How To Excel

In the early 1990s, three psychologists visited Universitat der Kunste, the esteemed arts academy in West Berlin, to study a cohort of elite violin students and see what made them so very good.

As a control group, they selected students from the education department training to be music teachers. Though this group were also serious about the violin, their playing ability was more average.

What the researchers wanted to understand was why. Was there a shared behaviour among the members of each group that made the excellent players better? Were they more dedicated, for example? Did they practice for longer? Or was it something innate to the individuals, with no statistical variation?

The researchers did a series of in-depth interviews with both groups and gave them diaries to carefully log how they spent their time, in college, while socialising and at home.

The Findings.

The data revealed that yes their were distinct statistical differences in how the groups spent their time, which fed into their ability.

Both groups spent, on average, a significant number of hours on music per week (around 50). The exciting finding was that the elite players spent almost three times as long as the average players on deliberate practice — the repetitive, demanding, methodical work of stretching their ability — rather than pleasure playing.

The schedules also discovered the average players spread their work throughout the day while the elites players consolidated their work into two well-defined ‘peak' periods, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with lots of time off in between.

Most interestingly, the better the player, the more pronounced these peaks.

For the best of the best —  those whom their professors expected to play in one or other of Germany’s two world-class orchestras — this pattern of two intense sessions a day was an unvarying part of their lives.

Other Findings.

Isolating work from leisure in this way also seemed to affect other areas of the players’ lives. The elite players slept an hour more per night than the average and they were more relaxed. The best of the best also slept best and were most relaxed of all.


To be average: Put in the hours, don't stretch yourself with deliberate practice, spread your work haphazardly throughout the day, so you're never fully ‘off' and never fully ‘on'. (And as a side effect, feel more stressed).

To be elite: Put in the hours, devoting yourself to two sessions a day of complete and deliberate focus. When you’re done, be done. Go enjoy the rest of the day. (And as a side effect, feel more relaxed).

You can be reading an Orna Ross book in minutes on an eReader.

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