The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life

Features: Becoming a Superstar, Features: Life After College January 6th. 2010, 11:47pm


Becoming a Grandmaster

How do great chess players become great? If you read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, you probably have an answer: the 10,000 hour rule. This concept, which was first introduced in academic circles in the early 1970s, was popularized by Gladwell in his 2008 book.

Here’s how he summarized it in a recent interview:

When we look at any kind of cognitively complex field — for example, playing chess, writing fiction or being a neurosurgeon — we find that you are unlikely to master it unless you have practiced for 10,000 hours. That’s 20 hours a week for 10 years.

There seems to be no escape from this work. As Flordia State University Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson reminds us: “even the chess prodigy Bobby Fisher needed a preparation period of nine years.”

The full story, however, is more complex.  Gladwell is right when he notes that the 10,000 hour rule keeps appearing as a necessary condition for exceptional performance in many fields. But it’s not sufficient. As Ericsson, along with his colleague Andreas Lehmann, noted in an exceptional overview of this topic,   “the mere number of years of experience with relevant activities in a domain is typically only weakly related to performance.”

Put another way, you need to put in a lot of hours to become exceptional, but raw hours alone doesn’t cut it. 

To understand what else is necessary, I’ll turn your attention to a fascinating 2005 study on chess players, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. After interviewing two large samples of chess players of varied skill, the paper’s authors found that “serious study“  — the arduous task of reviewing past games of better players, trying to predict each move in advance — was the strongest predictor of chess skill.

In more detail:

…chess players at the highest skill level (i.e. grandmasters) expended about 5000 hours on serious study alone during their first decade of serious chess play – nearly five times the average amount reported by intermediate-level players.

Similar findings have been replicated in a variety of fields. To become exceptional you have to put in a lot of hours, but of equal importance, these hours have to be dedicated to the right type of work. A decade of serious chess playing will earn you an intermediate tournament ranking. But a decade of serious study of chess games can make you a grandmaster.

I’m summarizing this research here because I want to make a provocative claim: understanding this “right type of work” is perhaps the most important (and most under-appreciated) step toward building a remarkable life


Deliberate Practice

Anders Ericsson, the psychology professor quoted above, coined the term deliberate practice (DP) to describe this special type of work. In a nice overview he posted on his web site, he summarizes DP as:

[A]ctivities designed, typically by a teacher, for the sole purpose of effectively improving specific aspects of an individual’s performance.

Geoff Colvin, an editor at Fortune Magazine who wrote an entire book about this idea, surveyed the research literature, and expanded the DP definition to include the following six traits (which I’ve condensed slightly from his original eight):

  1. It’s designed to improve performance. “The essence of deliberate practice is continually stretching an individual just beyond his or her current abilities. That may sound obvious, but most of us don’t do it in the activities we think of as practice.”
  2. It’s repeated a lot. “High repetition is the most important difference between deliberate practice of a task and performing the task for real, when it counts.”
  3. Feedback on results is continuously available. “You may think that your rehearsal of a job interview was flawless, but your opinion isn’t what counts.”
  4. It’s highly demanding mentally. “Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it ‘deliberate,’ as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.”
  5. It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
  6. It requires (good) goals. “The best performers set goals that are not about the outcome but rather about the process of reaching the outcome.”

If you’re in a field that has clear rules and objective measures of success — like playing chess, golf, or the violin — you can’t escape thousands of hours of DP if you want to be a star. But what if you’re in a field without these clear structures, such as knowledge work, writing, or growing a student club?

It’s here that things start to get interesting…

Deliberate Practice for the Rest of Us

Colvin, being a business reporter, points out that this sophisticated understanding of performance is lacking in the workplace.

“At most companies,” he argues, “the fundamentals of fostering great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.”

He then adds the obvious corollary: Of course that means the opportunities for achieving advantage by adopting the principles of great performance are huge.

It’s this advantage that intrigues me.  To become a grandmaster requires 5000 hours of DP. But to become a highly sought-after CRM database whiz, or to run a money-making blog, or to grow a campus organization into national recognition, would probably require much, much less.

Why? Because when it comes to DP in these latter field, your competition is sorely lacking.

Unless you’re a professional athlete or musician, your peers are likely spending zero hours on DP. Instead, they’re putting in their time, trying to accomplish the tasks handed to them in a competent and efficient fashion. Perhaps if they’re ambitious, they’ll try to come in earlier and leave later in a bid to outwork their peers.

But as with the intermediate-level chess players, this elbow-grease method can only get you so far.

As Ericsson describes it, most active professionals will get better with experience until they reach an “acceptable level,” but beyond this point continued “experience in [their field] is a poor predictor of attained performance.”

It seems, then, that if you integrate any amount of DP into your regular schedule, you’ll be able to punch through the acceptable-level plateau holding back your peers. And breaking through this plateau is exactly what is required to train an ability that’s both rare and valuable (which, as I’ve argued, is the key to building a remarkable life).

This motivates a crucial question: What does DP look like for fields that don’t have a tradition of performance-optimization, such as knowledge work, freelance writing, entrepreneurship, or, of course, college?

Let me use myself, in my role as a theoretical computer scientist, as an example.  There are certain mathematical techniques that are increasingly seen as useful for the types of proofs I typically work on. What if I put aside one hour a day to systematically stretch my ability with these techniques? Taking a page out of the chess world, I might identify a series of relevant papers of increasing complexity, and try to replicate the steps of their key theorem proofs without reading them in advance. When stuck, I might peek ahead for just enough hints to keep making progress (e.g., reading an induction hypothesis, but not the details of their inductive step).

The DP research tells me that this approach would likely generate large gains in my expertise. After a year of such deliberate study, I might even evolve into one of the experts on the topic in my community — a position that could yield tremendous benefits.

Why am I not doing this?

What would such strategies look like in other aspects of my life, like non-fiction writing or blogging?

What about for other similar fields?

These are the type of questions I want to explore this winter here on Study Hacks.

The answers aren’t obvious. But that’s what makes this endeavor exciting. By piecing together a systematic approach to building a DP strategy for unconventional fields, I hope to identify an efficient path to the type of excellence that can be cashed in for remarkable rewards. Or, perhaps I’ll discover that such a quest is quixotic.

Either way, it should be fun…


If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers

Patterns of Success for Students, Patterns of Success for the Working World November 11th. 2011, 12:14am

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long,Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…



Decoding the Patterns of the Elite

We can start by disproving the assumption that the elite players dedicate more hours to music. The time diaries revealed that both groups spent, on average, the same number of hours on music per week (around 50).

The difference was in how they spent this time. The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practicethe uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.

This might not be surprising, as the importance of deliberate practice had been replicated and reported many times (c.f., Gladwell).

But the researchers weren’t done.

They also studied how the students scheduled their work. The average players, they discovered, spread their work throughout the day. A graph included in the paper, which shows the average time spent working versus the waking hours of the day, is essentially flat.

The elite players, by contrast, consolidated their work into two well-defined periods. When you plot the average time spent working versus the hours of the day for these players, there are two prominent peaks: one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

In fact, the more elite the player, the more pronounced the peaks. For the best of the best — the subset of the elites who the professors thought would go on to play in one of Germany’s two best professional orchestras — there was essentially no deviation from a rigid two-sessions a day schedule.

This isolation of work from leisure had pronounced effects in other areas of the players’ lives.

Consider, for example, sleep: the elite players slept an hour more per night than the average players.

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Hard Work is Different than Hard to Do Work

To summarize these results:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon time and again in my study of high achievers. It came up so often in my study of top students, for example, that I even coined a name for it: the paradox of the relaxed Rhodes Scholar.

This study sheds some light on this paradox. It provides empirical evidence that there’s a difference between hard work and hard to do work:

  • Hard work is deliberate practice. It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but you don’t have to do too much of it in any one day (the elite players spent, on average, 3.5 hours per day engaged in deliberate practice, broken into two sessions). It also provides you measurable progress in a skill, which generates a strong sense of contentment and motivation. Therefore, although hard work is hard, it’s not draining and it can fit nicely into a relaxed and enjoyable day.
  • Hard to do work, by contrast, is draining. It has you running around all day in a state of false busyness that leaves you, like the average players from the Berlin study, feeling tired and stressed. It also, as we just learned, has very little to do with real accomplishment.

This analysis leads to an important conclusion. Whether you’re a student or well along in your career, if your goal is to build a remarkable life, then busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. You’re the average players from the Universität der Künste — not the elite. You’ve built a life around hard to do work, not hard work.

The solution suggested by this research, as well as my own, is as simple as it is startling: Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.

(Photo by RKHawaii)

Hm.. I’m kinda depressed about my grades right now. I don’t know how to improve.. or I do.. but i dont’ realize it. maybe I’m over thinking it?

I’m not quite sure, but I’m quite dissapointed in myself right now. I really hope to improve. I need to find a way.. ARGGH.

I feel like a fish drowning in water. Like.. i know there is a way.. but then again, I can’t see the route.. and GOSH, it’s gonna be one hard battle from here on out for the grade. 🙂 WISH ME LUCK!

I enjoy this story:

I think the whole Idea really boils down to those who work hard get the dough.


Seeking the Story Behind Genius

Patterns of Success for the Working World October 8th. 2011, 4:41pm

Two High Achievers

Alisa Weilerstein is my age. She’s a cello player and she just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her “adventurous” playing.

Adam Riess, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, just won a Nobel Prize for his work measuring the universe’s expansion.

It’s easy to admire such high accomplishments from a distance. For those of us with low self-esteem, we can dismissively conclude that some people are just born brilliant, and should be admired much in the way we admire natural beauty or a lush head of hair. For those of us who are more Type A, we can instead derive a hazy sense of inspiration: “That’s what I need do,” we think, “something huge!”

I find it more productive, however, to dig a little deeper.

In an interview with The New York Times, for example, Weilerstein pushes back against the idea that she was born a musical prodigy.

“Obviously there is natural talent,” she said. “But you accomplish things only by working extremely hard.”

This echoes what has been found again and again in the deliberate practice literature: the best musicians, athletes, and chess players, among other group of high accomplishers, really do out work everyone else.

For those in the Type A camp, by contrast, a recent interview with Reiss pushes back on the idea that it’s enough to simply wait for your breakthrough idea.

When talking about the inspiration that led to his Nobel, Reiss emphasized that his breakthrough was based on the fact that “I am always thinking about how to measure the universe.” It was this complete immersion in the problem — something that persisted over years and years — that laid the foundation for his innovations in parallax measurement.

The conclusion for the Type A’s: if you want to do something big, talk is cheap, it’s more important to get started down the long road to mastery.

Bottom Line: Obviously these quotes are just scratching the surface of the deeper stories lurking behind the headlines, but they emphasize my basic point: I find high achievers to be incredibly inspiring and instructive, but only when I get into the details of their stories. When admired from afar, they provide little value. I think it’s important that we keep discussing how to understand the high achievers we encounter, because becoming adept at reality-based deconstruction of these stories seems to be a key strategy in any quest to become remarkable.

I thought I make a blog today. Nothing professional. I don’t really know why I do. But I think its about time I leave xanga and start something “fresh”. Haha 🙂

So, This blog will be where I post my educational things and other post that I feel relevant to my life. It’s just something I wanted to do, and I guess, its time I do it.

Welcome to After you read this, you should delete and write your own post, with a new title above. Or hit Add New on the left (of the admin dashboard) to start a fresh post.

Here are some suggestions for your first post.

  1. You can find new ideas for what to blog about by reading the Daily Post.
  2. Add PressThis to your browser. It creates a new blog post for you about any interesting  page you read on the web.
  3. Make some changes to this page, and then hit preview on the right. You can always preview any post or edit it before you share it to the world.