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Find Coaches and Mentors


Arguably the most famous violin teacher of all time, Ivan Galamian, made the point that budding maestros do not engage in deliberate practice spontaneously: “If we analyze the development of the well-known artists, we see that in almost every case the success of their entire career was dependent on the quality of their practicing. In practically every case, the practicing was constantly supervised either by the teacher or an assistant to the teacher.”

Research on world-class performers has confirmed Galamian’s observation.

It also has shown that future experts need different kinds of teachers at different stages of their development. In the beginning, most are coached by local teachers, people who can give generously of their time and praise. Later on, however, it is essential that performers seek out more-advanced teachers to keep improving their skills. Eventually, all top performers work closely with teachers who have themselves reached international levels of achievement.

Having expert coaches makes a difference in a variety of ways. To start with, they can help you accelerate your learning process. The thirteenth-century philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon argued that it would be impossible to master mathematics in less than 30 years. And yet today individuals can master frameworks as complex as calculus in their teens. The difference is that scholars have since organized the material in such a way that it is much more accessible. Students of mathematics no longer have to climb Everest by themselves; they can follow a guide up a well-trodden path.

The development of expertise requires coaches who are capable of giving constructive, even painful, feedback. Real experts are extremely motivated students who seek out such feedback. They’re also skilled at understanding when and if a coach’s advice doesn’t work for them. The elite performers we studied knew what they were doing right and concentrated on what they were doing wrong. They deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance. The best coaches also identify aspects of your performance that will need to be improved at your next level of skill. If a coach pushes you too fast, too hard, you will only be frustrated and may even be tempted to give up trying to improve at all.

Real experts seek out constructive, even painful feedback. They’re also skilled at understanding when and if a coach’s advice doesn’t work for them.

Relying on a coach has its limits, however. Statistics show that radiologists correctly diagnose breast cancer from X-rays about 70% of the time. Typically, young radiologists learn the skill of interpreting X-rays by working alongside an “expert.” So it’s hardly surprising that the success rate has stuck at 70% for a long time. Imagine how much better radiology might get if radiologists practiced instead by making diagnostic judgments using X-rays in a library of old verified cases, where they could immediately determine their accuracy. We’re seeing these kinds of techniques used more often in training. There is an emerging market in elaborate simulations that can give professionals, especially in medicine and aviation, a safe way to deliberately practice with appropriate feedback.

So what happens when you become an Olympic gold medalist, or an international chess master, or a CEO? Ideally, as your expertise increased, your coach will have helped you become more and more independent, so that you are able to set your own development plans. Like good parents who encourage their children to leave the nest, good coaches help their students learn how to rely on an “inner coach.” Self-coaching can be done in any field. Expert surgeons, for example, are not concerned with a patient’s postoperative status alone. They will study any unanticipated events that took place during the surgery, to try to figure out how mistakes or misjudgments can be avoided in the future.

Benjamin Franklin provides one of the best examples of motivated self-coaching. When he wanted to learn to write eloquently and persuasively, he began to study his favorite articles from a popular British publication, the Spectator. Days after he’d read an article he particularly enjoyed, he would try to reconstruct it from memory in his own words. Then he would compare it with the original, so he could discover and correct his faults. He also worked to improve his sense of language by translating the articles into rhyming verse and then from verse back into prose. Similarly, famous painters sometimes attempt to reproduce the paintings of other masters.

Anyone can apply these same methods on the job. Say you have someone in your company who is a masterly communicator, and you learn that he is going to give a talk to a unit that will be laying off workers. Sit down and write your own speech, and then compare his actual speech with what you wrote. Observe the reactions to his talk and imagine what the reactions would be to yours. Each time you can generate by yourself decisions, interactions, or speeches that match those of people who excel, you move one step closer to reaching the level of an expert performer.• • •

Before practice, opportunity, and luck can combine to create expertise, the would-be expert needs to demythologize the achievement of top-level performance, because the notion that genius is born, not made, is deeply ingrained. It’s perhaps most perfectly exemplified in the person of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who is typically presented as a child prodigy with exceptional innate musical genius. Nobody questions that Mozart’s achievements were extraordinary compared with those of his contemporaries. What’s often forgotten, however, is that his development was equally exceptional for his time. His musical tutelage started before he was four years old, and his father, also a skilled composer, was a famous music teacher and had written one of the first books on violin instruction.

Like other world-class performers, Mozart was not born an expert—he became one.