In the late 1960s, the Hungarian psychologist Laszlo Polgar embarked on a strange experiment. He had studied hundreds of people who were considered geniuses in one field or another and had concluded that any child could be turned into a genius with directed coaching and training. He was unmarried and wooing Klara, to whom he outlined his theories and explained that he was looking for a wife who would collaborate with him to test his theories in their own children.
Klara, a teacher from Ukraine, responded positively to this peculiar courtship. And thus was launched a live demonstration, over the next quarter century, of how training and not talent can lead to peak performance.
According to Anders Ericsson (a scientist) and Robert Pool (a science writer) who narrate this story in their fascinating new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Laszlo was so sure of his training programme that he wasn’t picky about which particular area he and Klara would target.
Languages were one option; but how many languages might it be possible to teach a child? Mathematicians were given pride of place in the Eastern bloc at that time, as the Communist regimes looked for ways to prove that they are far superior to the West. Assuming that he and Klara had a daughter, Laszlo would prove his claim even more convincingly because there were no top-level women mathematicians at the time.
But he and Klara settled on a third option, chess, because it is objective and easy to measure. Chess had always been thought of as a game for the ‘male mind’; female chess-players were treated as second-class players.
Women had their own tournaments and championships because it was believed that it wouldn’t be fair to put them up against the men; there had never been a female grandmaster. The Polgars had three children, all of them girls. Laszlo had multiple options to prove his point.
Their first daughter, born in April 1969, was named Susan (in Hungarian, Zsuzsanna). Sofia (Zsofia) followed in November 1974 and then Judit, in July 1976. Laszlo and Klara home-schooled their daughters in order to spend as much time as possible focusing on chess.
Susan was just four years old when she won her first tournaments, dominating the Budapest Girls’ Under-II Championship with 10 wins, no losses, and no ties. At 15, she became the top-ranked woman chess-player in the world, and the first woman to be awarded grandmaster title.
Only two other women had been named grandmasters after winning the female-only world championships—her sisters. Susan wasn’t even the best of the three.
When Sofia was only 14, she dominated a tournament in Rome that included several highly regarded male grandmasters. By winning eight of her nine games and drawing the ninth, she earned a single-tournament chess rating of 2735 which was one of the highest tournament ratings, ever, for either a male or female player. That was in 1989. People in the chess world still talk about ‘the sack of Rome’, write the authors.
Sofia’s highest overall chess rating was 2540, well above the 2500 threshold for grandmaster; but she was never awarded grandmaster status. This was suspected to be a political decision than a judgement on her chess-playing skills.
Sofia was, at one time, the sixth-ranked female chess-player in the world. Among the Polgars sisters, though, she could be considered the slacker, write the authors.
The best of them was Judit. She became a grandmaster when she was 15 years and five months, making her, at that time, the youngest person, male or female, to ever reach that level. She was the number-one-ranked women’s chess-player in the world for 25 years, until she retired in 2014. At one time, she was ranked world number eight among all chess-players, male or female; and, in 2005, she became the first—and so far the only—woman to play in the overall World Chess Championship.
Mr 10,000 Hours
This is just one of many fascinating stories in the book. The other is of London cab drivers (see Box). Ericsson, who has spent 30 years studying geniuses and peak performers, is known as the ‘Mr 10,000 hours’. He is the researcher who came up with popularly-known idea that if you practise something for 10,000 hours, you could become an expert.
Well, this was not what he said, though Malcolm Gladwell’s books Outliers popularised this pop version of Ericsson’s research on how mastery is gained. Probably, Ericsson wrote this book partly to correct the misconceptions about his lifelong research. Contrary to popular belief, Ericsson has not said that talent is not everything and if you practise for 10,000 hours, you will become world-class.
What Ericsson has found is that “the paths that Susan, Sofia, and Judit took to chess mastery are in line with the path that essentially all experts have taken to become extraordinary. In particular, psychologists have found that an expert’s development passes through four distinct stages, from the first glimmers of interest to full-fledged expertise. Everything we know about the Polgars sisters suggests that they went through those same stages.”
At seven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a sensation in Europe. When he sat at the piano, the audience could barely see him. A prodigy? Not according to Ericsson. Most people aren’t aware that Mozart’s father was a pioneer at designing training for young children to master musical instruments.
He worked intensively with Mozart from the age of three. So, when Mozart started to perform, he had undergone training for several years and was being trained by someone who was very motivated to help his son reach a high level, like Laszlo Polgar.
But the key to mastery is that it not just the number of hours spent practising or just any kind of training applied on just about anything. Ericsson’s research shows that peak performance can be achieved only by a certain process. First of all, it can be applied only for skills for which effective training techniques exist. Then, you need to deploy what is called a ‘deliberate practice’ or ‘purposeful practice’ which “has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call ‘naïve practice’ which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that repetition alone will improve one’s performance.”
The goal is very specific; it is steady measurable improvements.
You are out of your comfort zone most the time.
You, typically, work on one small aspect of the skill, when you practise.
It requires full attention; it’s not enough to just do what the coach said.
It requires meaningful feedback from the expert and meaningful response to the feedback.
It is with deliberate practice that Steve Faloon, a graduate student, who worked with Ericsson to memorise strings of digits, and could correctly recall an 82-digit number after only 200 training sessions!
At the start of the session, he remembered only about seven-digit, or occasionally eight-digit, numbers. So, the prodigies, are they simply born hugely talented? Ericsson has said in an interview:“I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies.” He writes, “and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice.”
This is a book for everyone, especially parents who have high aspirations for their children. Even a casual reader will be hooked by the overwhelming evidence and numerous fascinating stories of musicians, athletes and writers Ericsson and Pool bring, to make their startling point about what is actually behind genuis-level performance: early start and long hours and years of deliberate practice in a methodical manner.