In his new book Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise (already out in the US and released on 21 April in the UK), professor of psychology Mr Anders Ericsson proposes a somewhat contentious notion: there is no such thing as natural talent. In fact, says Mr Ericsson, the very idea that people are born with aptitudes for certain things obscures the intriguing truth – that the ability of any given individual to acquire and perfect any given skill is almost limitless. And he has the evidence to back it up. For more than 20 years, Mr Ericsson has been studying expert performers from a range of disciplines, from athletics to music to the medical profession, to the point where he has become renowned as the world expert on expertise. In Peak, he explains that it’s not so much ability or intelligence that separates the very best from the mediocre, but the degree to which they engage in what he calls “deliberate practice”. To discover just why this is so (and what you can do to set up your own deliberate practice routine), you’ll have to read the book. But as a taster, MR PORTER asked Mr Ericsson to outline some of the key pitfalls that commonly beset would-be improvers.
If you’re trying to get better at something, you need to know when you’ve improved, otherwise, what’s the point? But to do this you need to focus on things that can be objectively measured. Like your 5km running time. Or your sales figures. In short, you should sweat the small stuff. Mr Ericsson uses the idea of dreaming of fame as a counter-example.
“Fame, to me, doesn’t really reflect a specific performance that you would achieve,” he says. “Some famous people are performers and they are basically the ones that we look up to. But only once you have a superior performance can you ask, how did this performance come about and what are the things this individual did?”