In Search of Excellence by Moonwalking with Einstein

I just finished reading Moonwalking With Einstein:  The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer.  It’s a very interesting read about the neuroscience of memory and the memory techniques that have been used throughout the ages to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memorization (which apparently can be learned and used by just about anyone).

I found the following passage illustrative, and worth excerpting here.  It rings true, and was – at least for me – the highlight of the book…

“What separates experts from the rest of us is that they tend to engage in a very directed, highly focused routine, which Ericson has labeled ‘deliberate practice.’  Having studied the best of the best in many different fields, he has found that top achievers tend to follow the same general pattern of development.  They develop strategies for consciously keeping out of the autonomous stage while they practice by doing three things:  focusing on their technique, staying goal-oriented, and getting constant and immediate feedback on their performance.  In other words, they force themselves to stay in the ‘cognitive phase.’

Amateur musicians, for example, are more likely to spend their practice time playing music, whereas pros are more likely to work through tedious exercises or focus on specific, difficult parts of pieces.  The best ice skaters spend more of their practice time trying jumps that they land less often, while lesser skaters work more on jumps they’ve already mastered.  Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard.

When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend.  In fact, in every domain of expertise that’s been rigorously examined, from chess to violin to basketball, studies have found that the number of years one has been doing something correlates only weakly with the level of performance.  My dad may consider putting into a tin cup in his basement a good form of practice, but unless he’s consciously challenging himself and monitoring his performance – reviewing, responding, rethinking, rejiggering – it’s never going to make him appreciably better.  Regular practice simply isn’t enough…

The best chess players follow a similar strategy.  They will often spend several hours a day replaying the games of grand masters one move at a time, trying to understand the expert’s thinking at each step.  Indeed, the single best predictor of an individual’s chess skill is not the amount of chess he’s played against opponents, but rather the amount of time he’s spent sitting alone working through old games.

The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practicing – to force oneself to stay out of autopilot.  With typing, it’s relatively easy to get past the OK plateau.  Psychologiests have discovered that the most efficient method is to force yourself to type faster than feels comfortable, and to allow yourself to make mistakes.  In one noted experiment, typists were repeatedly flashed words 10 to 15 percent faster than their fingers were able to translate them onto the keyboard.  At first they weren’t able to keep up, but over a period of days they figured out the obstacles that were slowing them down, and overcame them, and then continued to type at the faster speed.  By bringing typing out of the autonomous stage and back under their conscious control, they had conquered the OK plateau.”

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