8 Principles to Become an Exceptional Performer

We all experience the joys and frustrations of learning a new skill. From athletics, to music, to our professional lives, we strive to master our craft and improve our ability. Weekend golfers try to take strokes off their game, amateur musicians strive to create new music, and doctors work to better care for their patients.

Some have highly specific goals in mind and devote constant effort to improvement. Others may take a relaxed, less intense approach. Both groups encounter similar frustrations along the way. Why do we often plateau and struggle after a period of time? Why do some people improve at a faster rate than others?

Given our busy lives and competing demands, how can we best improve from average to exceptional?

K. Anders Ericsson has spent his professional life figuring out what separates elite performers from the average masses. As a Florida State psychology professor and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson is the go-to expert behind the principles of exceptional performance. His results and lessons are counterintuitive. What doesn’t matter is innate talent or genetics. What does matter is the deliberate and focused attention we apply to our practice and training.

To preview, we have complete control of our ability to learn any new skill. However, society reinforces the myth that experts are born and not made, making deliberate effort a fruitless endeavor. It’s a mindset instilled when we are young. We rationalize poor performance and deflect personal responsibility. Instead of accepting responsibility, we blame a lack of talent.

Ericsson’s research has proven this wrong. Let’s explore how to apply 8 principles, based on Ericsson’s work, to become an elite performer.

1.      Your Abilities are not Fixed

…both the brain and the body retain a great deal of adaptability throughout adulthood, and this adaptability makes it possible for adults, even older adults, to develop a wide variety of new capabilities with the right training…If you talk to these extraordinary people, you find that they all understand this at one level or another. They may be unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive adaptability, but they seldom buy into the idea that they have reached the peak of their fields because they were the lucky winners of some genetic lottery. They know what is required to develop the extraordinary skills that they possess because they have experienced it firsthand. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The first idea is the belief that your abilities are not fixed. Once you believe you can influence and change yourself, you see struggles as learning opportunities, not judgments on your self-worth. You must develop the habits and routines to transform struggles into learning lessons to build permanent change.

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. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

It’s about creating and developing new skills, not uncovering hidden skills. There is no such thing as hidden talent. We have been taught that we should search for our inherent passion because that must be the one thing we will be good at. We now understand there are very few things genetically “set” from the beginning and almost all new skills can be created and developed. The important question is how to create those skills.

2.      Hard Work is not Enough

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. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

“Just Work Hard”. Those three words are misused more often than any other piece of advice. It’s appealing because it makes sense on the surface. Of course nothing meaningful develops with partial effort. Read the histories of great leaders or musicians and you will always find a hard-fought struggle. We are taught this from an early age from our parents or coaches. It’s a good attitude to cultivate.

But there’s a problem. The growth benefits of hard work stop after a certain amount of time. No matter how much hard work we put in, our ability stops improving. It’s a frustrating situation. Why is something that worked in the past all of a sudden not working?

It stops working because we no longer direct that hard work into routines that stretch and expand our skills. We just repeat what we know, without embracing new challenges. Our abilities no longer respond to traditional hard work. We need something else…

Why should the teaching techniques used to turn aspiring musicians into concert pianists have anything to do with the training that a dancer must go through to become a prima ballerina or the study that a chess player must undertake to become a grandmaster?

The answer is that the most effective and most powerful types of practice in any field work by harnessing the adaptability of the human body and brain to create, step by step, the ability to do things that were previously not possible. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The underlying habits and principles behind world class performance apply equally to athletics, music, or entrepreneurship. While the day-to-day activities are different, the principles of training design and growth are constant across domains.

If you wish to develop a truly effective training method for anything—creating world-class gymnasts, for instance, or even something like teaching doctors to perform laparoscopic surgery—that method will need to take into account what works and what doesn’t in driving changes in the body and brain. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

We miss harnessing the power to optimize how our mind incorporates and masters new skills. We’ve been coasting along, using vague ideas like “working hard” without realizing it’s only half the equation. The other half, based on Ericcson’s research, is too often neglected.

3.      Showing Up is not Enough

We all follow pretty much the same pattern with any skill we learn, from baking a pie to writing a descriptive paragraph. We start off with a general idea of what we want to do, get some instruction from a teacher or a coach or a book or a website, practice until we reach an acceptable level, and then let it become automatic. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For much of what we do in life, it’s perfectly fine to reach a middling level of performance and just leave it like that. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

So far, so good. With the help of a coach and some instruction, we practice and make progress. As Ericsson stated, that works for most activities in life. We don’t have to be superb at everything. But what about the skills we do want to be superb at? Why do we struggle to progress beyond good enough?

But there is one very important thing to understand here: once you have reached this satisfactory skill level and automated your performance—your driving, your tennis playing, your baking of pies—you have stopped improving. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Most of us reach an acceptable level without knowing it. We keep practicing and assume we are improving, yet our real-world performance never improves.

How do we overcome this? Testing and feedback. We need to continually test our skills to provide objective feedback on our current ability. Without testing, we are left to guess at our skill level. And guesses don’t work for elite performers.

Testing provides feedback, giving us the direction and data to redirect our routines and practice. Our practice habits must evolve and adapt. If we keep the same static practice routines, we never develop new ways to improve our weaknesses.

People often misunderstand this because they assume that the continued driving or tennis playing or pie baking is a form of practice and that if they keep doing it they are bound to get better at it, slowly perhaps, but better nonetheless. They assume that someone who has been driving for twenty years must be a better driver than someone who has been driving for five, that a doctor who has been practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.

But no. Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

The dirty secret of “experience” is that people with 20 or 30 years of experience are often no better than those with 10 or 15 years of experience. We may want to believe that more is better, but have we ever tested or validated that assumption? Probably not. Most likely, we have assumed we must be better because we need to justify the years of effort and time invested. It’s agonizing to think about spending 20 years doing something and not improving. But we have to face reality, not what’s comfortable, if we want to grow.

This brings back the importance of testing and feedback. We must have objective guidance on our ability. If we assume or guess, we are fooling ourselves into believing we are something that we are not. And that is the downfall of anyone striving to become exceptional at their skill.

4.      Engage in Purposeful Practice

Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.

Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals. Our hypothetical music student would have been much more successful with a practice goal something like this: “Play the piece all the way through at the proper speed without a mistake three times in a row.” Without such a goal, there was no way to judge whether the practice session had been a success. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

By using goals, you transform random action into deliberate processes. Goal-based practice can be tracked and measured, providing valuable feedback. By focusing on specific goal-driven processes, we build practical skills.

Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal.

Purposeful practice is focused.

Purposeful practice involves feedback. You have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong.

Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone.

- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

These four ideas move your actions beyond showing up and instead direct your effort into long-term progress. Small steps, focus, feedback, and uncomfortability are necessary for growth.

5.      Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable

This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve…Generally the solution is not “try harder” but rather “try differently.” It is a technique issue, in other words.

The best way to get past any barrier is to come at it from a different direction, which is one reason it is useful to work with a teacher or coach. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles you’re likely to encounter can suggest ways to overcome them. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Purposeful practice focuses on things we can’t do well. If we keep repeating the things we are good at, we never overcome the obstacles that hold us back. Confronting our weaknesses is painful. It requires honesty and humility about our shortcomings. Practicing our weak points isn’t fun. It’s much easier to practice the things we are good at, since it’s inherently enjoyable to succeed. But we don’t progress when repeating the things we are good at.

If you can’t find a coach to provide feedback, you must create your own feedback to leverage. If it’s a physical skill, a video recording provides an impartial, outside look at your performance. If it’s academic/knowledge based, testing delivers valuable feedback. You may be tempted to skip these ideas and just “trust” your instincts. Unfortunately, you will be stuck wondering why you don’t see the progression you expect.

6.      Separate Knowledge from Skills

When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Always separate knowledge from skill. It’s easy to add knowledge and confuse that with skill improvement. When we think of learning, we assume knowledge accumulation is good. But knowledge accumulation that doesn’t transfer to applied skills doesn’t help us. We may feel confident in the moment but we are mistaking that confidence for progress. Think about this. Of all the books you have read in your lifetime, how many have delivered actionable improvement? Have you converted that knowledge into long-term, applied skill?

From the perspective of deliberate practice, the problem is obvious: attending lectures, minicourses, and the like offers little or no feedback and little or no chance to try something new, make mistakes, correct the mistakes, and gradually develop a new skill. It’s as if amateur tennis players tried to improve by reading articles in tennis magazines and watching the occasional YouTube video; they may believe they’re learning something, but it’s not going to help their tennis game much. Furthermore, in the online interactive approaches to continuing medical education, it is very difficult to mimic the sorts of complex situations that doctors and nurses encounter in their everyday clinical practice.

It is not just the medical profession that has traditionally emphasized knowledge over skills in its education. The situation is similar in many other professional schools, such as law schools and business schools. In general, professional schools focus on knowledge rather than skills because it is much easier to teach knowledge and then create tests for it. The general argument has been that the skills can be mastered relatively easily if the knowledge is there. One result is that when college students enter the work world, they often find that they need a lot of time to develop the skills they need to do their job. Another result is that many professions do no better a job than medicine—and in most cases, a worse job—of helping practitioners sharpen their skills. Again, the assumption is that simply accumulating more experience will lead to better performance. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

As an investing professional, I’ve struggled to convert information into skill improvement. I’ve found it’s easy and seductive to absorb information, but much more challenging to find evidence my investing skill has actually increased. That’s the challenge for all knowledge workers. How do you ensure your skills are improving?

7.      Create Daily Routines

The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Real life—our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies—seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition, so in order to improve, we must manufacture our own opportunities. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Deliberate and focused effort doesn’t happen by itself. We all have busy lives with little free time. Without consciously directing our behavior towards building expertise, we will never create consistent time for improvement. The first step must be a conscious decision to allocate time to this process. You will have to give something up. No one said this will come without at cost.

A similar thing is true for those who maintain purposeful or deliberate practice over the long run. They have generally developed various habits that help them keep going. As a rule of thumb, I think that anyone who hopes to improve skill in a particular area should devote an hour or more each day to practice that can be done with full concentration. Maintaining the motivation that enables such a regimen has two parts: reasons to keep going and reasons to stop. When you quit something that you had initially wanted to do, it’s because the reasons to stop eventually came to outweigh the reasons to continue. Thus, to maintain your motivation you can either strengthen the reasons to keep going or weaken the reasons to quit. Successful motivation efforts generally include both. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Habits, routines, and schedules provide a necessary structure to enable commitment and persistency of the task at hand. Relying on willpower, luck, or fate won’t last. By creating a consistent habit to practice one hour a day, at a regular time, we stop trying to fit it in our schedule but rather fit our schedule around the practice. Once our routine is locked in our schedule, there is no ambiguity or uncertainty of when it will be done.

One of the best bits of advice is to set things up so that you are constantly seeing concrete signs of improvement, even if it is not always major improvement. Break your long journey into a manageable series of goals and focus on them one at a time—perhaps even giving yourself a small reward each time you reach a goal. -Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Instead of trying to tackle a hundred things at once, practice the building blocks one at a time. Focus each practice day on one unique aspect of your skill. Do this over the course of a year and you have a solid foundation of practical skills. Avoid the urge to do too much at one time. We all want to overachieve, but trying to do too much causes burnout and unfocused effort. Trust the process and commit to improving one thing at a time.

8.      Take Charge of Your Success

We need to start now. For adults who are already in the work world, we need to develop better training techniques—based on the principles of deliberate practice and aimed at creating more effective mental representations—that not only will help them improve the skills they use in their current jobs but that will enable them to develop new skills for new jobs. And we need to get the message out: you can take charge of your own potential. But it is the coming generations who have the most to gain.

The most important gifts we can give our children are the confidence in their ability to remake themselves again and again and the tools with which to do that job. They will need to see firsthand—through their own experiences of developing abilities they thought were beyond them—that they control their abilities and are not held hostage by some antiquated idea of natural talent. - Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Success results from conscious and deliberate effort to improve our skills. No one will do this for you. As the world becomes more competitive and meritocratic, it’s your responsibility to grow your skills and demonstrate expertise. The idea of genetics or innate talent limiting your potential isn’t the real constraint. We have 10x the potential if we learn and grow using the principles of exceptional performers.

Peak Takeaways:

1.      Your Abilities are not Fixed

2.      Hard Work is not Enough

3.      Showing Up is not Enough

4.      Engage in Purposeful Practice

5.      Get Comfortable with being Uncomfortable

6.      Separate Knowledge from Skills

7.      Create Daily Routines

8.      Take Charge of Your Success