How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons

By Mark Anderson

Lesson 1: Anyone Can Be An Expert in Anything*

I recently finished reading Peak: Secrets From The New Science of Expertise, by renowned researcher Anders Ericsson (and Robert Pool). Those familiar with The Rock Climber’s Training Manual (RCTM) will recognize Ericsson’s name from our chapter on Skill Development. Ericsson is well-known as a leading researcher on expertise. He has spent his career asking what sets experts apart and what does it take to become an expert in a given field? Among practitioners—those seeking expertise in their own chosen pursuits—Ericsson is known as the creator of the “Deliberate Practice” model for skill development.

[Among lay-people, Ericsson is perhaps most widely known as the source material for Malcom Gladwell’s erroneous-yet-ubiquitous “10,000 Hour Rule,” which suggests it requires approximately 10,000 hours to become an “expert” in any given pursuit. Ericsson goes to some lengths in Peak to distance himself from this “rule” (see page 109), noting firstly that 10,000 hours was merely an average, for a specific skill (violin), with a wide range, and secondly that this was only the average amount practiced by age 20—international soloists would have practiced far more, upwards of 20,000 hours, and most importantly, that the quality of one’s practice is far more important than quantity.]

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Ericsson has studied or worked with all manner of experts—old/young, those who started early/late, “talented”/un-“talented”—in an impressively wide range of fields, including music, chess, scrabble, sports, memorization and even taxi driving. Peak lays out Ericsson’s work as a researcher, highlighting many key studies that informed his understanding of expertise and what it takes to achieve it. The text is filled with fascinating anecdotes of various trials conducted and experts examined, spanning an incredibly diverse set of skill-based activities.

Among the most incredible is the story of Steve Faloon, a student hired to participate in a digit-memorization study. Initially Steve could reliably remember 7 or 8 random digits—typical for most people. By the end of the study, two years later, Steve shattered world records by recalling 82 random digits! Did Steve possess an amazing hidden talent for memorization? Unlikely. Using Steve’s experience as guidance, his friend Dario Donatelli exceeded 100 digits. Now that people realize what is possible the world record stands over 200 digits. Steve set a new standard because he possessed a willingness to persevere and a guide driven to push his limits (Ericsson), not because of some amazing, innate ability.

Another is the tale of the Polgar sisters. Their parents, psychologists who studied geniuses, were so convinced that any child could be made into a “genius” with the proper rearing, that they decided to prove this with their own children. They selected chess as a medium, because of the ease with which a chess player’s ability can be measured (relative to music, languages, or mathematics—other areas they considered). Susan, the oldest, become the top-ranked female chess player in the world at age 15, and went on to become the first female Grand Master. Amazingly, she ended up as the least accomplished chess player among her sisters!

Or consider Paul Brady, who taught himself to have “Perfect Pitch” (the ability to correctly identify single musical notes, a skill possessed by approximately 1 in 10,000 people). Scientists had previously believed this ability required special “talent,” and even then could ONLY be developed in the very young. Brady did it at age 32 by discovering a novel training method and applying it diligently over merely 57 days.

These anecdotes demonstrate several truths:

  • The human mind and body are incredibly adaptable, at all ages (though surely, Ericsson concedes, more adaptable in youth).
  • Our pre-conceived notions of what is “Humanly Possible” are often incredibly incorrect
  • “Talent”, or lack thereof, is far less important in developing expertise than most believe
  • All it takes to become an expert is drive, determination, and the right kind of practice

These are incredibly inspiring insights, and rightly so. In a nutshell the main theme of Peak (in my words), which Ericsson hammers home convincingly and returns to frequently, is this:

There are no limits*, it’s never too late to start*; You can be anything you want to be* (with the right kind of practice)

So then, what is the right kind of practice? Ericsson presents two recommended practice methodologies:

Purposeful Practice (PP):

  • Has well-defined, specific goals
  • Is focused
  • Involves feedback
  • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone

For most of us, Purposeful Practice is about as close we get to optimizing our “practice” (more on this to come).

Deliberate Practice (DP):

  • Is Purposeful Practice:
      • Has well-defined, specific goals
      • Is focused
      • Involves feedback
      • Occurs outside one’s comfort zone, (to the extent that it is generally not fun)
  • And…
      • Exists in a highly advanced field, following known, effective training methods
      • Produces and depends on effective Mental Representations
      • Depends on advancement of fundamental skills

Practically, both PP and DP will develop and depend on Mental Representations (“a mental structure that corresponds to an object, idea, collection of information, or anything else, concrete or abstract, that the brain is thinking about.”)

The key difference between the PP and DP, is that Deliberate Practice ideally occurs under the tutelage of another expert in the field (who is also an effective teacher/coach), who can provide feedback, identify problem areas, and recommend the most effective training methods for improving in the given pursuit.

So if that’s all it takes to be an expert, why is the world full of Jacks-of-all-trades and Masters of none? Ericsson argues that most people who practice correctly only stop improving if they stop trying to improve. Most people just get tired of it, lose motivation or focus, and then stagnate, which further drains motivation, etc. In his view, if you never stop trying, never stop applying the method of Deliberate Practice, you will never stop improving. The logical conclusion, which Ericsson, highlights, is that there are essentially no limits to human ability, only limits to motivation/focus, etc.

That’s incredible news, if true. If it makes you a bit skeptical, you’re ready to investigate that pesky asterisk, which we will do in Lesson 2….

6 thoughts on “How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons

  1. Pingback: How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 2) | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  2. Pingback: How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 3) | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

  3. Pingback: How to Become an Expert Climber in Five Simple Lessons (Lesson 5) | The Rock Climber's Training Manual

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