The bar for virtuosity has risen precipitously in many fields

In some fields, like accounting, expertise has risen in the last century because of new technology. But in many fields, like music and sports, the bar for world-class performance appears to have risen enormously without any extra outside inventions. Ericsson and Pool (2016) suggest that this growth is attributable to more time spent on increasingly sophisticated practice (p. 8).

Related: Human physical and cognitive capacity can be expanded surprisingly far with practice

In what fields has the bar for virtuosity not risen considerably? Has it fallen in some fields?

Possibly related: Athletes and musicians pursue virtuosity in fundamental skills much more rigorously than knowledge workers do


  • Performance in every analyzed Olympic event (track, field, swimming) improved from 1896-1980, in some cases by as much as 90% (Schulz and Curnow, 1988)
  • (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, p. 6-7)
    • The world record for marathon runners in 1908 (2h55m, Johnny Hayes) would barely qualify for the Boston Marathon today.
    • Recordings of the world’s best musicians from the early 20th century are now considered to be marred by technical errors.
    • In diving, the double somersault was considered too dangerous to attempt; now it’s routine for ten year olds in competition.
    • The world record for number of digits of π memorized rose from 511 to 70,000 over four decades.

Q. Give an example of a way in which the bar for virtuosity has risen precipitously, not attributable to new tools. (Give an example you haven’t given recently)
A. Marathon runners, musician performances, double somersaults, digits of pi


Ericsson, A., & Pool, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (1 edition). Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Peak - Ericsson and Pool

Schulz, R., & Curnow, C. (1988). Peak Performance and Age Among Superathletes: Track and Field, Swimming, Baseball, Tennis, and Golf. Journal of Gerontology, 43(5), P113–P120.

Last updated 2023-07-13.