by Dr. Patrick Egan
You have probably seen commercials of high-performance athletes training at gyms or high-tech facilities like the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. These images of athletes giving all they’ve got to stretch their physical and mental capacities project a value held dear in our time.
When we watch the Olympics, attend the symphony, or even participate in the weekend 5K we are intersecting with the cultural value of excellence. Seeing excellence inspires us to raise our own game.
Expert performance takes lots of practice to achieve. Anders Ericsson in his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016) spells out how important deliberate practice is for individuals pursuing excellence in any domain: athletics, chess, music, etc. Ericsson’s contribution to expert performance had been popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) when he made much of the “10,000-hour rule.” This concept identifies that a certain amount of work must be put in to achieve results like NBA star Michael Jordan, chess master Bobby Fischer or the most influential band of all time the Beatles. What Ericsson points out, however, corrects a common misunderstanding. It is not the amount of time on a task that matters, but rather the deliberateness of the practice that matters.
Deliberate practice is the most effective tool to achieve excellence in any domain. Ericsson found that the secret to high performance is the ability to break down skills (chunking) and then spend time every day on those discrete skills with intention, focus, and intensity. Improved performance in any domain – writing, mathematics, basketball – comes when you apply maximal effort under the guidance of a well-informed teacher or coach. Consider a golfer who hacks away at his swing day after day with no guidance, never breaks his swing down into components, and doesn’t apply maximal effort. His swing is just as bad, perhaps worse, ten years later. Now compare another golfer who never takes a swing without mentally getting himself into the mindset of maximal effort, has picked apart the components of his swing, and has received feedback from a coach. The latter will see massive improvement over the former golfer even if (and this is a massive point) the former golfer has begun with superior innate talent. Expert performance research makes a compelling case for a school environment that sets standards high, provides devoted time to deliberate practice, and takes a mentorship approach to teaching.
Having begun with modern research, I am quick to point out how much excellence is part of the biblical and classical
traditions. The Greek word aretē means excellence or virtue. This word occurs at several points in the New Testament. For instance, we learn that God “calls us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 esv). Two verses later Peter exhorts his readers to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5 esv). Stringing these uses of aretē together like this, we learn that excellence is a communicable divine attribute, meaning God shares his excellence with us. We also learn that striving for virtue, or making every effort, is an essential part of the life of faith. I like the phrase “make every effort” because this is exactly what modern science has discovered in that effortful practice leads to significant growth, which is not only true for athletics, music, and mathematics, but also in our spiritual lives.
In the classical tradition, we see this same word aretē used repeatedly as the basis of a virtuous society. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics explains, “Intellectual virtue is for the most part both produced and increased by instruction, and therefore requires experience and time; whereas moral or ethical virtue is the product of habit” (Nic. Eth. 2.1). Notice how Aristotle resonates with the findings of modern science. Virtue or excellence is produced through time, effort, and instruction.
Together, philosophers like Aristotle and Plato agree that the acquisition of virtue or excellence leads to individual happiness and to the betterment of society.
At Clapham School, striving after excellence takes on many facets. We cultivate an atmosphere that inspires students to aim for excellence. Our teachers are well-informed mentors providing coaching, guidance, and correction to give students the kind of feedback that supports them on their journey to excellence. The materials we use – great books, Scripture, beautiful works of art, exploration of nature itself – bring before each student’s mind great ideas that enable deliberate practice to be highly fruitful in growing not only the mind but also the moral and spiritual character of the student.
Dr. Egan serves as Clapham School's Academic Dean.