You can also watch the whole interview with Anders Ericsson on my YouTube.
Max Hug (MH):
Dr. Karl Anders Ericsson
- Received a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Stockholm, Sweden
- Is a Professor of Psychology at Florida State University
- For over 4 decades Anders Ericsson studied expert performers across all disciplines, from sport stars to memory experts, to word-class musicians, to scientists and more
- He concluded studies on long-term working memory and the acquisition of expert performance
- Anders Ericsson and co-authors also conducted a study upon which the famous “10,000 Hour Rule” by Malcolm Gladwell was based
- Together with Robert Poole, he published his latest book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise
- He’s got 62,309 citations on Google Scholar
Welcome Anders Ericsson.
Anders Ericsson (AE): It’s a pleasure talking to you.
MH: I checked the number on Google Scholar like two days ago and it was 62,150. And in 2 days, it has went up by 159.
AE: I’m glad that people are citing our work, and I think, that is stimulating some interesting discussions and hopefully it will stimulate some new research.
MH: So for the very few people who don’t know you & your work, could you give us a summary in your own words? What are you doing?
Well, I think what we’ve been doing is trying to identify things that some people are able to do that other people can’t do. We are starting out here using an objective measurement of performance. If you look at athletes, some athletes can run faster than others and it’s not that the less successful athletes aren’t trying hard enough. Basically, you have a fundamental difference in their performance and we’ve been looking at memory experts, some individuals who can actually perform so much better on various memory tests.
We’ve been looking at all sorts of professionals that are actually able to do things that other people can’t. Basically, that’s kind of the starting point and then we’ve tried to bring people in to the laboratory where we give them tasks where their performance is highly correlated now with their objective performance out in the real world. And we ask them to think out loud and do various experimental tasks to pinpoint what is it that they have that other people don’t have.
And then basically, we’ve been looking at what is the path that these individuals have taken and is that path different from people who end up with a lower level of performance. That’s how we’ve basically been able to identify various types of very effective practice. So one would be purposeful practice where you actually set a goal and find a task where you can get immediate feedback, and we also distinguish now when you’re engaging in that type of training and you’re basing it now with, basically, directions and guidance from a teacher, who has been able to help other individuals reached the performance that you aspire to obtain.
MH: I would ask you later also, more about the difference between the different types of practices. What I was wondering is how did you get so passionate, so obsessed in a positive way about this whole topic of experts and expertise?
Well, I think I’m not the only one who would like to be very good at what you’re doing. I think that’s something that I’ve always sort of wondered about. How is it that some people I really admire are able to do what they’re doing? And we’re basically trying out some things during my adolescence. I got more and more interested in science. I guess, I started reading biographies. So people that I really admired. I was basically trying to ask: “What is it that allowed them to do something at the level that I would aspire to do?”
And as I got involved in my Ph.D., I looked at, to what extent are things fixed? Or to what extent can you actually change things like memory? And that’s basically where I started the work, when I was able to get a post doc here in United States. So we basically train now an average individual who over about 2 to 400 hours of training was able to get to a point that was actually the best in the world at the time. What we basically found was that the kinds of thinking and the kind of training environment that you need in order to achieve that improvement seemed to be sort of different from how most people spend time practicing.
And then, I basically started to look at all sorts of domains to try to look. Is this possibly something that is relevant here to acquisition of expertise in any domain? I’ve basically been looking at wide range of different domains personally, but there’s also a large number of other researchers who’ve been using similar kind of ideas and conceptions. So now I think we have a very broad basis here on research and expertise across the entire board. So as long as you can demonstrate that somebody can actually objectively do something that is reproducibly superior to other individuals, then basically you have something that would be relevant to our theoretical approach.
It’s important to realize that, if you say you’re more intelligent than somebody else. What does that mean? How can we actually objectively prove that you’re more intelligent? Well, I guess one way would be to say “Okay, if I can give you one of the many I.Q. tests and you do better than everyone else, well that would be sort of evidence.” But once you start thinking hard about that, most people are interested in intelligence that applies now to your ability to perform various kinds of tasks.
So some people might even argue here that to be a really good chess player, you would need a lot of intelligence to be able to know how to generate the best moves. And what we are finding is that once you start looking at extremely good chess players, they’re very good at playing chess, and we can actually identify the processes that they engage in, in order to select very good chess moves, but that doesn’t transfer to basically being a good surgeon or basically being successful in other domain. So that’s why I would argue that when you’re talking about things like intelligence, you really have to link it to something that we can actually reproducibly measure in order for it to be meaningful.
MH: One of your main concepts that you talk a lot about is deliberate practice and you talk about practice, purposeful practice, deliberate practice, can you give us an overview and talk about also, what’s the difference between these types of practice?
Well, if you engage now in doing something, and a lot of amateur tennis players and golfers, they go out and just play the game and they call that sort of practicing. They may go to the green and putt. But basically, I guess they really don’t have kind of very clear idea here of what is it that they want to change. So in our conception where you’re actually looking now at objective performance, from that you can now work yourself backwards.
So if you’re at this level in terms of your ability to putt golf balls at a distance of, basically, 3 meters or something like that. Then you can actually measure and see—can I actually get to a point here now where in a month, I’m actually more accurate and actually getting golf balls to come closer to the hole than I was previously. And that is now capturing this idea of deliberate practice that you’re actually setting up a goal that’s measurable objectively and then the question is—what is it that you should be doing here in order to actually now reach this higher level of performance than you’re currently able of exhibiting?
MH: This would be deliberate practice?
So deliberate practice would be when you actually do have a teacher that is skilled and actually has helped other individuals make that path to the improved performance. If you don’t have a teacher, you can guess and experiment with things that you can train and we call that purposeful practice because it doesn’t have that assurance that because you’re doing it for the first time, you don’t really know whether you’re engaging in the most effective practice or not. Just to give one example that I think is an instructive.
So you want to dunk the ball, a lot of individuals would now repeatedly try to jump up and dunk the ball and that turns out not to be the most effective way if you want to increase your ability here to jump high. Far more effective is if you do weight training. So when you actually have weights, you put now a lot of pressure on your legs as you’re basically lifting the weight and that stimulation seems to now cause physiological change that increases your strength and basically that in turn allows you now to jump higher.
Another thing that you can do is actually jump down from a reasonable height, because when you have to absorb your body as you’re reaching the ground that will also stimulate now your leg muscles. So over time, they will actually become stronger and that will allow you to be able to jump higher.
MH: Another concept you mention a lot is mental representation. What is a mental representation?
Well, I think a lot of people when they do something for a long time, it almost becomes automatic and they basically are more or less relying now on intuition or the sense of what they should be doing. What we’re finding is that those people who keep improving, they actually have a very detailed representation where they actually pay attention to all the different relevant cues.
So if you’re basically a basketball player, it’s really key that you can actually know where your teammates is even if they’re not actually within your vision. So by basically moving your head, you can now in your head have a representation of where they are at and where they’re going. So when you get the ball, you would be able to decide here, what would be the best person to pass to, in order to improve the chances here that somebody might score.
Basically that idea, in the same way that musicians, when they’re actually reading a piece of music, they can hear it in their head, and now actually think about, “Well, if I do this. Then it’s going to sound a little bit like that.” So basically, that ability of actually mentally being able to and not being dependent on the immediate experience and basically rely on intuition.
We argue that those representations seem to be the key to identify individuals who are improving because once they fail, they’re able to now try to figure out what they need to change. If you just rely on your intuition and you fail, what do you do? There’s really nothing for you to actively manipulate.
So overall, if you want to improve, you’ve got to build mental representations so you can imagine what you’ve been doing, so you know what you can do better?
Right! And I guess I would argue that the keyword for experts is control. So an expert actually doesn’t have just one way of reacting to a situation. They can actually think through different options. So when they’re practicing, they wouldn’t just do the same thing. They would actually vary so they now have tools. So if something happens and maybe, if you’re playing tennis and the weather changes, so the wind is changing. It’s not like you’re going to keep playing your automatic thing that you would be playing without the wind. You can actually make adjustments.
We know that musicians when they actually play in different places, there’s going to be different acoustics and they can actually modify now the way they’re playing in a way to sort of maximize the experience of the audience. So that idea here that an expert is actually able to manipulate and make adjustments, and I think in virtually any sport that’s being done outdoors, weather, temperature, maybe even your kind of what happened, if there’s a delay and stuff like that, experts need to be able to handle all those variations. And that really is, at least what we’ve found, the hallmark of somebody who is really superior.
MH: I was wondering how can you apply these concepts that to an office job like marketing or sales? I guess this would be super interesting to know for a lot of people. How can they apply deliberate practice for those kinds of jobs?
Well, I’ve been talking out to several companies where they’re interested in exactly this, how would we be able to allow individuals who have been actually had a job now for several years? How would they be able to do even better? And basically, one of the things that we have tried out is this idea that, if you’re doing the same job as a lot of other people, it’s possible now to identify people who seem to be more successful here in either closing sales or basically having individuals that they work with rate them extremely high here in terms of their experience of actually being working with the salesperson.
And by basically now identifying those individuals and actually videotape their interactions with a client and then basically allowing for a subsequent analysis of what it is that’s happening. You would then be able to allow other individuals to see, and sometimes you can actually have those videos and stop them when something unexpected happens in the interaction. And now see, what would they do, if that kind of thing happened to them and then you can actually see now somebody who was able to do something that eventually led to a very successful outcome.
I think a lot of people have an inspiration to do something, like to become an expert in something. Let’s say master a sport, master a martial art, become really good at writing or becoming really good scientist or student and then people start executing on it but I think a lot of people have this challenge that they don’t continue to practice or to work on it. So how can people stay motivated and keep practicing that specific skill?
Well, I think what I’m right now very interested in is I’m trying to encourage people to document their entire trajectory. If you basically wanted to start with a project, I guess we would want to know here, what is your starting point, do you have a lot of skills and knowledge that already you have acquired? And then basically try to almost with a video diary track on a weekly or a monthly basis how you actually improved, and what are, basically, the motivational obstacles that you faced.
And I think by actually learning now from those individuals who are successful, what the problems are. I remember when I actually read these biographies of people that I really admired, what I was struck by was how many times they actually were struggling in the sense that it wasn’t just smooth sailing. And I think some people, they like the smooth sailing, but I think that’s just a misrepresentation here on what it took.
So the more that you will actually see that those people, who actually went through a similar process that you’re starting on, what they actually went through, and also how long that process is, and I think that’s one of the things that, I think, the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell (Amazon US / DE) made up based on our work, sort of makes it clear that you’re not going to be an instant success.
And if you have that expectation, you’re going to try and basically fail. So what you need and often that’s very helpful to have a teacher who could tell you “Well, you’re doing just as well as such and such person.” And I think it would be even be more compelling if they could actually help you see a video of what that person was doing when they started and now seeing what kind of changes they went through in order to get to that point.
Wow! That sounds like a really good tipp. So basically you need someone who is like, let’s say 10 years ahead and you need to see where that person was struggling compared to where you are right now, right? And then you say like, “Okay, I have to keep going. That person is successful now and he also kept going.”
Exactly. And I think that’s why if you have a teacher who would be able to map out what the path is, and I think that’s one of the reasons while you’re young you may be more willing here to basically accept the fact that it’s going to take a long time for you to get. Well, but let’s assume now that, basically if you’re 25, you’re not going to magically get good. Even the very best say 12 year olds may actually go through a process where it take them 5, 10 years to reach a very high level. So if you’re 25 years old and you haven’t already, basically, started on that process or you’re almost there, you’re going to have to do a lot of changes.
And I think a lot of adults, they basically have the sense here, “Well, I’m an adult. So what more do I have to do here?” And I think that’s kind of conception that I find the worst and also, basically, that idea that a lot of people who’ve been doing their job for 10 years. And I think that’s where the 10,000 Hour Rule has misfired because it’s not doing something for 10 years that makes you into an expert automatically. It’s basically, that process by which you put in time every day or at least every week, where you’re actually trying out to improve something and doing that particular aspect of your job or what you’re working on a little bit better.
MH: You mentioned the 10,000 Hour Rule now a couple of times. What was the original study and what do you think about the 10,000 Hour Rule?
Anders: Our study basically showed that, when we analyze musicians at a music academy that differed in their performance level that they exhibited, we found that when you look back on what they did before they joined this music academy, that there were basically differences in how much time they actually had spent on a daily basis working on the kinds of things that their music teacher was instructing them and helping them setting goals for.
Now, the average of the top group at age 20 was actually 10,000, but there was a lot of variability around that number. So this idea here that there’s something magical with 10,000 hours, except that it’s a huge big number, so if you count up how many hours you actually need to work per day, you realize that it’s a substantial number and the musicians that we studied they spent maybe about 20 hours a week engaging in this solitary practice where they were trying to improve.
That’s about 3, 4 hours a day, every day, weekends. Now, once you start realizing that in order to be part of that music academy, you actually have to make that tremendous commitment, to practice all through adolescence. That, I think, really shows the necessity here for you refining your performance even for this idea that if you’re talented enough, you just don’t have to practice. I don’t know that there’s any evidence for that at all.
What we found was, that when you look at the violinist or the pianist, who were competing in international competitions, they’re pretty much in their early 30s when they typically win those competitions. So that’s another 12 – 15 years of training beyond when we actually tested them at age 20. I think a good estimate is that they probably engaged in about 25,000 hours of the solitary practice where you’re actually trying to improve.
MH: So it’s like 10,000 hours to become like an elite student and then 15,000 to become like really world-class elite musician.
AE: Well, that’s basically, at least for a piano, I’ve shown here that that is a reasonable estimate.
MH: I guess you’re familiar with the works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his concept
AE: Yeah, I sort of had a chance to meet with Mihaly several times.
MH: When I was reading your book, I saw some parallels [to Flow], like the uninterrupted concentration and focus on one thing and Mihaly has this concept of the challenge-skill ratio, which means you should always have a challenge that’s 4% higher than your current skill level, maybe that’s also kind of similar to deliberate practice. And also for flow, it’s really important to have enough sleep and to live healthy so you can get more into flow. And I was wondering how would you relate flow to your work?
Well, I think that’s really interesting and I believe that there is something, when I’ve talked to individuals that seems to match his concept of flow. However, I don’t think that flow actually, you can have flow while you’re engaging in deliberate practice. So basically, in order for you to successfully improve you have to be attentive to all the things that you’re actually trying to change. So I guess Mihaly argued that you don’t know ever that you’re in flow. If you basically are realizing you’re in flow, that will actually means that you are no longer in flow because that self-realization is inconsistent with this flow experience.
Typically, the flow experience is you don’t really have any memory for what happened. It’s almost like you were just totally engaged in this activity and somehow that then ends and it’s only in retrospect that you know that you were in flow. I would argue that deliberate practice, you’re actually going to be paying attention to a lot of things, and when we talked to experts, they actually can tell you about what they needed to do and what kind of adjustments and what they were paying attention to. So that’s really inconsistent with this idea of flow.
So what I would argue with flow is when you’re actually performing because at that point, you’re actually trying out to just execute what you’ve already worked on. You’re not trying to work and improve something while you’re performing in front of an audience. You’re basically fully focused on executing what you’ve learned. Now most of the time, when you execute something, there’s going to be deviations and there are going to be things happening that forces you to make adjustments during performance. So at the end of a performance, you would be able to look back and see various things that didn’t work out as well as you had hoped.
In some occasions, you can perform so perfectly that there really isn’t any of these things that happen and that gives you now almost the sense here that things went so well and that means that there’s really nothing for you to remember about the deviations because it’s almost like now that sort of…and given that you didn’t have to make any corrections, it feels effortless. So when you’re actually looking back on that performance, that is what I would basically refer to as flow, which is something, incidentally that, at least the people I talk to happens very, very rarely. So maybe it happens once a month or something for performing musicians.
MH: That’s interesting. I would have thought that it happens to them regularly.
AE: Well, again it probably depends here very much on how you define flow. Because if you define flow as basically being fully focused and engaged in the activity so you’re actually not thinking about other things, now if you call that flow, then obviously that every time when you’re engaging in purposeful and deliberate practice you’re in flow according to that definition. But basically that idea here of losing yourself where you’re actually no longer aware of what you need to do, when basically the things that you’re attending to and so on, then I think you’d end up with a much rarer event.
MH: The flow research, they also measure your brain and they found out that it releases these neurochemicals in your brain. Is there similar research about the deliberate practice or purposeful practice? Have you measured people with EEGs? And saw what’s going in their brain and if they have specific neurochemicals being released?
AE: I don’t know of any research like that. And I guess part of it is that if you basically now define activities that will change your performance, like a musician, it’s going to be awfully hard to put somebody with a violin or a piano inside one of those MRI apparatuses. I mean, you could conceivably put some EEG equipment on top of them, but then you really have to then basically, what is it that you’re contrasting?
And I think basically, and I’m not that familiar with exactly when the individuals were making the judgment about the flow but obviously they wouldn’t be able to tell you when they’re in flow, because according to Csikszentmihalyi that would actually be inconsistent with being in flow. So I don’t know exactly how you would collect that information from people to be able to know.
MH: Do you know Cal Newport?
AE: I’ve talked to him several times.
MH: Cal Newport the author of Deep Work. I also saw some parallels again to your work and I was wondering maybe you have some thoughts on deep work and deliberate practice how that overlaps.
AE: Well, I think he even refers to deliberate practice as sort of an example here of his deep work. I think his book is great and obviously focusing on a little bit different aspects than we’ve been working with. But I don’t really see a lot of inconsistencies here between what he’s calling deep work and basically that idea here of being fully engaged, and ideally you would have some very frequent feedback so you in some ways would be getting evaluation on what you’re doing and how that actually relates to your set goal here for how you want to change your performance.
MH: I have 3 quick questions at the end of our interview.
What is the book that you have most gifted or most recommended besides your own books? And I see you have a lot of books in the background.
AE: Yeah, I think I have about 16,000 books here between my office and my home. Now, if I was forced here to pick a book, I think… I had a mentor a Nobel Prize winner, Herbert Simon that I worked with for 3 years in Pittsburgh and he has an autobiography, Models of My Life. That maybe one of the books that I would point to as one of the special books for me.
MH: 2) Imagine you could do a phone call to your 20 year old self. So imagine you were 20, probably studying in Sweden, I guess. What advice would you give yourself? It can be anything like personal or business or scientific wise.
AE: In one sense, I would probably argue and, I remember when I was 20 year old, I actually had the opportunity to work or meet some of the most famous psychology professors from United States that were visiting University of Stockholm. And at the time, I actually was a double student. So I was actually studying at the Royal Institute of Technology to become a theoretical physicist and I was studying psychology.
And I remember this professor telling me “Wow! That’s really amazing here that you’re willing to spend that much time going back and forth between these 2 schools. That basically, is something that I think is voting well for you, and having that energy and directing it now to some interesting scientific research, you should be successful.”
MH: 3) If you would sum up your life’s mission or your life purpose or what do you want to change in the world, how would you sum it up in one sentence?
AE: I think if I could help people realize what the tools are, the effective tools that they can use to actually improve their performance and acquire skills, that would be something I would be delighted and hopefully would give those individuals who are sufficiently motivated, a chance here to realize their goals with a higher success rate.
MH: Anders, thank you so much for the interview and taking your time. I really appreciate it and I think it will be really helpful for a lot of people that want to improve themselves. Where can people find out more about your work if they want to learn more about you?
AE: Well, I would argue that maybe, I have a university website with a little information, but I would recommend maybe looking at the Peak book (Amazon US / DE) which, with Robert Poole I was basically trying to summarize what I thought was the most important of what I’ve learned here during the 40 years of studying expert performers.
MH: Awesome. Thank you so much Anders.
AE: Well, it’s a pleasure talking to you and thank you so much for this interview