The Grandmaster in the Corner Office: What the Study of Chess Experts Teaches Us about Building a Remarkable Life
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…
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):
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- It’s hard. “Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands.”
- 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…