Strangest Secret, Ericsson, Deliberate Practice, 10,000 hours

The Importance of Deliberate Practice

The Importance of Deliberate Practice

In 1956 Earl Nightingale wrote and recorded an essay he called The Strangest Secret. The record sold over a million copies, making it the “largest selling non-entertainment recording of the record industry” at that time. Perhaps it still is, as it is impossible to calculate the number of copies of his message in existence today.

Mr. Nightingale explained that he chose the title because the strangest secret isn’t a secret at all. It’s strange because so few people understand it that it remains a virtual secret. It strikes me that the same could be said about the secret of how to achieve good health.

The basics of healthy living are clear: Drink pure water, eat real food, remain physically active, minimize exposure to toxins, and support the body’s innate ability to maintain and repair itself. The secrets to achieving good health are open secrets, yet they remain almost untapped by the vast majority of people in the world.

I have seen many people over the course of my career who practiced the basics of wellness for brief periods of time. They did so in response to a health challenge that caught their attention. As soon as the challenge passed, however, they forgot the secret and went back to living as they did before the crisis arose. Invariably, another illness followed somewhere down the road.

I have heard it said that less than five percent of individuals who start out seeking financial success in their twenties achieve it by the time they reach their sixties. The same is true of good health. I am quite certain that fewer than 5 out of 100 people today reach their mid-sixties without relying upon several medications to get through each day.

The secret to achieving lasting health is practicing the basics of wellness on a consistent basis, through periods when one feels great as well as when one feels sick. It is achieving mastery of one’s health over time.

In 1993, psychologists K. Anders Ericsson and Ralf Krampe published what is now recognized as a classic paper in understanding excellence. It was titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”.

Ericsson and Krampe studied the progression of students at an elite music school – the Berlin Academy of Music. All of the students had begun playing their instrument around the age of five. All showed promise as musicians. All appeared to stand an equal chance of becoming outstanding performers. Over time, however, differences in performing ability emerged.

By the time the students were twenty years old and ready to embark on their professional careers they had fallen into one of three categories, based upon their performing ability. The members of one group were elite performers, capable of claiming a position with one of the world’s great orchestras or earning a living as a solo performer. The second group was made up of individuals who were clearly good musicians, but not up to the standard set by the elite performers. In the third group were students who were competent musicians who became music teachers rather than professional performers.

What made the difference? What was it that explained why one gifted child became an elite performer and another a competent music instructor? Ericsson determined that it was the amount of time devoted to practice.

During the first few years of their music education all of the students practiced between two and three hours a week. Around age eight the students who would become elite performers began to practice more than everyone else. They were not just playing their instruments; they were practicing exercises deliberately designed to improve their proficiency. By the time they were twenty they were averaging over 30 practice hours a week and had accumulated in excess of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. In contrast, those who became good, but not elite, musicians had practiced for 8,000 hours and those who planned to teach had accumulated just over 4,000 hours of practice time.

Since Ericsson’s work was published the background of elite professionals in many fields has been studied and similar results have been reported. It doesn’t seem to matter whether one becomes a professional athlete, a top-notch computer programmer, or a successful entrepreneur. In every instance the successful individual has amassed at least 10,000 hours of practice in his or her chosen field.

I propose that the same is true of the healthiest among us. The eighty year-old who is active and enjoying life, taking no medications, and feeling little pain did not achieve their envied status by dabbling in healthy activities; they began practicing the secrets of wellness many years earlier. They have accumulated over 10,000 hours of practice in healthy living.

It is never too late to begin performing the activities that promote health. On the other hand, it is never too early . . . 10,000 hours is a lot of practice time.

© 2009 Wellness Clubs of


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