changes take place in the brain in response to deliberate
practice. Because gaining expertise is largely a matter of improving one’s mental
processes (including, in some fields, the mental processes that control body
movements), and because physical changes such as increasing strength,
flexibility, and endurance are already reasonably well understood, this book’s
focus will be mostly on the mental side of expert performance, although there is
certainly a significant physical component to expertise in sports and other
athletic endeavors. After these explorations we will examine how everything fits
together to produce an expert performer—a long-term process that generally
takes a decade or more.
Next, in a brief interlude, we examine more closely the issue of innate
endowment and what role it might play in limiting how far some people can go
in attaining expert performance. There are some inherited physical
characteristics, such as height and body size, that can influence performance in
various sports and other physical activities and that cannot be changed by
practice. However, most traits that play a role in expert performance can be
modified by the right sort of practice, at least during some period of one’s
lifespan. More generally, there is a complex interplay between genetic factors
and practice activities that we are just beginning to understand. Some genetic
factors may influence a person’s ability to engage in sustained deliberate practice
—for instance, by limiting a person’s capability to focus for long periods of time
every day. Conversely, engaging in extended practice may influence how genes
are turned on and off in the body.
The last part of the book takes everything we have learned about deliberate
practice by studying expert performers and explains what it means for the rest of
us. I offer specific advice about putting deliberate practice to work in
professional organizations in order to improve the performance of employees,
about how individuals can apply deliberate practice to get better in their areas of
interest, and even about how schools can put deliberate practice to work in the
While the principles of deliberate practice were discovered by studying expert
performers, the principles themselves can be used by anyone who wants to
improve at anything, even if just a little bit. Want to improve your tennis game?
Deliberate practice. Your writing? Deliberate practice. Your sales skills?
Deliberate practice. Because deliberate practice was developed specifically to
help people become among the best in the world at what they do and not merely
to become “good enough,” it is the most powerful approach to learning that has
yet been discovered.
Here is a good way to think about it: You wish to climb a mountain. You’re
not sure how high you want to go—that peak looks an awfully long way off—
but you know you want to get higher than you currently are. You could simply
take off on whichever path looks promising and hope for the best, but you’re
probably not going to get very far. Or you could rely on a guide who has been to
the peak and knows the best way there. That will guarantee that no matter how
high you decide to climb, you are doing it in the most efficient, effective way.
That best way is deliberate practice, and this book is your guide. It will show
you the path to the peak; how far you travel along that path is up to you.