The idea of improving yourself is probably as old as human consciousness itself. In Aristotelian ethics, the term eudaimonia represented the notion of finding true happiness by flourishing through rational activity performed virtuously (Duignan, 2019). To optimize this process, writers developed more and more concepts and guides in psychology and popular self-help literature in recent decades. One of these is the book Peak by Ericsson and Pool (2016).
To become better and eventually master a skill, one needs to practice continuously. This practice can take many forms and often is an intuitive process that begins with routines like brushing your teeth to challenging tasks such as driving a car. If this practice is focused on well-defined and specific goals, involves some form of feedback, and requires expanding one’s comfort zone, it can be defined as purposeful practice (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). However, to understand how to improve this practice even further, it is important to understand what is happening in the brain.
When you are practicing a skill, you are improving the mental representation you have of the tasks. These mental representations are “mental structures that correspond to an object, an idea, a collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about” (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, p. 58). Approximately 1’400 neurons are created every day in the region of the brain that is essential for learning and memory (Wenk, 2017). The more a certain memory is being recalled, the better the brain gets at creating a stable pattern of neural activity (Wenk, 2017). In the 2018 Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo, it can be beautifully seen how climber Alex Honnold uses mental representations to memorize his free solo climb up the El Captain mountain.
To thrive in a well-developed field like climbing where there are objective criteria for superior performance, Ericsson and Pool (2016) develop a technique called deliberate practice. This exceeds purposeful practice by including more variables in the framework based on previous work (Ericsson, 2006; Ericsson et al., 2007). These are including an expert coach, specific & adaptive goals, concentration, active feedback, building on previous skills, and improving one’s mental representations (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). In the book, the authors apply these principles to the areas of work, hobbies, and education. Also, entrepreneurs can profit from enhanced perception, memory, and self-reflection through vicarious deliberate practice (Baron & Henry, 2010). All in all, deliberate practice provides yet another tool in the long tradition of mankind’s striving for excellence and the benefits are manyfold. Though, as with most things, these ideas have to be taken with a pinch of salt. In their extensive metanalysis, Hambrick et al. (2016) argue against deliberate practice with a number of studies that demonstrate a missing variance if practice is the only factor taken into account. In general, science is always a process of asking questions, finding potential answers, and then questioning these answers once again. This is also applicable for finding the best method of practicing skills and this journey is far from over.
Baron, R. A., & Henry, R. A. (2010). How entrepreneurs acquire the capacity to excel: Insights from research on expert performance. Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, 4(1), 49–65. https://doi.org/10.1002/sej.82
Duignan, B. (2019). Eudaimonia | Definition & Facts. In Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/eudaimonia
Ericsson, A. (2006). The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance. In Camb. Handb. Expertise Expert Perform. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511816796.038
Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ericsson, A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007, July 1). The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2007/07/the-making-of-an-expert
Hambrick, D. Z., Macnamara, B. N., Campitelli, G., Ullén, F., & Mosing, M. A. (2016). Chapter One – Beyond Born versus Made: A New Look at Expertise. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation (Vol. 64, pp. 1–55). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.plm.2015.09.001
Wenk, G. L. (2017). The brain: What everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press.