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Anders Ericsson's work is famous for creating the idea of "deliberate practice" and its creation of experts, but Anders also talks about how long hours are inevitable in becoming an expert. Let's examine this on the standard of running. In 1960 a less than 5 minute mile was impossible, but now it's impressive but having a closer to 4 minute flat mile run is more impressive. We can maybe assume people didn't train as long as people do now to achieve that which would support Anders, but what if the variance in time spent training between 1960 runners and now is about the same, just that our training methodologies have allowed runners to easily surpass that speed. My question is what allows someone to become an expert in shorter time? What features of training methods IN ANY field (not just running) allows someone to acquire expertise in a field faster than other methodologies? Can we evaluate such methodologies?
Study reveals what it takes to become a cryptic crossword expert – and it’s more than just practice
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations
You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”, the belief that it takes thousands of hours of intense practice to become an expert in something. Training and practice are clearly vitally important in many highly competitive areas such as sports, music and chess. But is that really all it takes to achieve greatness?
Recent research suggests that other factors such as genetics influence the likelihood that you will try, enjoy and excel at a performance activity. We decided to test that theory in the highly challenging arena of cryptic crossword solving. What we’ve found so far suggests that these kinds of word puzzles actually attract people with an affinity for maths and science and that the ability to think flexibly seems more important than hours of practice when it comes to solving them.
Unlike regular crosswords, which typically ask the solver to find a synonym for a word or phrase, cryptic crosswords use clues that are deliberately misleading. Solvers have to ignore this reading and look instead for a grammatical set of coded instructions to lead them to the correct answer. The problem lies in recognising and cracking the code, and the task of the crossword setter, like that of a magician, is to conceal the mechanism so subtly that the way to the answer is hard to find.
Have a look at these cryptic clues from our paper and see if you can spot where you are being misled. The answers and explanations are at the foot of the article if you need some help.
Active women iron some skirts and shirts (9)
Speciality of the Cornish side that’s perfect with new wingers (5,4)
Have Great Genetics
I won&rsquot lie to you: being a member of the lucky sperm club certainly has its advantages.
Even in this age of hyperspecialization in sports, some rare individuals become world-class athletes, and even world champions, in sports from running to rowing with less than a year or two of training. As with Gobet&rsquos chess players, in all sports and skills, the only real rule is that there is a tremendous natural range.
There are also genetic advantages in the area of music, math and writing.
Heritability coefficients were strongest in music (.92), math (.87), sports (.85), and writing (.83) of the explained variance.
This is usually cause for many to throw up their arms and surrender. (These people do not have much grit, mind you.)
But the existence of genetic advantages doesn&rsquot mean you should give up. I&rsquod ask you two questions:
- Have you tried a wide variety of things to see if you possess genetic advantages at any of them?
- Have you tried aligning your efforts with the areas where you show a level of natural talent?
As David Epstein explains, the model is no longer &ldquogood at sports&rdquo or &ldquonot good at sports&rdquo &mdash it&rsquos &ldquowhich sport was your body designed for?&rdquo
But, as Norton and Olds saw, as winner-take-all markets emerged, the early-twentieth-century paradigm of the singular, perfect athletic body faded in favor of more rare and highly specialized bodies that fit like finches&rsquo beaks into their athletic niches. When Norton and Olds plotted the heights and weights of modern world-class high jumpers and shot putters, they saw that the athletes had become stunningly dissimilar. The average elite shot putter is now 2.5 inches taller and 130 pounds heavier than the average international high jumper&hellip Just as the galaxies are hurtling apart, so are the body types required for success in a given sport speeding away from one another toward their respective highly specialized and lonely corners of the athletic physique universe.
Tall and thin? Try basketball. Short and thick? Weightlifting. Mom and dad are successful engineers? Give math a whirl.
Taking advantage of genetic gifts is a matter of finding what your body and mind might have been designed to excel at and aligning your efforts appropriately.
(More on genetic advantages &mdash and how I had my own DNA analyzed &mdash here.)
How Long Does It Take?
Recently, a popular idea has emerged that the key to becoming an expert was devoting at least 10,000 hours to the study and practice of a subject. In a 1993 study, researchers found that the most accomplished violinists at a music academy had spent an average of 10,000 hours practicing their instrument by the age of 20. Pop psychology author Malcolm Gladwell coined the phrase "the ten-thousand-hour rule" in his best-selling 2008 book Outliers.
Gladwell pointed to the results of the music study as well as observations that musical greats The Beatles had likely spent around 10,000 hours practicing playing music during the early 1960s. Gladwell also suggested that tech-entrepreneur Bill Gates had devoted 10,000 hours to practicing programming before he created Microsoft. According to Gladwell, a person could become an expert in nearly any field as long as they were willing to devote the requisite 10,000 hours to studying and practicing the subject or skill.
The idea has become enormously popular outside of academics, but just how true are the claims? Can spending 10,000 hours on a subject really guarantee that you will become an expert?
Anders Ericsson of the University of Florida is a world-renowned expert on peak performance and author of Peak: The New Science of Expertise. He has studied experts from all walks of life including areas such as chess, sports, music, and medicine. He is also the researcher behind the study from which Gladwell drew his conclusions about what it takes to become an expert.
Ericcson points out a few key problems with the "ten-thousand-hour rule":
- First, while the students in the music study were very good violinists by age 20, they were not masters. In other words, they were excellent players, but that did not necessarily mean they were masters of their craft. Ericsson suggests that it is sometimes around the 20,000- to 25,000-hour mark that people truly become experts or masters of a skill or subject.
- Secondly, not all skills are the same. Some skills require far fewer than 10,000 hours to reach the expert level, while others require much more.
- Ericsson also points out that Gladwell's interpretation of his research is flawed. While Gladwell assumed that all of the violinists in the music study had put in the 10,000 hours of practice, that number was really only an average. Half of the violists studied by Ericsson and his colleagues spent less than 10,000 hours practicing their instruments by the age of 20, while half spent more.
But whether you call it deliberate practice, the five-hour rule, or lifelong learning, it’s important to note that this form of focused learning isn’t about simple repetition of a task or skill, accumulating a lot of hours of training, or just “trying harder.” It’s structured, sustained, consistent, purposeful hard work directed at specific goals for improvement. It takes time and requires constantly getting outside your comfort zone and pushing the limits of your abilities.
So if you’re looking for a shortcut for achieving expertise, deliberate practice isn’t the answer. Stephen Dubner, host of Freakonomics Radio, gets to the core of the technique in a conversation with Ericsson for the episode “How to Become Great at Just About Anything”:
“So, Anders, when we began this conversation and you said that deliberate practice is the key to expert performance, it kind of sounds like magic, but it’s not at all, is it? I mean, deliberate practice sounds like a very organized, canonized, or codified, way of working really, really hard.”
Ericsson’s answer? “I think that’s exactly right.”
But while it may not make you an instant expert, a regimen of deliberate practice — with the explicit goal of improving your performance, skill, or knowledge in a given area — will produce results, as we’ll see in the next section.
The exciting potential of deliberate practice is that there’s no limit to how far you can take it. As Ericsson writes in an article adapted from his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,
In pretty much any area of human endeavor, people have a tremendous capacity to improve their performance, as long as they train in the right way. If you practice something for a few hundred hours, you will almost certainly see great improvement … You can keep going and going and going, getting better and better and better. How much you improve is up to you. . . . There is no point at which performance maxes out and additional practice does not lead to further improvement.
Ericsson has distilled his research on deliberate practice and expert performance into several practical steps that anyone can apply to learn more, improve a skill, or be more productive.
InPart 2 of our deep dive into deliberate practice, we’ll look at six practical steps you can use to tap into this powerful learning technique.
Practice Does Not Make Perfect
Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud/Reuters
A decade ago, Magnus Carlsen, who at the time was only 13 years old, created a sensation in the chess world when he defeated former world champion Anatoly Karpov at a chess tournament in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the next day played then-top-rated Garry Kasparov—who is widely regarded as the best chess player of all time—to a draw. Carlsen’s subsequent rise to chess stardom was meteoric: grandmaster status later in 2004 a share of first place in the Norwegian Chess Championship in 2006 youngest player ever to reach World No. 1 in 2010 and highest-rated player in history in 2012.
What explains this sort of spectacular success? What makes someone rise to the top in music, games, sports, business, or science? This question is the subject of one of psychology’s oldest debates. In the late 1800s, Francis Galton—founder of the scientific study of intelligence and a cousin of Charles Darwin—analyzed the genealogical records of hundreds of scholars, artists, musicians, and other professionals and found that greatness tends to run in families. For example, he counted more than 20 eminent musicians in the Bach family. (Johann Sebastian was just the most famous.) Galton concluded that experts are “born.” Nearly half a century later, the behaviorist John Watson countered that experts are “made” when he famously guaranteed that he could take any infant at random and “train him to become any type of specialist [he] might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents.”
The experts-are-made view has dominated the discussion in recent decades. In a pivotal 1993 article published in Psychological Review—psychology’s most prestigious journal—the Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues proposed that performance differences across people in domains such as music and chess largely reflect differences in the amount of time people have spent engaging in “deliberate practice,” or training exercises specifically designed to improve performance. To test this idea, Ericsson and colleagues recruited violinists from an elite Berlin music academy and asked them to estimate the amount of time per week they had devoted to deliberate practice for each year of their musical careers. The major finding of the study was that the most accomplished musicians had accumulated the most hours of deliberate practice. For example, the average for elite violinists was about 10,000 hours, compared with only about 5,000 hours for the least accomplished group. In a second study, the difference for pianists was even greater—an average of more than 10,000 hours for experts compared with only about 2,000 hours for amateurs. Based on these findings, Ericsson and colleagues argued that prolonged effort, not innate talent, explained differences between experts and novices.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
These findings filtered their way into pop culture. They were the inspiration for what Malcolm Gladwell termed the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book Outliers, which in turn was the inspiration for the song “Ten Thousand Hours” by the hip-hop duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the opening track on their Grammy-award winning album The Heist. However, recent research has demonstrated that deliberate practice, while undeniably important, is only one piece of the expertise puzzle—and not necessarily the biggest piece. In the first study to convincingly make this point, the cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli found that chess players differed greatly in the amount of deliberate practice they needed to reach a given skill level in chess. For example, the number of hours of deliberate practice to first reach “master” status (a very high level of skill) ranged from 728 hours to 16,120 hours. This means that one player needed 22 times more deliberate practice than another player to become a master.
A recent meta-analysis by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues (including the first author of this article for Slate) came to the same conclusion. We searched through more than 9,000 potentially relevant publications and ultimately identified 88 studies that collected measures of activities interpretable as deliberate practice and reported their relationships to corresponding measures of skill. (Analyzing a set of studies can reveal an average correlation between two variables that is statistically more precise than the result of any individual study.) With very few exceptions, deliberate practice correlated positively with skill. In other words, people who reported practicing a lot tended to perform better than those who reported practicing less. But the correlations were far from perfect: Deliberate practice left more of the variation in skill unexplained than it explained. For example, deliberate practice explained 26 percent of the variation for games such as chess, 21 percent for music, and 18 percent for sports. So, deliberate practice did not explain all, nearly all, or even most of the performance variation in these fields. In concrete terms, what this evidence means is that racking up a lot of deliberate practice is no guarantee that you’ll become an expert. Other factors matter.
What are these other factors? There are undoubtedly many. One may be the age at which a person starts an activity. In their study, Gobet and Campitelli found that chess players who started playing early reached higher levels of skill as adults than players who started later, even after taking into account the fact that the early starters had accumulated more deliberate practice than the later starters. There may be a critical window during childhood for acquiring certain complex skills, just as there seems to be for language.
There is now compelling evidence that genes matter for success, too. In a study led by the King’s College London psychologist Robert Plomin, more than 15,000 twins in the United Kingdom were identified through birth records and recruited to perform a battery of tests and questionnaires, including a test of drawing ability in which the children were asked to sketch a person. In a recently published analysis of the data, researchers found that there was a stronger correspondence in drawing ability for the identical twins than for the fraternal twins. In other words, if one identical twin was good at drawing, it was quite likely that his or her identical sibling was, too. Because identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, whereas fraternal twins share only 50 percent on average, this finding indicates that differences across people in basic artistic ability are in part due to genes. In a separate study based on this U.K. sample, well over half of the variation between expert and less skilled readers was found to be due to genes.
In another study, a team of researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden led by psychologist Miriam Mosing had more than 10,000 twins estimate the amount of time they had devoted to music practice and complete tests of basic music abilities, such as determining whether two melodies carry the same rhythm. The surprising discovery of this study was that although the music abilities were influenced by genes—to the tune of about 38 percent, on average—there was no evidence they were influenced by practice. For a pair of identical twins, the twin who practiced music more did not do better on the tests than the twin who practiced less. This finding does not imply that there is no point in practicing if you want to become a musician. The sort of abilities captured by the tests used in this study aren’t the only things necessary for playing music at a high level things such as being able to read music, finger a keyboard, and commit music to memory also matter, and they require practice. But it does imply that there are limits on the transformative power of practice. As Mosing and her colleagues concluded, practice does not make perfect.
Along the same lines, biologist Michael Lombardo and psychologist Robert Deaner examined the biographies of male and female Olympic sprinters such as Jesse Owens, Marion Jones, and Usain Bolt, and found that, in all cases, they were exceptional compared with their competitors from the very start of their sprinting careers—before they had accumulated much more practice than their peers.
What all of this evidence indicates is that we are not created equal where our abilities are concerned. This conclusion might make you uncomfortable, and understandably so. Throughout history, so much wrong has been done in the name of false beliefs about genetic inequality between different groups of people—males vs. females, blacks vs. whites, and so on. War, slavery, and genocide are the most horrifying examples of the dangers of such beliefs, and there are countless others. In the United States, women were denied the right to vote until 1920 because too many people believed that women were constitutionally incapable of good judgment in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, they still are believed to be. Ever since John Locke laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment by proposing that we are born as tabula rasa—blank slates—the idea that we are created equal has been the central tenet of the “modern” worldview. Enshrined as it is in the Declaration of Independence as a “self-evident truth,” this idea has special significance for Americans. Indeed, it is the cornerstone of the American dream—the belief that anyone can become anything they want with enough determination.
It is therefore crucial to differentiate between the influence of genes on differences in abilities across individuals and the influence of genes on differences across groups. The former has been established beyond any reasonable doubt by decades of research in a number of fields, including psychology, biology, and behavioral genetics. There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus that genes contribute to individual differences in abilities. The latter has never been established, and any claim to the contrary is simply false.
Another reason the idea of genetic inequality might make you uncomfortable is because it raises the specter of an anti-meritocratic society in which benefits such as good educations and high-paying jobs go to people who happen to be born with “good” genes. As the technology of genotyping progresses, it is not far-fetched to think that we will all one day have information about our genetic makeup, and that others—physicians, law enforcement, even employers or insurance companies—may have access to this information and use it to make decisions that profoundly affect our lives. However, this concern conflates scientific evidence with how that evidence might be used—which is to say that information about genetic diversity can just as easily be used for good as for ill.
Take the example of intelligence, as measured by IQ. We know from many decades of research in behavioral genetics that about half of the variation across people in IQ is due to genes. Among many other outcomes, IQ predicts success in school, and so once we have identified specific genes that account for individual differences in IQ, this information could be used to identify, at birth, children with the greatest genetic potential for academic success and channel them into the best schools. This would probably create a society even more unequal than the one we have. But this information could just as easily be used to identify children with the least genetic potential for academic success and channel them into the best schools. This would probably create a more equal society than the one we have, and it would do so by identifying those who are likely to face learning challenges and provide them with the support they might need. Science and policy are two different things, and when we dismiss the former because we assume it will influence the latter in a particular and pernicious way, we limit the good that can be done.
Wouldn’t it be better to just act as if we are equal, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding? That way, no people will be discouraged from chasing their dreams—competing in the Olympics or performing at Carnegie Hall or winning a Nobel Prize. The answer is no, for two reasons. The first is that failure is costly, both to society and to individuals. Pretending that all people are equal in their abilities will not change the fact that a person with an average IQ is unlikely to become a theoretical physicist, or the fact that a person with a low level of music ability is unlikely to become a concert pianist. It makes more sense to pay attention to people’s abilities and their likelihood of achieving certain goals, so people can make good decisions about the goals they want to spend their time, money, and energy pursuing. Moreover, genes influence not only our abilities, but the environments we create for ourselves and the activities we prefer—a phenomenon known as gene-environment correlation. For example, yet another recent twin study (and the Karolinska Institute study) found that there was a genetic influence on practicing music. Pushing someone into a career for which he or she is genetically unsuited will likely not work.
The second reason we should not pretend we are endowed with the same abilities is that doing so perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society—the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough. You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly. Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If we acknowledge that people differ in what they have to contribute, then we have an argument for a society in which all human beings are entitled to a life that includes access to decent housing, health care, and education, simply because they are human. Our abilities might not be identical, and our needs surely differ, but our basic human rights are universal.
The study provides the first multi-level, multi-hospital evidence showing that the composition of a hospital's staff, particularly the aggregate level of education, contributes to clinical nurse expertise independent of individual education and experience level. Our findings also confirm the evidence from prior, smaller-scale studies showing that individual nurse level of education and years experience are related to clinical nursing expertise (Bobay et al., 2009 Bonner, 2003).
Unexpectedly, we did not find support for our hypothesized association between a professional practice environment as measured by the PES-NWI and nursing expertise. This is surprising in light of the considerable literature suggesting the importance of the professional nurse practice environment measured by the PES-NWI on patient outcomes (Aiken et al., 2008 Friese et al., 2008 Kutney-Lee et al., 2009 Vahey, Aiken, Sloane, Clarke, & Vargas, 2004). Given that the hospital sample demonstrated sufficient variation in practice environments, we do not attribute the lack of association to restricted range of the independent variable.
One potential explanation for the finding of no association between the practice environment and expertise is that the PES-NWI may not capture all facets of the practice environment relevant to the development of clinical nursing expertise. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has specified eight Hallmarks of the Professional Practice Environment (2002), which are a comprehensive set of characteristics that permit “nurses to practice to their full potential” (p. 298). In a review of measures of the practice environment, Lake (2007) identified that although the PES-NWI was best instrument across criteria of theoretical relevance, ease of use, and dissemination, the measure does not cover all eight of the AACN hallmarks. The PES-NWI should be supplemented with four domains𠅊utonomy, recognition/advancement of nurse preparation and expertise, professional development, and supportive relationships with peers—to cover the full spectrum of practice environment measurement. Recognition/advancement of nurse preparation and expertise is one potential domain where the PES-NWI may not assess how the practice environment advances clinical nursing expertise. The missing domain of professional development and supportive relationships with peers may also contain important factors associated with precepting and peer feedback that may enhance expertise.
As a possible alternative to the PES-NWI, a hospital's American Nurses Credentialing Center Magnet Recognition Program status could be used as an overarching contextual factor however, none of the hospitals in our sample had achieved formal Magnet recognition at the time of data collection. We note that Foley et al. (2002) detected a significant association between the practice environment and expertise in nurse-level bivariate analyses. A key difference between that study and ours may be that both Foley et al.'s independent and dependent variables were a nurse's own ratings of the practice environment and expertise, introducing the potential for correlation due to the same source (i.e., the nurse). In our study, the independent variable (practice environment) was a structural contextual variable measured at the hospital level, and the dependent variable (expertise) was the nurse's own individual rating.
Our study also did not find a contextual effect of hospital experience. Although this seems reasonable given research showing no link between aggregate experience and patient outcomes (Aiken et al., 2003), one limitation may be our one-dimensional measure of experience as a number of years. Benner (1984) noted that experience depends not only on the passage of time but also on the availability of actual situations through which a nurse can refine, elaborate, or disconfirm knowledge. A limitation of our study that is also common throughout the literature is the use of a measure of experience based solely on time.
Our findings may inform nurse executive strategies for shaping the composition of their staff to maximize the expertise of individual nurses. Executives can favor individual characteristics (a BSN or more experience) through recruitment or retention and advancement. Clinical advancement programs based on expertise and the use of expert nurses as clinical preceptors and educators may also augment the overall expertise within a hospital (Moore, 2008). Hospital executives can institute policies favoring hiring of experienced nurses or nurses with a BSN through salary structures that differentiate based on these factors. They can also support completion of the BSN among existing nursing staff by providing tuition reimbursement.
We have shown that although an individual nurse's education level and years experience both influence his or her level of expertise, gains in the probability of an individual nurse being an expert can also be achieved through having a more educated nursing staff overall. To ensure that there is an adequate pool of nurses for hospitals to draw from, particularly to replace retiring experienced nurses, federal policy changes should be directed at preparing BSN-prepared nurses. Expanding the pool of available BSN nurses could be promoted through increasing nursing school program capacity (including faculty), tuition support, targeting of underrepresented groups, and promoting pathways to a BSN for RNs and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).
The current study had notable limitations. The cross-sectional design cannot establish causal relationships. The dependent variable of expertise is self-reported by nurses although we provide some evidence of content validity, methods of measuring expertise other than self-report should be considered in future research. Our data only represent Pennsylvania nurses and hospitals and the findings may have limited generalizability. The data are from 1999 and some of the variables may have shifted over time. However, data from the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses show that the percentage of RNs in the US with a BSN as their highest educational preparation has been relatively stable (32.7% in 2000 to 34.2% in 2004 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2006). Additionally, although experience has increased somewhat, the increase is consistent with the aging of the nursing workforce nationally.
Our findings highlight important issues for nurse researchers going forward. Alternatives to self-reported expertise, such as peer or manager assessments, should be explored. Multidimensional measures that assess factors such as care coordination, clinical assessment and management, or relationships with patients may help to develop a more robust conceptualization of nurse expertise. Future research might consider individual trajectories of expertise and identify mechanisms influencing expertise longitudinally. A related research endeavor would develop a more nuanced measure of experience that might capture time as well as the nature of the clinical situations to which the nurse is exposed.
Future researchers should also examine the relationship between expertise and patient outcomes. Factors theoretically related to expertise have been associated with patient outcomes. For example, researchers have found the proportion of staff nurses with a BSN degree (Aiken et al., 2003 Estabrooks et al., 2005 Tourangeau et al., 2007), nurse experience (Blegen et al., 2001 Kendall-Gallagher & Blegen, 2009), and the nursing practice environment (Aiken et al., 2008 Friese et al., 2008) to be significant predictors of patient outcomes. One pathway through which these factors may affect outcomes is the expertise level of nurses. Evidence illuminating this pathway will help complete the causal chain from nurse characteristics and environments to patient outcomes. This evidence can then guide the development of interventions to improve both expertise and outcomes. Clarifying the relationship between patient outcomes and clinical nursing expertise would also enlighten the current state of nursing science on factors such as staffing which largely treat RNs as equivalent in expertise, that is, a nurse is a nurse.
This investigation provides the first multi-hospital study of nursing expertise and its relationship to individual-level education and experience as well as hospital contextual characteristics. Our study did not identify the ideal nurse staffing composition to maximize expertise because ideal staffing is unique to each hospital. Our findings suggest, however, that both individual level and hospital contextual factors have important effects on expertise and must be considered when making human resource decisions.
Josh Kaufman: It Takes 20 Hours Not 10,000 Hours To Learn A Skill
I recently spoke to Josh Kaufman, who is the author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and the new book, The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything. Fast!. Josh specializes in teaching professionals in all industries and disciplines how to master practical business knowledge and skills. The widely-acclaimed Personal MBA manifesto and recommended reading list has been downloaded over 1.28 million times from ChangeThis.com. His site hosts over 50,000 readers every month, and has been visited by over 2 million readers since its founding in 2005. Josh's current projects involve ongoing research in the fields of business, education, and skill acquisition.
In this interview, Josh disproves Malcolm Gladwell's thesis that it takes 10,000 hours to learn a new skill, he explains why it's so hard to learn new skills, how to decide which skills to focus on and more.
Why is it so hard to learn new skills in the beginning?
Most of us are deeply disturbed at the prospect of being horrible at something, even temporarily. When you try something new, you’re usually very bad, and you know it. The easiest way to eliminate that feeling of angst is to quit practicing and go do something else, so that’s what most of us do.
The early hours of trying something new are always challenging, but a little persistance can result in huge increases in skill. The human brain is optimized to pick up new skills extremely quickly. If you persist and practice in an intelligent way, you’ll always experience dramatic improvements in a very short period of time.
Can you share a time in your life when you were trying to learn a new skill and what you did to not get frustrated?
I just learned how to program, since creating software to automate certain parts of my business would make my day-to-day life much easier.
At the beginning, learning how to code was a constant struggle: programming involves setting up your computer in a certain way, learning arcane commands, and trying not to throw your computer across the room when it didn’t do what I wanted it to do.
Pushing through the early frustration involved a few simple techniques. First, I precommitted to putting in at least 20 hours of practice, which made it much easier to persist when the going got rough instead of quitting at the first sign of difficulty. Second, I learned just enough about the core concepts to start writing real programs, instead of spending a ton of time completing canned tutorials. Third, I broke my program into smaller parts, then worked on one at a time until the software worked, testing and fixing bugs along the way.
As a result, I became a reasonably competent Ruby programmer after only 20 hours of practice. Today, my business runs completely on custom software I created. Programming is a now skill that I use every day, and the short and long-term rewards for developing the skill are huge.
Do you believe it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? Are there any shortcuts?
I think the idea of “mastering” a skill when you’re just getting started is counterproductive: it can be a significant barrier to exploring a new skill in the first place.
The original research that resulted in the “10,000 hour rule” is valid, as far as it goes. Dr. K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, as well as other researchers, have found that it takes around 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach the top of ultracompetitive, easily ranked performance fields, like professional golf, music performance, or chess. In those fields, the more time you’ve spent in deliberate practice, the better you perform compared to people who have practiced fewer hours.
Most of the time, however, performance in ranked competition against world-class rivals isn’t the goal: it’s far more likely that you want to pick up a new skill to get a particular outcome. For career skills, the focus is on performing well enough to produce a result that’s meaningful to you. For personal skills and hobbies, the focus is on enjoying the process and having fun.
In these instances, the “10,000 hour rule” and the idea of “mastery” can actually serve as barriers to sitting down to practice – if you believe it takes that long to see results, you’re less likely to start in the first place. The real priority is to practice enough to get the results you’re looking for, not to attain a certain level of status or competitive performance.
You don’t have to “master” every skill you ever learn. I believe that developing new skills in a way that allows you to perform *well enough for your own purposes* is – by far – the most common and valuable purpose of skill acquisition. Based on my research, reaching that level doesn’t take anywhere close to 10,000 hours – you can usually achieve the goals you set yourself in around 20 hours of deliberate practice.
How do you know what skills to focus on and which ones to avoid?
It’s important to pay attention to what what you’re personally most interested in learning at this point in time, even if you think you “should” focus on learning something else. When you’re naturally interested in a particular skill, you’ll learn extremely quickly, so follow your interests where they lead, and avoid forcing yourself to grind through topics you’re not really interested in exploring.
That said, some skills aren’t exciting in themselves: they’re a means to an end. In business, topics like accounting and bookkeeping aren’t usually super-stimulating, but they’ll help you get better results. If the potential results are enticing, you’ll find yourself interested in the topic, and you’ll pick up the essentials in far less time.
One of the best uses of the “20 hour” precommitment is to gauge your level of interest in learning a new skill before you start practicing. Are you willing to rearrange your schedule so you can practice for roughly 40 minutes each day for a month? If not, you’re likely better off learning something else.
What are your top three tips for mastering a new skill?
First, decide what you want to be able to do. I call this a *target performance level*: what does skilled performance look like? If you have a clear idea of how good you want to become, it’s much easier to find specific practice methods that will help you get there as quickly as posssible.
Second, break the skill down into smaller parts. This process is called *deconstruction*. Most skills are really just bundlles of smaller subskills you use at the same time. By breaking down the skill into managable parts, you eliminate the early feelings of overwhelm and make it easier to get started.
Third, practice the most important subskills first. A few subskills will always be more important than others, so it makes sense to begin by practicing the things that will give you the greatest increases in performance. By focusing your early practice on the most critical parts of the skill, you’ll see a dramatic increase in your performance after a few hours of practice.
How can you prove that it takes only 20 hours to learn anything? What research based evidence backs that up?
Numerous studies in the fields of motor and cognitive skill acquisition have established that the first few hours of practicing a new skill always generate the most dramatic improvements in performance.
The general pattern looks like this: when you start, you’re horrible, but you improve very quickly as you learn the most important parts of the skill. After reaching a certain level of skill very quickly, your rate of improvement declines, and subsequent improvement becomes much slower.
In the research literature, this phenomenon is referred to as the “power law of practice,” and it’s one of the most consistent findings in skill acquisition research. The effect has been widely known since at least 1926, and it’s been replicated many times since in studies of both physical and mental skills. One study I found (“Toward an Instance Theory of Automatization,” G.D. Logan, Psychological Review, 1988) even went so far as to say “any theory of skill acquisition that does not accommodate the power law function for learning can be rejected immediately.”
The exact amount of time it takes to acquire a new skill depends on your desired performance level - if you don’t make things harder than they really need to be, it’s not at all uncommon to reach your initial objective in a few hours. For example, I learned enough about yoga in three hours to be able to practice safely at home. Given what I wanted to learn, that was enough.
The 20 hour threshold comes from combining the power law of practice with insights from behavioral psychology and game theory. Precommitting to 20 hours of practice does a few important things:
1. It’s an important indicator of how important the skill really is to you right now. If you’re not willing to rearrange your schedule to make time for practice, or you’re not willing to invest that much time to get what you want, it’s a good indicator the skill really isn’t that important to you at the moment, so you’re better off choosing to do something else.
2. Making a serious precommitment to practice at least 20 hours before acting at all helps overcome the slippery slope of procrastination. Instead of saying “I’ll get to it later,” the precommitment serves as a variation of what’s called a “Schelling point,” which pressures you to behave in a manner that’s consistent with your precommitment. It’s a line-in-the-sand designed to influence your behavior in the moment, so you actually practice.
3. 20 hours is long enough to experience dramatic improvements in skill, but not so long that it feels overwhelming to get started in the first place.
I field-tested the practice methods I explain in the First 20 Hours on a wide variety of skills in several contexts: fine and gross motor movements, cognitive processing, personal hobbies, and professional skills. In each instance, I noticed the most dramatic improvements during the first 20 hours of practice.
I’d recommend testing the theory on your own project. If you sit down and complete 20 hours of focused, deliberate practice in any skill you want to pick up, you’ll be astounded at how good you become. No matter what you choose to learn, you’ll always improve dramatically in those critical early hours of practice. The real challenge is sitting down to practice in the first place.
That’s why having an intelligent practice strategy is so important. Anything you can do to ensure you complete those early hours of practice in a smart way is a win.
Even after you learn a new skill, don't you have to continue to practice it or you'll lose it over time?
Sure. Skills deteriorate over time if they’re not used, but they’re also easy to re-acquire after you’ve learned them. It usually doesn’t take much practice to bring your skills back up to past levels once you know what you’re doing: you’re just reconnecting parts of your brain that haven’t been connected in a while. The neural wiring is still there, it’s just a bit rusty.
For example: I played the trumpet in high school, but I haven’t picked one up in over a decade. Even so, it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two to reacquire the core skills I’d need to play.
Once you pick up a new skill, it doesn’t take much practice to maintain it: an hour or two every few months is usually sufficent to maintain your current level of performance
Dan Schawbel is the New York Times best-selling author of Promote Yourself. Subscribe to his free monthly newsletter for more insights.
How fast you become world-class depends a lot upon the level of the competition. If there are thousands of people who have put in 10 000 hours of practice in a domain, you’re not guaranteed to be among the best just because you do it as well.
In domains such as music, chess and sports, it’s common to put in thousands of hours of practice. The higher the level in a given skill, the more hours of quality practice is required to become world-class.
But how do we compare domains, and where is it easiest to become world-class? How do you compare the expertise of a chess player, violinist and a chef? Maybe there are 2000 chess players who have reached the same level of expertise as the top five chefs in the world. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
If you want to become the best in the world at something, the easiest way to do it is to start practising an uncommon skill with great determination. Paper plane building, potato speed peeling or a new card game where only you know the rules.
In between the extremely competitive domains and the obscure new game where only you know the rules — and are therefore the best in the world — we find everything else. Exactly how many hours it takes to master and become world-class at these skills is hard to say, but it’s usually way less. Just keep in mind that it’s always possible to become better, even when you’re the best in the world, and if you don’t keep practising, someone may overtake you.
How to Become Great at Just About Anything (Ep. 244)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Become Great at Just About Anything.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
What if the thing we call “talent” is grotesquely overrated? And what if deliberate practice is the secret to excellence? Those are the claims of the research psychologist Anders Ericsson, who has been studying the science of expertise for decades. He tells us everything he’s learned.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Quirky Get Faster”]
We are continuing now with Self-Improvement Month. Last week, we tackled productivity.
CHARLES DUHIGG: There’s actually a big difference between being busy and being productive.
Now that you’ve all mastered productivity, we’re moving on to something a bit more ambitious: how to become great at just about anything. How do you do it? How do you attain excellence in anything? Is it all about the genes, the natural-born talent? Or, is there an actual science of expertise?
MUSIC: The Sometime Boys, “The Butterfly” (from Ice and Blood)
SUSANNE BARGMANN: So, my name is Susanne Bargmann, and I am a psychologist. And I work as a teacher and a supervisor here in Denmark.
BARGMANN: … a bit north of Copenhagen, which is the capital of Denmark.
Bargmann is 42, married, with two kids. About eight years ago, she and an American colleague were studying what they saw as a lack of progress in their profession.
BARGMANN: And what we can see when we look at the research is that the outcome of psychotherapy hasn’t really improved over the last 40 years. And that had us puzzled. So we started looking in other directions to try and figure out why, or what would make us improve. And then we came across K. Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice.
K. Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. It was his research on something called deliberate practice that got the Danish psychologist Susanne Bargmann excited.
BARGMANN: I’d been plowing through all the literature on deliberate practice, but it still seems a bit abstract when you read it. It was hard for me to really understand what it felt like so we started talking about how could try this out on ourselves. And after discussing this for a while, we decided if we are going to study the process it needs to be not our work, because we’re too close to our work to be able to see it. So we decided to pick up something else outside of our work and then apply the principles of deliberate practice.
So Bargmann wanted to use deliberate practice to try to improve at something, but something personal, not her profession. What should she do?
BARGMANN: When I was a kid, I had this dream of becoming a famous singer.
But the dream got deferred, and then …
BARGMANN: Life took over, so instead, I became a psychologist and had a family and had a job.
Now, however, many years later, as part of her job, Bargmann thought that maybe …
BARGMANN: … I should give it a go and see if it was actually possible to improve my singing, improve my voice.
So she got back to it. The first thing to do was record herself to see what she sounded like.
BARGMANN: I started using this karaoke program, and I started singing. And then I started listening, and it was really horrible.
So did that mean that Susanne Bargmann just didn’t have the tools, or maybe the natural talent, to be good at what she wanted to be good at? Or was there a way to become less horrible? Maybe to become … even … great?
MUSIC: The Society of Rockets, “Olivia Odyssey” (from Olivia Odyssey)
The research psychologist Anders Ericsson has just published, along with co-author Robert Pool, a book called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
DUBNER: So, let’s pretend for a moment that I’m skeptical off the bat and I say, “Well, Professor Ericsson, is there a science of expertise? That sounds like a bit of an overreach, perhaps.” How do you respond to that?
ANDERS ERICSSON: Well, I think this is what is exciting here about our work is that, for the first time, we really have been studying in more objective ways, pinpointing what it is that some people are able to do much better than other individuals.
Among the many and diverse expert performers that Ericsson and his colleagues have studied:
ERICSSON: Ballet dancers, gymnasts, and all sorts of athletes, a lot of coaches we’ve looked at chess experts, surgeons, doctors, teachers, musicians, taxi drivers, recreational activities like golf, and even, there’s some research on scientists.
Let me admit that I’ve been fascinated for years by Ericsson’s research. I was introduced to it by this guy:
Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author he is an economist at the University of Chicago.
DUBNER: So, Levitt, I still remember very well the day — it was maybe 10 years ago — when you called me up, and you said you had a great idea for a column that we were writing. You said it was this big, Swedish psychologist that you had met while you were on sabbatical at Stanford, I think. A fellow named Anders Ericsson. What was it about Anders and those conversations you had with him, and his research, that got you so excited?
LEVITT: He was infectious. His ideas and his enthusiasm just set me on fire. It was interesting because he studied topics I hadn’t really thought could be studied, like expertise and learning. The beauty of Anders — he’s really an amazing academic in the sense that he just was so interested in what he did and also so interested in the truth and willing to be challenged. I do remember. I remember I had lunch with him, and I immediately came back and called you on the phone and said, “We’ve got to write about this guy. He’s amazing.”
We did write about him, in a Freakonomics column for The New York Times Magazine. It was called “A Star Is Made.” It became one of the most popular things we ever wrote, I think, because it asked a very basic question: is the thing that we all call talent perhaps grotesquely overrated?
LEVITT: The part that really resonated with me is the idea that absent hard work, no one is really great at anything — because it’s an interesting insight. We’d like to think that Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Taylor Swift just emerge as savants, but they don’t. If you start with someone with talent, and another person who has no talent, if the person with talent works just as hard as the person without talent, almost for certain they’re going to have a better outcome. So, if our measure is true virtuosity, true expertise, it seems unlikely to me that this populist version of “oh, you don’t have to be good you just have to try hard,” I think that’s probably a fallacy. But I firmly believe the other direction, which is that: if you don’t try hard, no matter how much talent you have, there’s always going to be someone else who has a similar amount of talent who outworks you, and therefore outperforms you.
[MUSIC: Rudy Pusateri, “Hot Springy Bass”]
ERICSSON: Exactly. We actually find that with the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.
DUBNER: Would it be fair to say that the kind of overarching thesis of your work is that this thing that we tend to call talent, is in fact more of an accumulation of ability that is caused by what you’ve labeled “deliberate practice”?
ERICSSON: I think that, that is a nice summary here of what we’re finding.
[MUSIC: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Alla Turca”]
For more than 30 years, Ericsson and his colleagues around the world have studied people who stand out in their field. They’ve conducted lab experiments and interviews they’ve collected data of every sort, all in service of answering a simple question: when someone is very good at something, how did they get so good? If you can figure that out, the thinking goes, then any of us can use those strategies to also get much better at whatever we’re trying to do. You don’t necessarily need to have been born with a special talent, a special ability. Something like perfect pitch, or absolute pitch — that’s the ability to identify or produce a particular musical note, with no reference point. It’s an incredibly rare ability roughly one in 10,000 people are thought to have it. And while having perfect pitch doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become a great musician or composer, it can be a big help. Consider one of the most acclaimed composers in history: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
ERICSSON: Mozart is famous for his ability to actually listen to any kind of sound and actually tell you what kind of note that sound corresponded to. That seemed like a magical ability that was linked to his ability to be outstanding in composing and playing music.
But Ericsson has three points to make about Mozart. The first is that perfect pitch does not necessarily seem to be innate it’s teachable, although it helps to start early. As evidence, Ericsson points to research showing that perfect pitch is much more common in countries like Japan and China.
ERICSSON: In those countries where you’re actually speaking tonal languages, where the tone influences the meaning of words, it’s going to be much more frequent.
DUBNER: Meaning people are trained from a very early age to identify pitch, yeah?
ERICSSON: Well, that’s the only way you can identify the meaning of the words, because in Mandarin, the difference between different words is just the difference in their tone. So you actually need to be able to acquire that general ability, and what people have found is that you have a very high degree of individuals who exhibit perfect pitch in those countries. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, that is actually something that any individual, seemingly, with the right kind of training situation, can actually acquire, as long as they get the training early on, basically between four and six.
DUBNER: So, rather than perfect pitch being this incredibly rare innate ability, it is a teachable ability, if you know how to teach it.
[MUSIC: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “Symphony No 14 K 114”]
A second point about Mozart. Ericsson argues that as great as he was — having nothing to do with perfect pitch — that he wasn’t necessarily born that way Mozart became Mozart by starting very young and training long and hard. We may think of him today as a freak of nature. But, Ericsson says:
ERICSSON: If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart can play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average.
Did you catch that? Mozart as a young musician, compared to today’s good young musicians, would be relatively average. How can this be? This relates to the third point about Mozart. For his time, he was excellent. But over time, we humans generally become more excellent. Standards of excellence have risen, often a lot. In the book Peak, Ericsson writes of a more recent musical example: “In the early 1930s Alfred Cortot was one of the best-known classical musicians in the world, and his recordings of Chopin’s ‘24 Études’ were considered the definitive interpretation. Today teachers offer those same performances — sloppy and marred by missed notes — as an example of how not to play Chopin, with critics complaining about Cortot’s careless technique, and any professional pianist is expected to be able to perform the études with far greater technical skill and élan than Cortot. Indeed, Anthony Tommasini, the music critic at the New York Times, once commented that musical ability has increased so much since Cortot’s time that Cortot would probably not be admitted to Juilliard now.”
ERICSSON: We have similar developments in any of the sports. In order to qualify to the Boston Marathon, if you could produce that kind of time, you would be competitive at the early Olympics.
[MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Cheesy Race”]
That’s right. In order to just qualify to run the Boston Marathon today, a male in the 18- to 34-year-old group has to have run a 3-hour, 5-minute marathon. That’s only about six minutes slower than the winner of the marathon in the first modern Olympics, in 1896. The current marathon world record? Two hours, two minutes, and fifty-seven seconds. That’s nearly 56 minutes faster than the Olympic gold medalist in 1896. Or consider the improvements in golf, which this year is returning to the Olympics after more than a century. In the 1900 Summer Olympics, the men played two 18-hole rounds the American golfer Charles Sands won the gold medal with scores of 82 and 85, which, these days, wouldn’t get you on a good high school team in some parts of the country. Yeah, the equipment and ball have changed, a lot. But still: the undeniable fact — whether it’s golf or running the marathon or playing the piano — is that as a species we have improved a lot at just about everything. How? Have we been selectively breeding for talent? Perhaps.
But, that is not what Anders Ericsson thinks is largely responsible. He thinks we’ve gotten so much better primarily because we’ve learned how to learn. And that if you study the people who have learned the best, and if you codify the techniques and strategies that they use, then we can all radically improve. But let me warn you: there’s no magic bullet. Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”? The idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to become great at something? That idea originates from the research of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German academy.
ERICSSON: We found that the average of that elite group was over 10,000 hours by the time they reach 20.
[MUSIC: KP Devlin, “Shampoo Party Zone” (from Occidental Taurus)]
The secrets really boil down to one word: practice. Not just volume of practice — although we’ll get into that later. But the quality and the nature of the practice. There’s “purposeful practice,” for instance.
ERICSSON: Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.
And then there’s deliberate practice.
ERICSSON: We think of deliberate practice requiring a teacher that actually has had experience of how to help individuals reach very high levels of performance.
DUBNER: I want to go through one by one the components of deliberate practice and have you explain a little bit more if necessary, or acknowledge why they are important. So you write that “deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established.”
ERICSSON: And I think that’s key.
DUBNER: Which I guess helps us explain why a pianist from 80 or 100 years ago who was considered the gold standard is now considered not very good, because the instruction is built on top of itself to get people better faster, yeah?
ERICSSON: Exactly, and I think the same thing in sports, where new techniques will allow individuals to reach kind of a higher level and practice more effectively than previous generations.
DUBNER: You write that “deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals, and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance. It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.” Do you think that is a mistake that many people make when they’re trying to, “get better at something?” A “vague, overall improvement”?
ERICSSON: I think that is one of the most important pieces that we’re advocating, because you need feedback in order to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you should be making. If you don’t have a clear criterion here for what it is that you were doing, then it’s unclear how you actually are going to improve if you get subsequent opportunities to do the same thing. So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.
DUBNER: Here’s another component. You write: “Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.” That sounds horrible, first of all. You write, “Further thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.” So you just discouraged everyone from ever wanting to do deliberate practice. But why is that important? Do you want to get out of what’s comfortable because that enables you to try harder in a way that you otherwise can’t?
ERICSSON: Well, I think this has to do with the body. If you’re just doing things that feel comfortable and go out and jog, the body basically won’t change. In order to actually change your aerobic ability, people now know that the only way you can do that is if you practice now at a heart rate that is above 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. So it would be maybe around 140 for a young adult. And you have to do that for about 30 minutes at least two or three times a week. If you practice at a lower intensity, the body will actually not develop this difficult, challenging biochemical situation, which will elicit now genes to create physiological adaptations.
DUBNER: Let’s say I’m a crummy piano player, and I want to become a good piano player. For something like that, or for something like writing, or for something like selling insurance, what does it mean to get outside of one’s comfort zone and why does that improve my ability to get good?
ERICSSON: Deliberate practice relies on this fact that if you make errors, you’re going to find ways to eliminate those errors. So if you’re not actually stretching yourself outside of what you already can do, you’re probably not engaging in deliberate practice.
* * *
FISHER: The thing which really enabled me to do all this was Ericsson’s deliberate-practice model.
Bob Fisher is a soil-conservation technician for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Seneca, Kansas. Fisher has a number of world records.
[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Basketball Boys”]
All the records are in free-throw shooting.
FISHER: The first one is the one-minute record, I hold it with 52 currently most basketball free throws in one minute by a pair using a limited number of balls most free throws in two minutes while alternating hands most free throws in a minute by a pair using two basketballs, most free throws in one minute while alternating hands most free throws while standing on one leg most blindfolded free throws in 1 minute most underhanded free throws in one minute most basketball free throws in 1 minute by a mixed pair this one I am proud of: most basketball free throws in one hour, 2371.
Fisher is 58 years old, six feet tall. He’s been playing basketball a long time.
FISHER: In high school, I started as a senior for a very small school and, no accolades, didn’t make any area teams or all-star teams or anything like that, at all. And I never considered going on and playing college ball because, quite frankly, I wasn’t good enough.
So how did he become one of the most accomplished free-throw shooters on the planet? By devising a physics-based approach to shooting, augmented by Anders Ericsson’s gospel of deliberate practice.
FISHER: And what he said was that people who continue to get better never allow themselves to go on automatic pilot they’re continually breaking down the element they are trying to do and working on pieces and then putting it back together — which is nothing new. But I made a concerted effort to do that, and I think that was a large part, a reason of my success.
And when Anders Ericsson talks about getting out of your comfort zone as a component of deliberate practice, Bob Fisher very much knows what he means.
FISHER: Instead of just practicing, you are focused you’re engaged it’s like a rubber band. You are constantly stretching the rubber band, and you don’t want to stretch it to the point that it breaks, but you want it to have continual pressure. In other words, you want to try and do things that you are not able to do at the present time.
This leads to one of the most compelling angles of deliberate practice – the neuroscientific angle. The idea that the brain not only steers our practice, but is also shaped by it.
ERICSSON: I think this is one of the areas where we know the most .
That’s Ericsson again. In Peak, he writes about a fascinating study by Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London. Maguire used MRIs to compare the brain growth of London taxi drivers and London bus drivers.
ERICSSON: In London, taxi drivers have to memorize all the routes in the London area, and this is a process that takes a lot of training, and it basically takes years to master that body of knowledge.
Bus drivers, meanwhile, with a set route, spend a lot less time pushing their brains to master new material.
ERICSSON: And when you compare now these taxi drivers with bus drivers, you find this big difference in their brains. So, the process of encoding and mastering all these maps is associated with a change in the brains.
So, you might have the most experienced bus driver in the world. But experience of that sort – driving the same route over and over and over again – doesn’t seem to lead to growth. Which, if you move the conversation out of transportation and into something like medicine … well, I asked Ericsson about that.
DUBNER: There’s a scary part of your book that is about how many people in many professions, as they do it longer, they get more experienced, and there’s an assumption that they’re getting better and better. But you write that, “Once a person reaches that level of “acceptable performance and automaticity” you write, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement.” Can you talk for a moment about the value of experience for doctors, let’s say?
ERICSSON: I think this points out that difference between deliberate practice and experience. If you’re just doing the same thing over and over, you’re not going to prepare yourself for dealing with a complicated situation. When we analyze the outcomes of medical procedures, just the mere number of procedures that you completed is not related now to the outcome. It turns out that surgery is a little bit different, because there, you often get very immediate feedback, especially about failures.
DUBNER: But, you’re saying that it could be that a doctor who’s freshly out of medical school might be on some dimensions, at least, maybe some important dimensions, better than a doctor with 20 years experience?
ERICSSON: Well, it’s interesting. When it comes to actually diagnosing heart sounds, when you test people with recordings of heart sounds, it turns out that general practitioners — basically their ability to diagnose decreases as a function of the number of years in their practice. And it sort of makes sense. How would you be able to know basically that you’re making mistakes? Even if you realize that a patient was incorrectly diagnosed, you won’t remember exactly what the heart sound sounded like. And what’s kind of nice is that now they’ve developed courses, so within a weekend of training, where you are trying to diagnose particular heart sounds, you can now get up to a level to when you had graduated from medical school.
DUBNER: Many people listening to this are, I’m sure, familiar with the 10,000-hour rule, which you had a hand in defining. First of all, what is the 10,000-hour rule, if there is such a thing, as you understand it?
ERICSSON: Our research showed, to the surprise of a lot of people, that even the most talented musicians at a music academy in Germany, that they actually had spent more time practicing by themselves than less-accomplished musicians. And we basically found that the average of that elite group was over 10,000 hours by the time they reach 20.
[MUSIC: Judson Lee Music, “Wanna Be Spy”]
Most people who have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, heard of it via the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers looked at how extraordinarily accomplished people accomplished what they did.
ERICSSON: Now, right. Gladwell basically thought that was kind of an interesting magical number and suggested that the key here is to reach that 10,000 hours. I think he’s really done something very important, helping people see the necessity of this extended training period before you reach high levels of performance. But I think there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours. Just the amount of experience performing may in fact have very limited chances to improve your performance. The key seems to be that deliberate practice, where you’re actually working on improving your own performance — that is the key process, and that’s what you need to try to maximize.
DUBNER: You write that this rule, or the number, really — 10,000, nice, big round number — is “irresistibly appealing.” “Unfortunately,” you write, “this rule, which is the only thing many people today know about the effects of practice, is wrong in several ways.” One example that you give, that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in Outliers that you say looks good on first glance, maybe to a layperson, but falls apart upon inspection, is the Beatles playing all those nights at clubs in Hamburg. Can you talk about why that example doesn’t serve as an example of what you’re talking about deliberate practice representing?
ERICSSON: So to us, the Beatles — and I think a lot of other people agree — what really made them outstanding was their composing of a new type of music. So it wasn’t like they excelled as being exceptional instrumentalists. So if we want to explain here their ability to compose this really important music, deliberate practice should now be linked to activities that allowed them to basically improve their compositional skills and basically get feedback on their compositions. So counting up the number of hours that they performed together wouldn’t really enhance the ability here to write really innovative music.
DUBNER: So the very popularized version of one big piece of your research gets a lot of things wrong, according to you. How much does that bother you?
ERICSSON: Well, the one thing that I’m mostly concerned about is, and I’ve met a lot people who are counting hours that they’re doing something and then assuming here that accumulating enough hours will eventually make them experts. Because I think that is a fundamental, incorrect view that is so different from what we’re proposing — namely, that you intentionally have to increase your performance, and you have to be guided, ideally by a teacher, that would allow you now to incrementally improve. So that idea that people actually think that they’re going to get better when they’re not — that, I find, to be the most troubling.
DUBNER:Have you talked with Malcolm about what you feel he got wrong?
ERICSSON: Have not ever spoken to Malcolm Gladwell. And I think that could have avoided some of his summaries of that work in Outliers, but I never interacted with him.
DUBNER: All right, so if I run into him anytime soon, would you like me to pass along a message of some kind?
ERICSSON: I’m really impressed with his books, and I think that they’ve caught a large audience. And if we were able now to channel that interest in improving yourself by now suggesting how you really need to invest the time to improve your performance — I think that would be terrific. If he doesn’t agree with our analysis here, I think it would be important that he explains why he views that basically it’s not so important exactly what you do, but it’s more important with the hours.
[MUSIC: House of Trees, “I am a Clown”]
MALCOLM GLADWELL: The 10,000-hour stuff that I put in Outliers was really only intended to perform a very specific narrative function — or not narrative function, but argumentative function. To me the point of 10,000 hours is: if it takes that long to be good, you can’t do it by yourself. If you have to play chess for 10 years in order to be a great chess player, then that means that you can’t have a job, or maybe if you have a job it can’t be a job that takes most of your time. It means you can’t come home, do the dishes, mow the lawn, take care of your kids. Someone has to do that stuff for you. That was my argument, that if there’s a kind of incredibly prolonged period that is necessary for the incubation of genius, high-performance, elite status of one sort of another, then that means there always has to be a group of people behind the elite performer making that kind of practice possible. And that’s what I wanted to say.
DUBNER: So there’s a sentence in, I believe, it’s in the chapter called “The 10,000-Hour Rule” in Outliers where you write that “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” I understand that was one sentence within many paragraphs within many chapters that’s trying to prove your larger point, and yet, I’ve heard from a lot of people— and I’m guessing for every one I’ve heard from, you’ve heard 50 — who’ve embarked on these trajectories, where “I want to be a ballerina, a golfer, a whatever, whatever, whatever, and if I can get to 10,000 hours, that will make me great.” So that seems to be a causal relationship. How do you feel about people drawing that conclusion and taking action on it?
GLADWELL: Well, elsewhere in that same chapter, there is a very explicit moment where I say that you also have to have talent. That, what we’re talking about with 10,000 hours is: how long does it take to bring talent to fruition? To take some baseline level of ability and allow it to properly express itself and flourish. Ten thousand hours is meaningless in the absence of that baseline level of ability. I could play music for 20,000 hours. I am not becoming Mozart — never, ever, ever. I can play chess for 50,000 hours, and I am not becoming a grandmaster —ever, ever, ever.
DUBNER: You wrote about the Beatles and how one of the key reasons why they became the Beatles was because of the huge amount of time they spent in Hamburg and playing in clubs. This is distilled best by one sentence in Outliers on page 50: “The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.” So Anders, in his book, Peak, and in the interview, took exception with the Beatles example and I’d be curious to run this scenario past you. So he said, I’ll just quote Anders a bit: “So to us” — he and his fellow researchers – “the Beatles, and I think a lot of people would agree, what made them outstanding was their composing of a new type of music. It wasn’t like they excelled at being exceptional instrumentalists. So if we want to explain here their ability to compose this really important music, deliberate practice should now be linked to activities that allow them to basically improve their compositional skills and basically get new feedback on their composition. So counting up the number of hours they perform together wouldn’t really enhance the ability here to write really innovative music.”
GLADWELL: Oh, I disagree — again, respectfully. I’m understanding I’m disagreeing with someone who knows more about this than me. My sense is that, as someone who is in — here I am about to commit a kind of casual obscenity, but — as someone who is also in the creative business, I think that playing in loud, crowded strip bars for hours on end, starting out with other people’s music covers, and moving slowing to your own music, is an extraordinary way to learn about composition. I know of my own writing, I began as a writer trying to write like William F. Buckley, my childhood hero. And if you read my early writing, it was insanely derivative. All I was doing was looking for models and copying them. Out of years of doing that, emerges my own style. So I would say, to the contrary. When you absorb on a deep level the lessons of your musical elders and betters, in many cases, that’s what makes the next step, the next creative step, possible. I would have a very different interpretation of where creativity comes from than he does. And the other thing I would point out is the Beatles literature predates Ericsson. So, he’s not the first to make arguments about practice. This literature goes back to the ‘60s and ‘70s. So a lot of what I was reading when I was writing that chapter was not Ericsson it was rather a generation of people in this field that came before him. And they had point out, I think, very, very accurately, that the Beatles experience is really unusual. So people always say, “Well, lots of bands in Liverpool played a lot together.” Actually, they had played together 1,200 times — played live 1,200 times by the time they came to America in 1964. Twelve hundred live performances is a, I’m sorry, absolutely staggering number.
DUBNER: But the idea may be, presumably, that there could have been another group of four guys, even from Liverpool, who went to Hamburg and played for many, many hours — and played as many hours, but never got good. That’s the kind of hair that I think I’m trying to help you and Anders split. Because I don’t hear as much disagreement as either of you hear, frankly. What I hear is that you’re more focused on the holistic creation of expertise, and he’s focused more on, I guess, what I would call the more technical version, which has to do with deliberate practice and what it is. And it sounds like he’s saying that 10,000 hours of something isn’t necessarily deliberate practice. And you’re saying 10,000 hours of practice isn’t necessarily deliberate practice, but there are things that happen in that process that you can’t get to without the 10,000 hours anyway.
GLADWELL: Yeah, and particularly when the four guys who are playing together 1,200 times under very, very trying circumstances are themselves insanely talented, right? So it’s not four schmoes — it’s, for goodness sake, it’s Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. (I’m not going to mention Ringo Starr.) Each one of whom individually could have had an extraordinary career as a rock-and-roll musician. We had three of them in the same room for years playing together. So there you have this kind of recipe for something extraordinary.
So this, in the end, is the central puzzle. The talent puzzle – just as puzzling as “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” When we encounter someone who does something extraordinarily well, is it because they are “insanely talented,” as Malcolm Gladwell puts it? Or is it because they had, yes, an adequate measure of baseline ability and then found a way to convert that ability into something extraordinary? And if it’s the latter, can that conversion process be reliably emulated? By people like you and me? By people like the Danish psychologist Susanne Bargmann?
BARGMANN: I decided to pick up singing because it’s something I really loved to do. I practiced at home. But I mean, I would have to negotiate with my kids how much time would they let sing, because it was really not very nice to listen to. At that point, I was really fascinated by Christina Aguilera. So I decided to start recording myself singing a Christina Aguilera song. What my biggest problem in the beginning was, I couldn’t make the, in lack of better words, the big sound that she makes. So she has this amazing big, loud sound when she sings. And that wasn’t part of what my voice could do. I could make a very soft sound, or I could make a really sharp sound. That’s all I was able to do.
Bargmann had by now bought into Anders Ericsson’s deliberate-practice model. Which, she acknowledged, required a certain commitment.
BARGMANN: I decided that if I wanted to be serious about the project, I would need the best coach available. So I went online and then I started searching for the person I thought would be the best coach in Denmark.
The coach she found was initially reluctant to work with her. But Bargmann explained she wasn’t just pursuing a personal dream she was exploring the science of expertise.
BARGMANN: So that was the start. And then, I committed to practicing an hour a day, because I knew the practice was important.
For a year and a half, Bargmann worked hard, practiced a lot, under the guidance of her coach. She seemed to be making progress, but it was slow.
BARGMANN: I felt that I wasn’t really improving enough because I didn’t get that big sound that I wanted. And my coach would be cheering for me, and he said, “It’s right about the corner. Just continue.” And then I remember it was summer, and suddenly I was singing, and the sound actually came. And in a song, I was able to make the big sound in a song. And that was a huge jump for me and really, really motivating.
Bargmann kept at it, practicing every day, focusing on improvement.
BARGMANN: So the next step was to stand in front of others and sing. And that was tough as well. But it was still a big step to move out of the practice room into performing in front of others and creating music.
Meaning: writing her own songs.
She started training with other singers.
BARGMANN: And I think in that process I realized that the next step would be to start recording.
This phase was also bumpy, but she worked through it.
BARGMANN: And then I started working with the producer on what is now the music that I’ve released.
That’s right. Susanne Bargmann finally realized her childhood dream, and she released a record.
BARGMANN: It’s just called Sus B, which is my artist name.
In Denmark, she’s gotten a lot of radio play.
BARGMANN: So actually, the reception has been quite phenomenal.
Most of the songs are love songs.
BARGMANN: I don’t know why all good music is about love. And then there’s one song that more embodies the whole project of having the courage to start releasing music. It’s called “Fall Up,” where the message is more, “If you have something that you dream about, then do it, don’t hesitate.”
Bargmann wants her accomplishment to inspire others.
BARGMANN: I really believe that it can inspire people to: instead of limiting themselves to what they think they can, to actually choose something they dream of or they have a passion for, and then experience how they can improve.
[MUSIC: Jessie Torrisi, “Cannonball” (from Shake a Little Harder)]
DUBNER: So, Anders, when we began this conversation and you said that deliberate practice is the key to expert performance, it kind of sounds like magic, but it’s not at all, is it? I mean, deliberate practice sounds like a very organized, canonized, or codified, way of working really, really hard.
ERICSSON: I think that’s exactly right. And if I had to propose something, it would be to help students understand how they could apply deliberate practice to any aspect that they want to improve. My dream would be to find ways to support individuals who want to take off a year or something like that. Particularly with adults, it’s difficult to find the time and the resources to really see how you would be able to master something, either related to your profession or to some other aspect of your life. So, if we could create resources where adults would be able to be matched up with teachers, and provided with the time and the training goals, we could actually map out and see how fast individuals improve, and then actually accumulate knowledge about new domains, where the knowledge about how optimal training really works is relatively limited.
DUBNER: So, Anders, what do you think of this idea. What would you think if we recruited a bunch of people and get them each to pick something that they want to get really good at and essentially enroll them in a deliberate practice regimen to see how it goes. Do you think we could accomplish that and if so, would you help a bit?
ERICSSON: I would love to be involved in that. Because it just seems to me that being able to demonstrate that certain things are possible seems to be the first step that might actually encourage other individuals to want to do something similar with respect to some performance that they are passionate or interested in improving.
Most of us of course are not able to clear a year on our calendar. But Ericsson says that’s OK.
ERICSSON: I have a graduate class where part of the project was to actually spend 10 hours doing something. For example, somebody improved their typing speed by 20, 30 percent and others learned how to basically be able to do a handstand.
OK, so let’s do it! Let’s try launching a Freakonomics Radio side project where we enroll a bunch of people in a deliberate-practice regimen. We’ll set you up with a coach or teacher, and Anders Ericsson will be our lead advisor. We’ll call it our “Peak” project, after the name of Ericsson’s book. And then we’ll make some podcasts out of your stories. It will be hard work, maybe a bit embarrassing at times. But wouldn’t it be awesome to get really good at singing, or doing handstands, or whatever your heart yearns for – and to have your whole process recorded for posterity? If you’re up for it, truly up for it, and you want to be considered for our “Peak” project, drop us a note, at [email protected] Tell us a little about yourself, what you want to get great at, and how far along you are in your progress already.
And, coming up next week on Freakonomics Radio: Self-Improvement Month continues with a master class in stick-to-itiveness, otherwise known as grit.
Angela DUCKWORTH: What specifically are gritty people like? What do they do when they wake up in the morning? What beliefs do gritty people walk around with in their head?
How to be gritty, even super-gritty. That’s next time, on Freakonomics Radio.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja, Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.
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