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How to be great at just about anything

I’m a runner. I’ve been running competitively since I was 10 years old and I’m still at it today more than 45 years later. You’d think I’d learn.

Listening to the “Freakonomics Podcast” the other day, my ears pricked up when they started talking about world record marathon times.

According to Anders Ericsson who is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and author of the book-

“Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise”

- In order just to qualify to run in the Boston Marathon today, a male in the 18-34 year group has to run a 3 hour 5 minute marathon. That’s only about 6 minutes slower than the winning time of the marathon of the first modern Olympics in 1896. The current world marathon record is 2 hours 2 mins and 57 seconds. That’s almost an hour faster than the Olympic gold medallist in 1896.

Or consider the improvements in golf, which this year is returning to the summer Olympics, in the 1900 Olympics the men played 2 eighteen hole rounds. The American golfer, Charlie Sands won the gold medal with scores of 82 and 85, which, these days would only make you a fair club player. Sure, equipment and the ball have changed, but still, the undeniable fact is that as a species we have improved a lot at just about everything.

How? Have we been selectively breeding for talent?

In Ericsson’s opinion we’ve become so much better because we’ve learned how to learn.

And if you study the people who have learnt the best and if you codify the techniques and strategies they use then we can all radically improve in anything we want to improve in, golf, marathon running, musical ability- anything.

But, and there’s always a but isn’t there, it takes practice to become good at anything. Lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000 hour rule”, the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become great at something. That idea originates from research of Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German Academy. They found that the average of that elite group was 10,000 hours of practice by the time they were 20 years of age.

Now the key message here is not only is practice essential but a particular type of practice that is most effective in getting results.

The most effective practice is Purposeful and Deliberate.

Purposeful Practice

Purposeful practice is when you specifically pick something you want to improve and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from going out and playing a game or just kicking a ball around there’s no real target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the goal of repeating it and refining it to ensure you will improve that particular aspect.

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