The methodology for how to be your best is becoming a systematic science and art. With a number of new and complimentary themes, this article explores what we know and how to apply it. What are the main themes? How do we make this personally meaningful?
Expert performance can involve four distinct sets of players. The first is the individual. The second is the team. The third is teams with computers. The fourth is entire organisations be they military, commercial, sports or humanity.
Here are some key themes and the key references for those want to go deeper:
The Science of Flow
Over the past decades humans have made massive gains in performance. We see this in sport, extreme adventure, science, music, chess, military, and business. The gains come from applying this science of expertise. Csikszentmihaly popularised the Flow concept three decades ago and Steven Kotler has taken this to a new level. Now Anders Ericsson has taken another step with deliberate practice.
At first, Flow simply described the state of optimal performance. Today, we are systematically mapping the experience. We now know exactly what has to occur in our physiology, emotions and mind to enable flow. It is indeed a magical state of super-performance liberated from doubt and fuelled by extraordinary changes in the chemical brain and consciousness. In Flow we can do the seemingly impossible – and it feels fantastic!
McKinsey argues that an executive in flow does five days work in one. The All Blacks and Navy Seals have institutionalised flow as a way of being.
At the core, flow emerges when we tackle a serious but meaningful challenge with a set of finely honed skills (expertise). The experience is so intense, thinking, feeling and bodily processes temporarily cease. This allows maximum resources for rapid, accurate perception, evaluation and decision-making.
The Science of Expertise
The systematic development of the necessary skills to enter flow consistently is new territory. This is where high performance sports coaching, military strategy and Anders Ericsson have lots to teach us. Deliberate practice trumps genes and “natural talent’ every time. Experts agree that Mozart, Einstein, Picasso and others shone not because of some magical talent but because they practiced deliberately over long periods of time.
Expert performances are increasing because we understand the process of skill development. It takes time – in the order of 7,500 hours. It must start early in life. It requires expert coaching and data-driven feedback. Ericsson’s recipe includes deliberate, purposeful practice over long periods of time, specific training objectives, quick feedback with expert coaching, razor focus, practicing outside of one’s comfort zone, and alignment of motivators.
Ericsson and Duhigg both agree that developing the right mental maps (or representations) is critical. This is worth a moment to process. In the demanding and fluid conditions of expert performance, the pictures of one’s options must present immediately. In other words whether it is chess, concert performance, battle, sport or business, experts have mapped these mental maps into their long-term memory.
There is no time to ponder the question: “what should I do now?” You have to know that exact situation from memory – through deliberate practice – and all of the possible options available. This is the meaning of what we call situation awareness. Because you have practiced the situation so many times, you can feel the right option intuitively. Working memory (thinking) is just too slow and too expensive. Top Gun, the Navy Fighter initiative, did this by drilling pilots in specific dogfight situations followed by detailed debriefs. Again and again they learned how specific situations unfold and how to respond intuitively. This transformed the Navy’s performance in Vietnam and has become the template for US military campaigns.
The applications of this idea are huge from parenting and education through to business and the professions. The more we practice for novel situations and enrich long term memory with different options, the better we will become. These mental maps must include physical, emotional and cognitive elements.
The Science of High Performing Teams
Geoff Colvin and Charles Duhigg converge on a definite shift in research on what drives team performance. The message is crisp. Intelligence, expertise and style are not correlated with team performance. Empathy or social awareness is categorically the best predictor of who will contribute to team performance. Both MIT and Google have contributed to this work showing that it is the teams that interact face-to-face with high emotional sensitivity that deliver the goods.
Further they suggest that short burst communication, evenly distributed around the team characterise a high performing team. Imagine what happens when the deliberate practice of empathy is combined with the tools to work in this way. Then what when we apply team flow to deliberate practice and after-action reviews.
The final frontier is where excellent teams interface with excellent technology. Already teams of chess players collaborate with computers to be the best chess “players” in the world. It is time to ask yourself how you might work with emergent technology to expand and develop your career.
Resilience in Body, Heart and Mind
Expert performance must rest on a foundation of Resilience. The entire range of expert performance is no longer the domain of intellect. The possibility of flow depends upon our will to cultivate resilience in a systematic way. Be fit enough to keep the brain plastic, sleep long enough to activate empathy and social intelligence, and learn how to create meaning and passion on a daily basis.
We know that children who learn to develop their impulse control, empathy and physical wellbeing are far more likely to excel. As Anders Ericsson pleads, we are becoming Homo Exercens – the practicing human. Start early, support everyone and back yourself.
 Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, Good Business, 2003
 Steven Kotler, Rise of Superman, 2014
 Anders Ericsson, Peak, 2016
 Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Faster, Better, 2016
 Geoff Colvin, Humans are Underrated, 2015