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We’re all familiar with the 10,000 hour rule, which was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2010 bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, Gladwell makes the argument that 10,000 hours of practice is a critical number that separates the great from the truly extraordinary. One of the bodies of work Gladwell relied on to support his thesis were from research by Florida State University Psychology Professor K. Anders Ericsson, the granddaddy of research on how people developing expertise.
Ericsson studied violinists from the West Berlin Music Academy: the highest performing students did not differ significantly from average or low performing students by IQ, family background, or other factors. The only thing that separated top students who and those who would likely end up as music teachers was the total number of hours they had logged over their lifetime engaged in deliberate, focused, independent music practice.
By the age of 20, the top students had logged over 10,000 hours of this kind of training — a nice round number that Gladwell hammered home over and over again in Outliers. Gladwell disputed the notion that he oversold the special qualities of ten thousand hours in a recent interview on the Freakonomics podcast, despite having written sentence ‘10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness’ in Outliers.
The problem is, people have distorted the 10,000 hours concept, which has become second-hand for “getting experience” or “working hard”. And the truth is more nuanced and more interesting than that.
So with all that said, I’m really excited to introduce an interview with Professor Ericsson. He’s recently published an awesome book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise with co-author Robert Pool. As someone who’s read a tremendous amount about deliberate practice, mastering skills, and developing talent, this book still provided a lot of depth and breadth into this field of study. I really enjoyed my conversation with Ericsson, who at once thoughtful, friendly, and deeply knowledgeable about how people develop expertise across a wide range of disciplines, from music, to sports, to surgery, aircraft piloting.
So without further ado, here is my conversation with Professor Ericsson, edited for clarity (though I’ll be sharing the entire conversation eventually on Record Breaking Podcast)
Practice vs Talent
Jason: It feels like a major thesis behind Peak is: if you’ve ever met someone who’s good at something, there’s almost no way that they haven’t spent a bunch of time deliberately practicing this thing to become as good as they are. Would you say that that’s something you would agree with?
Ericsson: Over the last 30 years, I’ve been sort of looking for people who exhibit abilities for which there’s no explanation in terms of prior training, or experience. It would be basically something like somebody suddenly starts speaking Chinese without basically having any background. In all of these cases, I’ve found that there’s a plausible alternative explanation that really focuses in on the kind of training and experience that people would have had, that would allow them to then exhibit this performance that is vastly superior to other people.
The only thing that I would point to as an exception would be body size and height. Somebody who is good at basketball and is like 7’2″ or something, that is basically explained by the genes that influence height, because people have been trying to centuries to try to change their height, and it’s really not possible to do that with training.
Jason: Having trained as a gymnast for many years, I naturally feel like, and I think many people would agree, that while working hard and practicing is clearly important, there’s some kind of multiplier that exists. This is what you might call “talent”. You’re sort of saying that talent in any particular field is really just someone having gotten their practice in a little earlier.
Ericsson: I think what I want to say is, as a scientist, I can’t prove that there aren’t such genetic factors. I think what I feel like I can confidently argue is, I’ve not seen the evidence that compels me to believe that there must be these factors. Given all this work that’s been done on DNA for the last 20 years, the fact is, people have still not found those genes that basically seem to be necessary for success in long-distance running or other kinds of activities. I think this raises an interesting question here about whether that [genetics] ultimately will be an important part of our explanation of very high levels of performance.
Gymnasts and Mental Representation
Jason: Can you recall any particular studies you did with gymnasts? Do you remember what you were studying there specifically, or do you have any anecdotes from some of that research that you could share?
Ericsson: I collaborated with a professor at the Beijing Sports University who was a rhythmic gymnast when she was younger and had been part of the Chinese system. We did a study where we actually try to map out, basically the practices of gymnasts in different countries. An interesting question is that, you don’t find any elite gymnasts who don’t have very extensive practice history.
What we’re seeing here is that the really accomplished gymnasts, they have almost developed these, as we talked about in the book, mental representations that will help them to monitor what they’re doing and also monitoring what they need to change as they’re trying to improve their performance which isn’t really visible. It’s almost like you’re acquiring something that gives a superior way of learning.
Jason: I remember, there was a guy on my gymnastics team, David Sender who was on the US senior national team and competed internationally for the United States. He would sometimes struggle to figure out how perform a particular skill, but then he would watch someone do it either in real life or on videotape and he would just get it.
He has this mental representation of, “Now, having watched this person do it, I understand the forces involved, where my body needs to be, how I need to act.” Things where I’d watch and go, “Okay, I saw that, but that doesn’t mean I exactly have a sense of how it would work.” It seemed like it was so clear to him what needed to happen.
Ericsson: I think that’s a great illustration. I would say that when you’re talking to gymnasts or ballet dancers or divers, what I find interesting is, they can watch a video and they translate it into what they would be doing if they were to actually duplicate it.
Recommended Article: What Gymnastics Taught Me About Acquiring and Mastering Skills
Performance and Age
Jason: One thing I want to touch on is age. We understand that children’s brains are different from adult brains, and language is one of those examples of things that children can learn far better than adults. What have you learned about age and how that plays a role since many people learning about this material now are adults — are there certain things that they can’t really act on directly?
Ericsson: There are numerous examples in the book here of individuals who really start training something when they’re adults, at which point, people almost fought knowing that the brain had already matured, and then basically you pretty much started your downhill, aging decline. When you look at, for example, these college students that were trained to improve their memory (Note: One of Ericsson’s first studies into expert performance was around training short-term memory as measured by reciting a long string of digits. The college and graduate students he trained could hear a 80+ digit number and repeat it back instantly, which at the time, was greater than what the world’s best mnemonists could achieve) and I think there’s a very large number of individuals who have attained remarkable abilities when it comes to memorizing things quickly. They pretty much have done that when they were in college, or even beyond college.
I think there’s all sorts of evidence showing that people reach sort of the highest level of productivity or performance when they’re in their 30s and 40s. And the there are the cab drivers in London who, in order to get a license to be a cab driver, actually have to memorize all the possible routes through a city, including 25,000 street names and 20,000 landmarks. Again, implying here that the brain keeps improving well beyond the time when you reach adulthood.
However, when it comes to that ability of having perfect pitch, for instance, where you can actually listen to a tone in isolation and then name which tone was playing. That ability seems something that any child can learn between the age of 3 and 5, but as you get older than 6, it seems that now the brain has already been entrenched in certain directions where learning that ability becomes almost impossible or at least very difficult.
Expert Performance in Families
Jason: You had an interesting point in the book about how the youngest child often does the best in a family, if the family has a particular hobby. You mentioned a family of chess playing daughters. We saw that in one of interviews on Record Breaking, with Gihan Amarasiriwardena, who ran the fastest half marathon in a full suit, and he comes from a family of runners and he’s the youngest sibling.
Ericsson: This example here of teaching your daughters to play chess is historically, I think really interesting. At the time when Dr. Polgár was actually deciding to start this experiment, people believed that no woman could ever be competitive in chess. He started training his daughters and developing some really interesting methods for training and then as the daughters got very good, he was then asking other more advanced chess players to work with them. These three daughters, in 2001, they were all three of them in the top 10 of female chess players in the world. The youngest daughter Judith, she was among the top 10 male players and people seriously speculated about the possibility that she would be able to become world champion herself. I think there are several benefits of being the youngest:
One is that the parents and the teachers learn lessons over time that they can then apply for the child that comes next. If you’re the last one, that would then provide you with the best environment. Also, older siblings often can help out and serve to challenge the younger child. That provides a good opportunity, under the assumption here that everyone is committed here as a team to try to help everyone improve, there should be a benefit of being the youngest. That certainly was the case here with the Polegar family.
Why it’s Important to be Challenged During Training
Jason: What you’re saying made me think about the point of being challenged. You talked about how deliberate practice is two things. It’s practice at the edge of your comfort zone and it’s purposeful, meaning you’re trying to achieve a very specific, particular outcome with any given attempt. What do you think it is about this being at the edge of your comfort zone, and really challenging yourself. Presumably, if taking a simplistic view of neural training, if you just run through something over and over again and it sort of enhances somehow, you should just get better. Why is it that you need to really push yourself every time to really make it count?
Ericsson: Let’s take the example of playing tennis with friends — you’re trying to play your best possible tennis, which in some ways, is just doing the same kind of things. I guess the arduous way in which you could improve would be to pinpoint things where you are actually making mistakes or you lose points that people would argue here that you could have basically had one here if you would have played it a certain way and hit the ball a little bit differently. Basically, you need to find something that you want to target for change.
I often take that example of a backhand volley where, if you miss it, next time you encounter a similar situation, you’re probably not going to do a lot better. But imagine now that you had a teacher approach, who could actually allow you to stand by the net and now actually deliver your backhand volley when you’re prepared for it and slowly force you to move further away from the net and eventually you would have to run up to the net to basically do the backhand volley, integrating it in regular play.
I would argue that a couple of hours with a tennis coach is going to improve your backhand volley so much more than playing maybe even for several years with your friends. That attitude of actually pinpointing something and then figuring out, “What are the best conditions under which you would be able to improve it?” and then basically work under those conditions until you’ve actually changed it and only then do you actually start using it and embedding it in the normal activity.
Motivations Behind the Book
Jason: You’ve written a lot of other books that are more academic, why this book? Why now?
I had some conversations with my coauthor Robert Pool that got me excited about working with him to explain how some of these findings on developing expertise might actually be relevant for everyday people. Most of the research that I do is actually looking at very high levels of performers. I believe that what they are learning about effective learning, is actually something that’s very useful for people who just want to reach the point of mastery such that they can independently produce or play an instrument and engage in drawing, or writing letters or speeches.
All of these activities, I think there are these general principles that would allow somebody to actually reach a higher level of performance and hopefully would really enjoy that sense here of being able to do a better job, and actually have other people surrounding them really enjoying their contributions more than the current level.
At the end of the day, this interview only scratches the surface of what Ericsson and Pool have to offer. I highly recommend checking out the book: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. It’s highly readable, with memorable stories and will help you develop a better understanding of how you can get better any skill.