Why skills plateau

The conventional view is that we develop skills up to our innate limits. K. Anders Ericsson makes a strong claim that this is wrong. Instead, our skills plateau because we lose attentiveness to how we perform tasks.

Initially, when beginning to learn something — chess, typing, tennis, driving, …, anything — we work hard to reach a minimum acceptable level of proficiency. It’s the one at which we won’t badly embarrass or hurt ourselves or others. Typically, after 50 hours or so of practice, according to Ericsson, the frequency of very bad mistakes falls to a very low level, even without sustained attention. That’s when we begin to switch off that attention and go on auto-pilot. It’s the transition to mindless automation that signals the beginning of the end of our ability to improve. By tuning out, we’re no longer aware of how to get better.

We compound our error by assuming we don’t improve because we’ve hit some innate barrier to doing so. We’re not smart enough or fit enough, we tell ourselves. But efforts to identify innate, binding barriers have largely failed. Though there certainly are physical and mental limits to performance, those are not what stops us from improving. Instead, we usually stop ourselves.

What’s needed to improve is to retain a focus on doing so. This is the difference between an amateur attitude and a truly professional one.

But it’s not mere will. Wanting to improve is not enough. We have to deliberately apply the right techniques. It helps to define concrete goals, and focus on “well-defined tasks,” wrote Ericsson. It’s necessary to obtain performance feedback. We cannot improve without knowing if we’re heading in the right direction. Best of all, we need not devote every waking hour to getting better. Slow and steady wins the race. Regular practice, up to one hour per session or per day, is often enough.

A key element to getting better is to put yourself in the same position you were in as a novice. When starting any new activity, you made mistakes with regularity, you noticed them, and you worked out ways to stop making them. That’s the same way to improve, even after achieving higher levels of proficiency. You have to push yourself to the point of making mistakes, have a means of identifying those mistakes, and then work to find ways to not make them.

Extensive research on typing provides some of the best insights into how speed of performance can be increased through deliberate practice that refines the representations mediating anticipation. The key finding is that individuals can systematically increase their typing speed by exerting themselves as long as they can maintain full concentration, which is typically only 15–30 minutes per day for untrained typists. While straining themselves to type at a faster rate—typically around 10–20% faster than their normal speed—typists seem to strive to anticipate better, possibly by extending their gaze further ahead. The faster tempo also serves to uncover keystroke combinations in which the experts are comparatively slow and less efficient. By successively eliminating weaknesses, typists can increase their average speed and practice at a rate that is still 10–20% faster then the new average typing speed.

What works in typing works in many other domains: spend regular time getting out of the comfortable, automatic zone and pushing performance into the error-making zone. Then, eliminate the errors. Easier said than done, of course. Coaches and teachers can help.

The practice of medicine poses some challenges to this paradigm, however. Ericsson notes two difficulties:

  1. It’s not always clear what “expert” performance is, so it’s not evident what, exactly, proficient practitioners should strive for. The proliferation and controversy around quality metrics makes this clear.
  2. Feedback is infrequently complete or rapid. That one’s diagnosis is correct or the therapy the right one is often not known for some time, if ever. It’s hardly a situation that readily admits one-hour practice sessions. (Surgery and reading radiographic images are two areas in which more regular, rapid feedback is possible.)

Finding ways to improve medical performance is likely worth a great deal more than finding ways to improve athletic performance. The latter is clearly simpler, and we routinely witness records fall with regularity. Yet, it’s enormously uplifting to recognize that today’s top runners and swimmers, say, are not physiologically different from those of decades ago. They’re just better at getting better.

In many things, we all could be so. We accept performance plateaus too readily. They are not as inevitable and necessary as they seem.


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