Mental Representations: The Art of Finding the Elephant

In 1501, the Church of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a marble statue of David the Biblical shepherd boy. Because the statue was to be placed on a hill and viewed from below, it needed to be about thirteen and a half feet tall—roughly twice life-size.

Proportionally, this created some challenges, but to make it an even greater test of ingenuity, the marble Michelangelo had to work with was not pristine. It was a leftover from an unfinished 1464 sculpture by another artist.

Clearly, Michelangelo had his work cut out for him. At this point, the artist was only in his twenties, but he had already made a name for himself with his Pieta in Rome. More to the point, he had spent so much time and concentration honing his skills that even working with another sculptor’s scraps, he was able to free the David from his marble prison.

At first read, this might sound like a nice metaphor about art emerging from nature, but it’s at the critical mass of something noted scholar Anders Ericsson outlines in his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. According to Ericsson, what set Michelangelo apart from the competition was not just his raw talent or the practice hours he’d logged; it was what Ericsson calls “mental representation.” Ericsson writes that true experts have developed the uncanny ability to dream up an idea and reproduce it in the real world, down to the most minute details.

When someone like Michelangelo comes face to face with a marble block, their goal isn’t just to carve out a generalized form; they are able to aim for an incredibly specific image—say, a shepherd boy waiting to vanquish his oversized rival.

Throughout my travels, I’ve had the opportunity to conduct some informal sculpting experiments of my own. Sometimes, I will give the adults in my seminars ten minutes, some play-dough, and instructions to make a fist-sized elephant. None of my subjects have any formal training in the arts. They generally begin by producing the necessary elephant parts, which includes four legs, a tail, a trunk, tusks, floppy ears, and so on. Once the parts are formed, they tend to assemble their sculpture like a puzzle. The result is a crude, albeit recognizable, rendering of an elephant.

However, giving them more time does not tend to produce a better elephant. The deadline is not the issue. It seems they either lack an internal picture of what an elephant truly looks like, or the hand-eye coordination to translate that picture to play-dough—or both.

Ericsson says that hyper-nuanced specificity, a note-for-note model of the exact goal is the X factor in deliberate practice. People who successfully perform the type of practice that leads to real improvement start with a crystalline vision of the end product. Like Michelangelo, they sit down to work already seeing the David in the stone, or the elephant in the play-dough. It’s not some stylized, cartoon like notion of body parts; they envision everything down to the veins in the bicep or the barklike skin of the elephant’s hindquarters.

Once you can conceptualize your end result, you can develop a systematic strategy for getting there, knocking out the steps necessary to bring it to fruition.

The problem for novices is that they often haven’t acquired the knowledge to imagine that perfect prototype yet. Do I really understand precisely how my golf swing should look and feel, or how this Beethoven sonata should sound, or how the baseball should appear as it leaves the pitcher’s hand? Ericsson’s research suggests that the novices who do possess better mental representations tend to produce faster and more accurate work.

For instance, Ericsson posits, in sport, mental representation allows for a more refined level of pattern recognition. It’s not that a professional baseball player’s reflexes are necessarily faster than yours or mine, but a subtle change in the pitcher’s wrist prepares them to move into a better hitting position.

This heightened sense of anticipation is the winning formula for expertise in everything from chess to playing the piano. It’s the essential hack for expertise. True effective practice is not just about performing the same rote actions again and again; what really pays off is developing a deeper understanding of the domain-specific mechanics.

Ericsson says that both the quarterback who spends countless hours watching game films and the chess player who endlessly studies past matches with grandmasters are wiring up a vast library of patterns that their brains can then run like subconscious algorithms when competition heats up.

Not having a wholly accurate, detailed mental representation is a little like having a general idea how to get from the east coast to the west coast, but not knowing the city you want, let alone the street address. And a hazily defined goal or incomplete pattern recognition leads to mistakes, frustration, and frequently some very odd-looking play-dough elephants.