Deliberate Practice Guest Interview: Anders Ericsson
Now we are gonna go into something that is very complex and something that is very powerful and is what is effectively known as deliberate practice. Now, deliberate practice is very different than what most of us imagine as practice. It's not just repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again. So, for example, me writing a thousand words every day? Not an example of deliberate practice. And we are gonna talk about what the criteria of deliberate practice are. So, what Twyla Tharp said is that "skill gives you the wherewithal to execute what occurs to you. And Without it, you're just a font of unfulfilled ideas." You know, we've written a book called "Ideas of one" which is creativity for its own sake. So you'd wonder why would we talk about skill? Well, this is why we talk about skill. Because you wanna be able to develop the skills that allow you to execute the ideas that occur to you. You wanna be able to bring your creative vision to life. And what deliberate practice does is ...
it turns habits into skills. So I wanna go over a few principles of deliberate practice, tell you my own experience with it, and then we'll have the ideal - the world's foremost expert on the subject come in and talk about it. So, couple of principles of deliberate practice. The first of which is the fact that it allows you to develop skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which there have been effective training techniques established. You've well defined specific goals and the ability to improve some aspect of whatever your target performance is. You get feedback and modification in efforts in response to that feedback. And, it produces and depends on effective mental representations. If you've ever become really skilled at something, you've probably recognized this framework. You may have not known that this was the framework but it probably becomes very apparent if you've ever developed the skill. I told you of the story of about nine years of playing the tuba in Texas. Had a music teacher who, I didn't know it at the time, but this is exactly what he was carrying me through. It was this exact framework. When I auditioned for the all-region band in ninth grade, or all-region orchestra, I totally botched the audition, did everything wrong. it seemed like there was no hope. I was really distraught. Band director did several really strange things. First thing he had me do was take this piece of music that I had been playing at the same tempo that was on the recorded piece from the professional tuba player and drastically slow it down. To basically get accuracy instead of speed. And he even made me audition playing it really slow. I played it completely slow, completely different than anybody in the audition played it in. And only one other guy ended up being ranked higher than me and he was a senior and I was a freshman. He made me take off the mouthpiece of the instrument and practice with just the mouthpiece so that I would get that. And that turned out to come in handy because in December of 1993, we actually came to visit California one week before the actual all-region band auditions and my parents wouldn't let me lug the tuba along. So I literally sat in a hotel room practicing with a mouthpiece all day. And this is the habit that you see over and over and over again with anybody who becomes world class at whatever it is that they do. So, we're gonna bring in Anders now. Anders really has spent a good amount of his life researching this subject. He's literally written a book on this subject called "Peak: the New Science of Expertise." And he's awesome, and I think you guys are gonna really enjoy this. So let's bring out Anders. Hey Anders, how are you doing?
Doing really well!
Thank you so much for joining us. I'm really excited to have you here.
Well, I'm excited to join you.
Yeah. So you have had a chance to talk multiple times about this concept of deliberate practice and how we apply it to our lives. I think where I wanna start is one, where did you start to really notice this and how did it allow you to develop all these theories? I mean, you came up with these principles of deliberate practice. How did they emerge and where did you notice them, and then how can people start to apply these to their lives?
Well, I think that if I were to start, I would go back to the work that we were doing on actually training memory performants. And... What we found was that, in order to understand how somebody's memory could be dramatically improved there was a lot of changes in the thought processes that occurred when somebody was actually exposed to the material. And we found that, by actually giving immediate feedback on a short-term memory task we could actually improve an individual's performance by a thousand percent. So in a fact, we started out with an average college student who ended up being the best in the world in this particular memory task. But monitoring that kind of training, we realized, created a lot of problems. So, we basically now sought out individuals in domains where there had been a lot of accumulated knowledge about how do you produce outstanding performers. And... And what we found was that the activity that music students at an international music academy could control with that time that they were working by themselves on aspects that their music teacher had identified would be the most relevant thing that they could focus on. And what we found was that they spent up, you know, as much as twenty, thirty hours a week, some of the best ones, on this activity where they were working on tasks that were assigned by their teacher until they reached that point of mastery that would now match what the teacher asked them to do. What we found was that the key aspect of being engaged in this practice is that you need to know what you're gonna actually be trying to aspire to do. You need to know, before you actually do it, what the goal is and what it would sound like, so you can actually monitor yourself as you're engaged in this practice and now gradually refine and improve your performance. So it was really music where we started finding this type of practice that was now related to the level of accomplishment of these musicians in this international music academy. And we were starting to see that similar types of practice activities seemed to explain now individual differences in people at a very high level of performance.
So, a couple of different things. One, how do people identify teachers, mentors, and people who can actually help them raise awareness about areas in which their performance could be improved, so that they can actually get to a sense of what that vision looks like? And how do they discern between people who are good teachers and bad teachers?
I would argue that that's a key issue. And... I would use empirical evidence. So if you could find a teacher who can show you individuals that they have been training in the past, and especially document where they started out and where they ended up, and show now this dramatic improvement of their performance that would be the best evidence. Along with knowledge here about what kind of training that people have in general found to be effective. So, in music, their curricula that they use very broad agreement on that should be followed and building the skills, starting out with the fundamentals and then adding on complexities, step by step. But I would argue that the proof of the pudding lies in showing that this type of teacher had produced outstanding individuals in the past. And one problem that you often encounter is in sports, is that a famous teacher will attract individuals who are already at a very high level when they reach that individual. So the focus should be on the improvement that that teacher has caused in these individual students that they work with.
So we've talked about it in the context of sports, we've talked about it in the context of music, which are very individualistic pursuits. How might somebody apply this, say in a knowledge work environment, like in a company, in terms of working with their boss?
I think the key has to do how can you actually measure somebody's performance? And how would you be able to find an objective criteria that everyone would agree that individuals are performing at a higher level? I think one of the problems in many companies is that one individual is doing a unique job, so now, because it's more difficult for you to assess is this excellent job? Well? It's the only person doing it.
So one other question, and I know I've asked you this question before, and I want to ask it again is what role does age play in skill acquisition and the ability to get to expert level of performance? Is it something that slows down with age? And then, you know, for the people who are watching, how can they take this and how can they apply it to their lives? If they wanted to say, starting next week, start to develop deliberate practice with whatever it is that they are trying to master? How would they incorporate it into their lives?
We've found that people are now starting to realize that individuals who's starting at older ages are able to dramatically improve their performance. I think that should be distinguished from competing to be the best in the world or being at a national level because if you start, say, you've actually been practicing for fifteen years, you're likely now to be able to reach a higher level than somebody who is now starting, say, with music, when they're in their mid-twenties. And I think another question that one needs to realize is that if you're making that commitment of practicing for about twenty, thirty hours a week that's not available to a lot of adults. And I don't even know if that it would be all that important for them to aspire now to be reaching the very highest levels but more focused in reaching a master level where you can actually now produce music, say, that other people will enjoy. Or if you're drawing, that you can create drawings that capture and externalize your images that you have, that will actually be enjoyed now by other people. So, reaching that level of adequacy may be a better, more appropriate goal for individuals who start at older ages.
Well, let's take some questions from the audience. First, I'm gonna turn to the in-studio audience, and then we'll take questions from anybody in the internet. So... Mark, do you wanna go?
You mentioned twenty to thirty hours a week. Is there any amount of time, or minimum amount of time to master something? Could you start with as little as five to ten minutes a day?
I think it's interesting. When you look in music, that they recommend about ten to fifteen minutes a day that you would start as you're actually starting now with this deliberate practice. You could play the instrument for much longer time. But when you're actually setting these goals of trying to do something that goes beyond what you're currently are able to do that requires a lot of effort. And that seems like it's maybe a skill that with time, say you start out with ten, fifteen minutes, after five, ten years, you maybe more like three or four hours a day. But there also seems to be a limit of around five hours, where even the most kind of accomplished individuals find that they're unable to keep that concentration that's necessary to improve. So they're better off stopping and resting and getting ready for the practice session next day.
How do you find that point where you keep on practicing and then you sort of plateau, how do you find that point where, alright, I need to find a mentor or super, some sort of that?
I would recommend, if possible, and I think that's especially true for adults, that is really key that you start out with a teacher. I think that teacher can serve many functions. They can actually help you, you know, identify what is the fundamental skills that you should start learning? Because that seems to be critical, that a lot of individuals who learn skills by themselves learn them in a way that doesn't make them now adaptable, so you can actually add on and refine additional control. So, in many cases, I've heard coaches tell athletes "well we're gonna have to spend maybe the next six months unlearning what you actually have acquired to this point so we can now actually have you exhibit the fundamental aspects of the skills and only then can we actually help you be on the path to improvement." I think also the teachers can help you realize that you shouldn't overdo. I think a lot of people start something that they want to see improvements very fast and have unrealistic ideas about what is actually appropriate, especially if you wanna sustain and refine your performance over time.
If you wanna do a deeper dive into Anders' program I can't recommend his book, "Peak: the New Science of Expertise," highly enough. Anders, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. This has been phenomenal.
Well thank you so much for having me.
Yeah. So I think what you found that he accrued a lot of the sentiments that we previously talked about, about doing this in a way that is actually sustainable. That is one of the biggest issues that people face when they try to make change is the fact that it's not sustainable. You are not gonna go from having never done something to expert level performance in a matter of a month, considering that most people who are deemed masters of their craft take upwards of ten years. And the other thing that I would encourage you to consider, in addition to what Anders has said, is that this is not a learn something once and forget it, it's a life-long process. If you look at people who are committed to mastery, the one thing that they have in common is that people who are perpetual masters are eternal students. They are always looking for ways to get better at what they do because they don't believe that they have ever made it, or arrived in a particular moment. They know that if you stop doing the things that got you there in the first place, you're not gonna be at that place for very long.