What does it take to become a top performer? Whether in music, sports, dance, or chess, our understanding of the road to expertise has been profoundly shaped by the research of internationally acclaimed psychologist Anders Ericsson. Ericsson recently joined Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of Drive and To Sell Is Human, for a Heleo Conversation on deliberate practice, the need for great teachers, and what it takes to get to the top.
Daniel: Some of your work goes to the question, as simple as it sounds, of nature versus nurture: how much of human success, performance, and expertise is innate, how much is something that we build? This is a debate that’s been going on in psychology for a very long time. So what do we know about success and expertise?
Anders: In our research, we identified people who were objectively more able to do a certain type of performance and then asked: What is it that allowed them to reach that level? And what we found is that exceptionally productive and successful people have a very unique training background. The practice history is really related to the probability that they would be among the most successful.
Daniel: It’s interesting that you used the word ‘probability.’ It gets to part of the confusion, or controversy, around what we’re talking about. Your research doesn’t show if you do deliberate practice, you are guaranteed to be a top performer in whatever field you choose.
Anders: We would argue that it’s far more complex, especially as you’re getting up to the very highest levels, where you basically have to do something that nobody has done, which obviously is hard.
To make that point even clearer, let’s consider it with sports performance. If you look at the best gold medal marathon winners at the early Olympics, there are now several thousands of people running the Boston Marathon as fast or faster than those times. So if you’re talking about becoming the very best in the world, that is obviously going to be a relative term—you have tens of thousands of other people who are using all the knowledge available and trying now to become the best person.
Daniel: Do you have a sense of how much of success is due simply to the innate ability of that person?
Anders: I’m not sure that that’s an interesting question as much as, given what we can understand about the detailed practice history, what are the things that an individual is unable to do? If you’re asking what are the things that people cannot achieve with training, you come up with a pretty short list.
If you look at things that people have proposed as being limiting factors—and people have been searching for almost fifteen years—they really haven’t been able to identify individual genes that they can seriously argue are necessary for somebody to be successful, except for the genes that are related to height and the length of bones.
Daniel: The universe of things that are essentially fixed is relatively small, so the rest of performance expertise comes from practicing the correct way.
Anders: There may well be a lot of genetic factors that will be uncovered in the near future, and maybe there are very complex sets of hundreds of genes that interact in some way. I guess my point is why accept this without the scientific evidence that you require for other things?
Anders: That’s one reason why I’m not so interested in that question, how much this and that, because we’re on this scientific journey. Maybe it’s possible that certain kinds of genes, if they’re stimulated by a certain type of practice, is going to explain some of it.
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Daniel: I think you make an interesting point in that even the operative metaphor we use in a lot of the popular conversation is a pie chart: How much is talent? How much is practice? How much is luck? What you’re saying is you’re basically at a higher level of math: it’s not pie chart math, it’s interaction math. When you start adding interactions, then things start increasing exponentially. So the complexity of it is far higher than we can think of in a pie chart. Does that make sense?
“We’re now accumulating insights into where training actually has an effect at a given age. For example, perfect pitch seems to be only possible to really acquire between ages three and five.”
Anders: That makes tremendous sense. We’re now accumulating insights into where training actually has an effect at a given age. For example, perfect pitch seems to be only possible to really acquire between ages three and five.
Anders: We also know with ballet dancers, actually changing that joint structure that allows you to turnout, that’s something we’re training between eight and maybe twelve. That time is really critical. It’s the same thing with baseball pitchers: it’s the shoulder joint that you really need to modify. We’re enumerating more and more of those interactions, between a particular type of training and development.
Daniel: What about cognitive abilities? The way you’re describing ballet and baseball is literally the performance of the joints. What about for things requiring cognitive skill, whether it’s mathematics or, say, learning another language?
Anders: That, I think, is where the frontier is. There is research now showing that somebody who starts training with a musical instrument when they’re young will actually have myelinization patterns that are different from those who start at a later age. There are so many domains where you can actually see somebody who starts between ages three and five are far more likely to be successful.
The advantage in some domains is really striking. In downhill skiing, if you haven’t started by age seven, there’s no example of somebody who’s made it into the international top hundred.
Daniel: I didn’t learn how to ski until I was thirty, and I always tell people I feel like somebody who emigrated from one country to another, learning the language as an adult. I say I ski with an accent. I’m not even talking about performing at high levels of international competition, I’m just talking about basic elegance. And yet, age is a factor, but it doesn’t impose a ceiling on most things—or does it?
Anders: If we take the perfect pitch and turnout examples, in those cases, if you’re outside that developmental window, I would say you cannot attain the same kind of physiological configurations. But what is interesting is that age seems to have an indirect effect. If you start with a teacher who helps you acquire the correct fundamentals, that seems to be a critical factor. Because if you learn to do it by yourself as an adolescent… I know a lot of coaches who would say it takes a couple of years for them to just change what you’re doing so you will actually have the right fundamentals to build on.
The more that we get insights into what is actually being acquired, how to describe and measure that, that’s when we’re going to be able to help individuals reach their highest levels of performance.
Daniel: Deliberate practice has become a very widely known term, but I think that at some level, it’s not fully understood. You talk in your book about what deliberate practice is not. Can you explain that? To me that was one of the big takeaways.
Anders: A lot of people, if you ask them how you get good at something—whether it’s soccer or chess or participating in an orchestra—they have this sense that the activity somehow magically accumulates, and if you put in the right number of hours, you will be an expert and excel. That’s exactly what we find is not the case. Playing may be fun, but it’s not contributing to you changing your performance, building on it.
Deliberate practice is when you have a one-on-one teaching situation with a coach or music teacher—that teacher can assess where you are and what things can help you improve. Here are the training activities that you can be doing by yourself for ten to twenty hours in the week until you see the music teacher again. You can see how somebody’s performance changes. Two weeks ago they couldn’t do this, but now they can. This gradually builds up, and eventually, with the right teacher, allows you to reach very high levels of performance.
Daniel: Let’s talk about the constituent elements of that—one of them was a coach. Why is that important?
“When children or even adults try to do something by themselves, they’re not ending up with the correct foundation that would allow them to keep building. A teacher can draw on centuries of knowledge of effective training.”
Anders: When children or even adults try to do something by themselves, they’re not ending up with the correct foundation that would allow them to keep building. A teacher can draw on centuries of knowledge of effective training. In music, there are certain things, like polyrhythms, playing the piano with different tempos and different hands, that may take ten to eleven years of prior instruction to acquire, so if you try to do that in your second year, you’re bound to fail.
It’s like building a house. If you don’t know anything about building, how likely is it that you’re going to build a house that you can then expand to meet all your needs? Compare that with a builder who’s built many, many houses, and then you can have some assurance that the current house will be livable.
Daniel: So the role of the coach is his or her own expertise, knowledge of a particular domain. Whether it’s sports or music, there is existing knowledge about how to do things, and the coach becomes the person with the expertise to understand that domain and then recognize the gap between that person’s performance and true expertise in that domain.
Another aspect of deliberate practice is the importance of feedback. I run five times a week, but I’m not trying to get faster. If I really wanted to get faster, I would get a running coach and meticulously record my times to see how I’m doing. Why is feedback important?
Anders: When it comes to increasing your running speed, one of the most effective training activities is interval training, where you run at a maximum for a hundred yards, get thirty seconds to recoup, then run maximum again. When we look at professional runners, they’ve been doing this at a pretty impressive level. It is an activity that most runners find very aversive.
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Daniel: Oh, it’s completely unpleasant. That’s why I don’t do it. How important is discomfort in deliberate practice?
Anders: That’s one of those really interesting challenges where having a teacher is appropriate because it is possible for you to push yourself so much that you are injured. There is this ideal zone where you’re pushing yourself sufficiently, that will lead to physiological reprogramming of your body in a way that more capillaries will allow you to give more oxygen to the muscles that are needed. It turns out that even the size of the arteries will change for long distance runners in order to maximize blood flow.
Daniel: It’s discomfort, but on a Yerkes–Dodson spectrum, where you want it to be somewhat uncomfortable, but if it’s so uncomfortable that it’s painful, it can be deleterious. It’s a Goldilocks level of discomfort.
Anders: Right. Some people say, “No pain, no gain.” It’s not seeking out the pain. It’s trying to focus so you get the right strain on those physiological systems that you want to adapt to be able to perform more effectively in the future.
Daniel: Does deliberate practice mean doing something every single day?
Anders: If you can make practice a habit, that’s going to make it a lot easier to engage in. It’s also important that, when you start out, you don’t try to do four or five hours. Anybody who wants to do a marathon and then goes out and runs for four or five hours is going to lie in bed for a week. You need to accept gradual change.
“In a world where we’re expected to get the answers right away and move very quickly, there are massive, long-term returns to being deliberate, whether it’s in our reasoning or in a way that we develop expertise.”
Daniel: Daniel Kahneman has his System 1 and his System 2 ways of thinking. System 1 is fast and System 2 is slow, deliberate. There’s a case for slowing down, for being more deliberate, for not expecting instant results. Between your work and Kahneman’s, that’s a bigger picture form of navigational guidance. In a world where we’re expected to get the answers right away and move very quickly, there are massive, long-term returns to being deliberate, whether it’s in our reasoning or in a way that we develop expertise.
Anders: I totally agree. When we look at chess players selecting moves, they engage in all sorts of systemic evaluation before they commit. That’s the same thing with a surgeon. If you’re relying on intuition, you may be right a fair number of cases, but if you’re going to injure a patient or make a really disastrous decision, then you need that slow thinking that is the assurance that you’re not making a mistake.
Daniel: The deliberate part of deliberate practice—that’s really where the magic is. The trouble is that most of us don’t like to be deliberate. Most of us would rather go fast and get easy answers. What you and Kahneman are saying is, “Sorry folks, no shortcuts.”
Anders: Right. You’re going to fail a number of times before you’re able to consistently perform at this new level. Very few people like to make mistakes. Embedding it in a long-term process where you get better, that’s the foundation for providing you with the information that you need to be able to make adjustments.
Daniel: So failure would come under the practice part. Think about the difference between shooting a free throw and shooting a lay-up. I can make my lay-ups a lot, whereas shooting free throws, it’s something to practice. There’s an interesting paper about how talent needs trauma. What they’re saying is that athletes who reach the top are more likely to have experienced trauma/failure than athletes who have not.
Anders: There’s an interesting connection. During the Second World War, in the concentration camps, there were several people who developed excellent mental calculators. They said that living in the concentration camp was so aversive that the only way they could defend themselves was to engage in an intellectually demanding activity. There’s some suggestion that Bobby Fischer didn’t have a father and that that led him to seek out a relationship with an adult chess master. Basically, once we’re describing the development path of successful individuals, we’ll find that investing in training may be more motivating for some individuals than others who have access to rewards where they don’t have to put in that investment.
Daniel: When we look at success, whether I started a company that’s worth a lot of money, or I’ve become a tenured professor, or I have achieved at some professional level, I’ve always had this nagging belief that we have understated the role of luck, of circumstance. What do you think of that?
Anders: It’s very clear, especially if you’re looking at the individuals who become really famous, that they had no insight when they started out. For example, the Curies, who discovered radioactivity—when they tried to refine the reactive element, they thought that it was much more dense. They had to work on it for five, ten years. Then they only came up with a gram based on a mountain of that mineral. The fact that they were wrong and kept pursuing it made the significance, because the degree of radioactivity of that concentrated matter was the scientific insight that changed our world.
Daniel: I’m even wondering at another level. If you look at SAT scores, the standardized tests that American high school students take, they correlate perfectly with household income. “Oh, look at this person, such a good student. Got an 800 on the SAT.” In fact, if we were to look at the person’s parents’ tax returns, we might be able to identify that as the driver rather than innate ability or practice.
Anders: That’s really interesting, given that we have a system where your SAT scores will influence where you go to university.
“I don’t believe purely in this deterministic view of human life, but as much as I am a Westerner, educated in the Western tradition, an American who believes in individual sovereignty and free markets, there is a dimension that is not of one’s life outcomes that is not fully volitional.”
Daniel: It’s true that, as one moves through life, you start out with many paths available to you, regardless of your socioeconomic status, and by going down one path, you foreclose other things and all the other paths that those things would lead to. There’s a degree of luck and circumstance that is deep and profound, but that makes us very uneasy. The idea that if I look at myself, I completely lucked out. Why? I was born in the United States. If I was born in Gabon or a village in India, I might be a completely different person.
Anders: I totally agree. What I would say is that some of this research is still quite important and valuable.
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Daniel: Absolutely. I don’t believe purely in this deterministic view of human life, but as much as I am a Westerner, educated in the Western tradition, an American who believes in individual sovereignty and free markets, there is a dimension that is not of one’s life outcomes that is not fully volitional. It’s not fully within your control.
Let’s go from philosophy to psychology: tell us how your work relates to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.
Anders: There’s a lot of commonality. We’re trying to look at the mechanisms by which you can improve and change. Just believing that you can change, I don’t believe is successful. You need the teacher, you need to make a commitment to some domain. Those specific things, that’s where we help an individual understand what they need to do in order to be successful to pursue a goal.
Daniel: Although I would think having that growth mindset would be a precondition. If you have a completely fixed mindset, if you’re a complete entity theorist, then why even do deliberate practice? What about Angela Duckworth’s notion of grit?
Anders: I’m fortunate enough to know Angela well, and we’ve been talking about this. The difference between me and Angela is that we believe that as you’re building the skill, that’s where the motivational issues come in. Grit is not so much a general ability factor that you can apply to all sorts of different situations, but is a part of skill acquisition or commitment to attain a very high level in a domain where you seek out motivational sources that will provide with you more direct motivation. It’s not just a matter of persisting against what normal people would find adverse.
For example, for musicians, when you have the skills so you can sit down at a piano and create new musical experiences for yourself, that is very enjoyable. When it comes to scientists, when they can design their own projects, that’s enjoyable. Looking for enjoyable aspects can sustain somebody in a career that may last for ten to forty years.
Daniel: Teresa Amabile talks about the importance of progress in motivation. That seems connected.
Anders: That’s where the teacher comes in, helping find ways that you can relate to others that you admire. We encourage people to have video diaries, so you would be able to follow how Tiger Woods step-by-step was developing. There is this gradual change, but essentially there’s very little documentation over that change.
Daniel: Is there a way for individuals to do self-documentation so they can see progress that deepens their motivation?
Anders: Once you can measure the performance that you’re aspiring to, like a golf handicap, then you will be able to collect data that will show how you’re changing. It’s consistent with designing practice. If you can find a practice task that’s highly correlated with your putting average, you can record this and see how that improves, and then be able to track that along with the golf handicap.
Daniel: I’m sure people come to you for advice. What do you tell people when they say, “I’ve seen your work. I really want to get better”?
Anders: Try to find a teacher who has trained individuals like yourself to achieve the level of performance that you want to achieve.