Breaking Ceilings


We got a ping-pong table at Christmas, and within days my 15-year-old son and I were seriously, hopelessly addicted. At first, I beat him regularly — 21-15 would be a typical score. Occasionally, I even dialed my game back a notch, so the game would stay excitingly close.

But then one fateful week something changed. The games were suddenly getting closer. Uncomfortably close. Then, with quiet inevitability, something tipped. The kid started winning. Not just winning, but thumping me with increasing ease, to the point where I began to suspect he was dialing it back for me.

Something had changed — or rather hadn’t changed. While my son kept getting better, I’d stopped improving. I had to face the unpleasant truth: I’d bumped into my ceiling.

We bump into ceilings all the time — at work, in sports, in music, in every area of performance. But when we look deeper, this area is wrapped in mystery.  What’s causing the ceiling, and how do we get through it? The mystery is deepened by the fact that our skills in navigating that encounter — our ceiling IQ — might be one of the most important factors of our longterm performance.

When we encounter a performance ceiling, we instinctively make a couple natural presumptions:

1) That we’ve reached our natural limit — the point where our skills plateau.

2) That the best way past the limit is to keep grinding – to grit our teeth, stick with our methods and to defeat the ceiling through sheer cussed persistence.

The question is, are our instincts right? Or are there other, smarter ways to crack through our ceilings?

We get some insights from this article written by Josh Foer called Secrets of Mind-Gamer. Foer, a twenty-something science journalist, transforms himself into a memory champion in the space of a single year (memorizing, among other things, a shuffled deck of playing cards as quickly as possible).

At one point in his journey, Foer hit a ceiling. No matter what he tried, he couldn’t memorize a deck of cards any faster. He then sought out an expert (who in a parallel familiar to Talent Code readers, turns out to be Dr. Anders Ericsson). The ever-resourceful Ericsson gives Foer some surprising advice: speed up your practice. Force yourself to go too fast. Force yourself to make mistakes. Analyze those mistakes, find your weak points, and fix them.

Foer and Ericsson’s speed strategy works beautifully. Foer goes on to win the memory championships and set a new American speed record for card-memorization.  It’s an intriguing story (and looks to be a fascinating book). But mostly it’s useful because it shines a light on a new way to think about ceilings.

Foer and Ericsson didn’t think of the ceiling to be a limit. Instead, they thought of it as a level of automaticity — a point at which Foer became fast, unthinking, and proficient. Automaticity – sort of like our brain’s autopilot for specific tasks — is usually a good thing. It helps us walk and talk without thinking too much. But when we want to improve beyond a certain level, automaticity becomes a barrier. We try harder — we grind away — but that just reinforces the automatic circuit. Progress stops.

The solution, then, is not to grind, but to disrupt.  To choose a new strategy that breaks up the automaticity, reveals our shortcomings, and allows us to rewire our circuit.  To change some factor — in Foer’s case, speeding up time — so that he’s prevented from being automatic, and thus can improve.

And in light of that, here are a few disruptive tools for ceiling-busting, stolen from various hotbeds:

  • Use Overspeed: Foer’s technique is relatively common among musicians and athletes. Going too fast breaks up the normal rhythms of a skill and allows them to be rebuilt and improved.
  • Use Underspeed: slowing way down to develop new feel; common to musicians (who, perhaps by many-laddered nature of the work, tend to become ferocious ceiling-busters. For example, world-champion speed typist Albert Tangora likes to type at half-speed when he hits a plateau.
  • Single Out: Focusing on one key element and working on it in isolation. For example, major-league batters will practice identifying various pitches. They are singling out the visual, pattern-recognition element of hitting.
  • Seek Fresh Feedback: Finding new metrics — such as videotaping your performance, or seeking out a consult from a new teacher — can quickly lead to new insights and experiments.
  • Give it Time: Ceilings are as much emotional challenges as anything else, best encountered with a sense of perspective. As George Leonard points out in his book, Mastery, “this is the inexorable fact of the journey: you also have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

Normally, we think of stories like Foer’s as inspiration: he tried harder, so he broke through. But this story is not about inspiration; it’s really about strategy. He didn’t succeed merely because he tried harder, but because he tried in a highly methodic way that was consistent with the way our brains learn — by getting in the zone where we make mistakes and fix them. Talent’s not a possession — it’s a construction project.

As for my ceiling: it turns out that one half of our ping-pong table can be raised into a vertical position, creating a practice wall. At first it felt strange — the ball, rebounding from a few feet closer than I was accustomed to, shot back at me so quickly that I could barely catch up. It was overspeed in excelsis. But I’ve done it for a few days now, and I’m hitting the ball pretty well. Playing a real game seems weirdly slow.

Okay, so I still haven’t beaten the kid. But the last two games were 21-19 and 22-20.  Now I just have to make sure he doesn’t find out about my secret practice technique.

PS  — From the kid:  “Hey Dad, if you don’t want me to find out about your practice technique, maybe you shouldn’t write about it in your blog!”

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22 Responses to “Breaking Ceilings”

  1. Dale says:

    LOL Excellent post, Daniel. And timely too. I’ve hit a plateur in my own practice and I’ve been pondering how to spend more time, but I think I’ll disrupt instead.

    Obviously you need to find a crummy rundown. Rusty. Makeshift. Overcrowded Pingpong training facility.:-)

  2. SophieB says:

    This is eerily timely for me as well. In recent months, despite being middle-aged, the compulsion to learn to roller skate has lodged firmly into my brain. After about 6 classes, I had definitely hit a wall. I had already discovered that skating faster did make skating easier, but I was still unable to come out of some sort of comfort zone. It doesn’t help that in the second class, I fell particularly hard and bruised my tailbone (not a good injury for someone who works at a computer).

    When I went to practice last night, I used all four of these techniques. Overspeed and Underspeed worked exactly as you describe: skating faster caused my skates to occasionally slip out from under me in seemingly random directions, forcing me to correct so as to not fall; skating slower allowed me to completely relax my upper body and let my legs do all the work. I singled out two skills to work on, turning and using the toe stop. I engaged a couple of the best skaters to watch me and offer corrections (roller skaters are an oddly friendly bunch of people). It also helped to copy their movements, as best I could. I definitely left feeling like I’d had some kind of major breakthrough.

  3. djcoyle says:

    Hey Sophie, I love it! Rollerskating is such a perfect example of those kinds of skills where it’s difficult/scary/tricky to get to the edge. I’m happy for you. Best, Dan

  4. gosobooks says:

    An excellent piece.This site is fast becoming a resource centre for people like myself. I’ve had quite a number of good referenced reading materials from here that I have gone ahead to buy from and they are very nice i.e. 49 teaching techniques, teach like a champion, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain e.t.c. Hope to see this to turn out to be an Institute of Coaching Expert and Expertise Development in the future.
    And I hope it’ll have two features: 1. Online; 2. “Free”.-Thanks Dan.

  5. djcoyle says:

    You’re welcome — and thanks for the note; I really appreciate it. And if I might ask: what else do we need here? I’m wondering if it might be useful to have a spot where people can share what works for them. What do you think?

  6. gosobooks says:

    I think to have a spot where people can upload video clips of their practice sessions coupled with an explanatory note might be a good starting point. Thanks for the mail and this is coming from Lagos, Nigeria. Remember Parklane? I am changing to gosobooks.-Thanks a million Dan

  7. I love Sophie’s example too. As a pianist, I spend a lot of time practicing under tempo, because everything feels under control. Overspeed, on the other hand, is something I avoid because it sounds so awful. Now that I know it help breaks through the plateau I will have to learn to get comfortable with the sloppiness.

    The most important lesson here for me is simply to decide that a ceiling is not a ceiling and trust that there is a strategic way to break through it.

    p.s. I remember that exciting moment when I first beat my Dad at ping-pong. He never did regain the advantage…sorry, Dan!

  8. Dan ~

    Any day you post is a good day.

    I find it invaluable to know that ineptitude is an integral part of starting something in the first place, and moving on to improve and get better. For me, it’s knowing that that clears emotion out of the way, leaving only focus on what I’m doing. It’s what makes me not care what others might be thinking while whatever it is I’m trying doesn’t look very good. Powerful stuff.

    I think your work ties in perfectly with Carol Dweck’s. I blogged about you here and her here

    Your work is brilliant. Your research and writing are awesome. I hope there’s another book in the works.

    Susan Alexander

  9. Tom Schibler says:

    Dan–great post.

    3 degrees of separation–George Leonard is a colleague/mentor to Richard Strozzi-Heckler, who we have consulted with in our development effort. Although somewhat off topic from this post, the essence of mastery, as described by Leonard, is the mindset I am trying instill in our people. As another aside, highly recommend Strozzi-Heckler’s “Leadership Dojo”, as a compelling approach to personal development, especially in the role of “coach” (I think I mentioned this book when you visited us last week).

    best wishes,
    tom schibler

  10. Cynthia says:

    I am a student of neuroscience,a pianist and a piano teacher. I am very familiar with the Ericsson.He is great!
    I try to “disrupt” my practice in every way possible by changing the rhythm, articulation and tempo. Even changing the context helps (i.e.practicing in a different piano). This kind of practice makes what I already know more integrated and more memorable. It allows me to experience different sensations.
    Try taking a nap after your super fast practice. The hippocampus cells activated during learning are reactivated during REM sleep. It is an extra rehearsal. Easy too.
    Make sure you keep your son sleep deprived.
    I wish I had known about your blog before. It is fantastic!

  11. Bill Forward says:

    So glad you posted on this wonderful NYT piece, Dan. One interesting wrinkle is how both slowing down and speeding up play crucial roles in extraordinary mastery.

  12. Marcus says:

    I tried this playing basketball and shooting hoops and it helps to go faster even though I keep on missing my shots.

    Was working on using my right hand (my weak hand, I’m a lefty) to do hook shots and even though I kept on missing, I’m getting better with my brain and body getting used to the motion of going right. I’m a good shooter but still need to improve

  13. Walter says:

    My 7 year old boy is a very very good soccer player. In his class of 22 U8’s he is probably the 2nd or 3rd best and this is a travel team. I coach my oldest who is 10 (U11) and he isn’t quite as gifted. My U11’s are currently practicing in an indoor gym on Friday nights preparing for our upcoming outdoor season. Back to my 7 year old who seemed to have hit a wall with his age group. I allowed him to practice with our U11’s for 4 consecutive Fridays. The speed of our scrimmages i could tell was challenging for him and he kept up pretty well and held his own. When he got back to playing with his own U8’s some of the parents asked my wife and i if he had been going to a camp because he kicked it up another level. I blammed it on the speed of play going up against a U11 pace and then going back down to a U8 pace. He was going around his U8 teamates like they were standing still. Had to laugh when i read you blog cuz it really hit home ! LOL! Keep up the great work!

  14. Jeff Plumb says:

    I read the article by Josh Foer and it is very interesting. I’m actually a Table Tennis coach and I think some of these ideas will help me out. Keep up the good work.

    Oh and by the way, Table Tennis games are now played up to 11 with 2 serves each. Weird I know!

  15. djcoyle says:

    Thanks — and that IS weird. Maybe the shorter games will help me ambush the kid. (BTW, we played again last night, splitting 4 games.)

    What’s that saying about old age and treachery?

  16. David says:

    Did you ever find out what was making him improve so fast? Was he also raising the other side or somehow practicing?

    Second, the roller skating example is a good problem. I’m 36 and recently took up motocross riding. I understand how to improve, but how do you practice something where making mistakes can be dangerous (like Sophie’s fall)? When possible I try things like riding in mud where i’m very unstable and yet due to slow speeds and soft ground, the risk of a fall is less dangerous.

  17. Dale says:

    Imperfect practice makes perfect.

    Ed Strachar emphasizes these principles in his mental training ideas.

  18. Dale says:

    Just a comment to commenter Susan Alexander. I’m really getting a lot of value out of your blog. Thanks for the link.

  19. djcoyle says:

    Hi David, No, I haven’t. I suspect he’s just a faster learner at this point. Each game he would progress to a new level. He was in the zone where it was pretty damn thrilling to invent and feel new shots — whereas his old man is in the zone where he’s trying to remember/recreate these shots he swears he used to hit. Reminded me that it’s very fun to be 15.

  20. djcoyle says:

    Hey Tom — Thanks a lot. And thanks for the Strozzi-Heckler reminder — I really appreciate it. I’m still buzzing from last week. (Maybe it was the M-16??) Best, Dan

  21. Don says:


    I know this isn’t quite relevant to this topic but any chance you could have Malcolm Gladwell join you on this blog for a conversation? I think it’d be amazing to read what the two of you would come up with.

  22. KC says:

    With regards to the rollerskating, I remember when I tried roller-hockey, my skating improved quite a bit. I always attributed it to being forced to focus on something else, but I guess it was also a disruption.

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