Achieving Peak Performance: A Conversation with Anders Ericsson

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, is known as the world expert on world experts. He has studied top musicians, athletes, doctors, and chess players, among others. His research suggests that expert performance is the result of years of a particular form of practice, what he calls deliberate practice—highly structured practice that requires intense focus, often tedious repetition, and immediate feedback of your performance.

Chances are, you’ve heard of Ericsson’s research. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, where Gladwell coined the term “10,000 Hour-Rule.” However, Ericsson’s newest book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, co-authored with Robert Pool, shows it might not be so simple. I recently spoke with Ericsson about the misconception of 10,000 Hour-Rule, the misguided emphasis on talent, and what it takes to achieve expertise.

Richard Vu: You found that the top performers at the Berlin music academy had 10,000 hours of practice by age 20. Based on this finding, Malcolm Gladwell coined the “10,000 Hour-Rule,” the idea that it takes 10,000 hours or practice to become a master in most fields. However, you note that this rule may give the wrong impression of deliberate practice. What are the misconceptions about the “10,000 Hour-Rule” rule?

Anders Ericsson: We don’t think there was anything magical about 10,000 hours. The point that we were trying to make was that even the most talented individuals, in order to reach the highest levels, spent tremendous amounts of time working and practicing by themselves. The interesting finding that we saw was that the best students, on average, practiced more than the other two groups of students at this international music academy. Basically, we found evidence that even at the elite level, the amount of training you have in your developmental history is at least correlated with the performance that you attain.

RV: In your book, you describe Steve Faloon, a college student who was able to improve his ability to memorize lists of numbers using mental representation. Can you describe what mental representations are and how they help experts perform at high levels?

AE: What was interesting with Steve was when he improved on his ability to repeat lists of numbers, he actually grouped the digits into three digit groups and form[ed] connections with running times. He was a long-distance runner, so he could have looked at 4-1-5, which would be 4 minutes 15 seconds, a very good mile time. As he got better, he could do a series of these three digit groups, but he could put [them] away in long term memory and recall at the time when he had to recall the entire list. Associating meaning with the numbers allowed him, instead of relying on something that had to be rehearsed frequently, [to] now store in long-term memory. [Experts] seem to rely on meaningful encodings of situations that they’re in. They’re drawing on this ability to effectively store information in long term memory, so that they would be able to have access to it as they’re engaged in playing tennis, playing football, playing chess games, or diagnosing their patients. That ability to actually encode information from a particular domain is a skill that can be acquired but it is acquired specifically in a task that you want to be good at.

We don’t think there was anything magical about 10,000 hours. The point that we were trying to make was that even the most talented individuals, in order to reach the highest levels, spent tremendous amount of time working and practicing by themselves.

RV: You write that deliberate practice is the most important factor in becoming an expert. In your view, what role does natural talent play in whether or an individual achieves expertise?

AE: We have been looking for constraints, genetic individual differences that would be necessary for somebody to be successful. I have to say having spent thirty years looking for that kind of genetic factor, I have yet to find evidence for it with the exception of height and body size in sports. It’s great to be very tall as a center in basketball, it also turns out to be advantageous to be short if you’re competing in artistic gymnastics. But height and body size seems to be one of those few things for which there is no known training. Essentially, I’m not saying there wouldn’t be genetic factors, but what I would say is that we currently don’t have robust evidence that there are these genetic factors. Maybe in the future we would be able to find them. Maybe right now it is premature to tell people that they can’t do certain things because we don’t have the evidence that there are genetic constraints that wouldn’t allow them, with training, to reach extremely high levels.

RV: What is the relationship between developing expertise and age? For instance, you describe how Laszlo and Clara Polgárand trained their three daughters from a very young age to become chess masters. Can you talk more about that story?

AE: László was kind of an amazing man. He was really interested in trying to demonstrate that education was more important than other factors. At the time, most people thought that women just would not ever be competitive in chess—chess required spatial abilities that only males have. He started training his daughters from an early age and his training was so effective that in 2002, all three of the daughters were in the top 10 of female chess players. Most remarkable, the youngest daughter Judit was among the 10 best players, whether you were male or female.

[For] some factors [it] seem to be critical that you have training at an early age when your body and brain develops. For example, for ballet dancers, to develop turnout where you are able to change your joints, your hips, that training seems to be necessary that you do it between 8 and 11. When you get older, the joints actually become calcified and therefore cannot be changed. There, you have a developmental window where you can actually effectively change things with training, but that window then closes.

There seems to be a similar developmental window for perfect pitch, the ability [to listen] to an individual tone and tell which note on the piano that note corresponds to. There is some really interesting recent work that shows if you take a group of children between three and five, they’ll develop perfect pitch, but among adults, that’s a very rare ability. It is nearly always linked to children who started playing music at that age and therefore were exposed to that training as part of mastering their instruments.

RV: Are there areas where adults can still achieve similar levels of expertise compared to people that start out younger?

AE: I think that this is a research issue. But in the book, we talk about college students, who are adults, and I think any adult, pretty much any age, would be able to acquire memory skills like the ones we described. [For instance], in order to be certified as a London cab driver, you need to be able to memorize 25,000 streets and all their connections. So from an arbitrary point, you would be able to figure out the shortest way to a destination. That takes four to five years. These cab drivers don’t start studying these maps until they are adults, firm evidence that you’re able to require pretty amazing skills if you’re motivated and use the right kind of curriculum and training.