Karl Anders Ericsson’s approach to success
Have you ever thought you’re not cut out to do something due to a lack of talent? Think again. Professor of Psychology, Florida State University Karl Anders Ericsson has a different take. He and his colleagues provide new research that illustrates that outstanding performance is the outcome of years of measured or deliberate practice and coaching and not of any innate talent or skill. He questions the extent to which unique genes (that only some have in their DNA) play a role in limiting a person’s ultimate potential in a given area, he argues that genes (that we all have in our DNA) shape a person’s response to purposeful and deliberate practice. Mr. Ericsson, psychologist and author of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, has dedicated his career to understanding how people become exceptional within a field. Sunita Sehmi interviews for Swiss Style Magazine.
Tell us about yourself
At a very early point in my life I found that I could improve my performance. I read biographies that focused on how people succeeded and tried to understand how and why and get into their mind-set. Even a genius like Mozart had to work for at least ten years before he produced something that became recognized as a masterpiece.
Take us back to the beginning. How did your research begin about being an expert?
I have never seen an individual whose excellence was not the result of formal training. I had a lot of push back about that but all achievement we see is, in fact, the product of extended deliberate practice. I have yet to find attributes that cannot be influenced by training. Anyone can build proficiency in any field. The only reason most of us don’t build expertise is lack of the single-minded focus required to engage in deliberate practice over years. Columbus did not “discover” the Americas because of some inexplicable stroke of genius, but more likely because he had resources in an age of seafaring exploration. If he hadn’t done it, someone else would have.
What is the confusion around the 10,000-hour rule?
Putting in a lot of time might make you tired, but simply working a lot (even if it’s 10,000 hours over the course of your career) isn’t enough to make you a top performer. It’s not the same thing as practicing deliberately. Success isn’t simply a product of 10 years of practice or 10,000 hours of work. To understand exactly what is vital to increase your potential and master your skill, you have to look at how the best performers practiced. There is no magical boundary, 10,000 hours was just an average.
Could you tell us more about your book?
We tried to share our insights and explore our belief that anyone can become an expert if they put in the time. The book is based on long research that there is no such thing as natural ability. It helps to demystify the feats of many outstanding performers, from musical virtuosos to science prodigies to brain surgeons to entrepreneurs to professional athletes. It also offers compelling evidence that our schools are taking the wrong approach to education. And it shows us a convincing new view of the enormous potential we all possess.
What is involved in deliberate practice?
Deliberate practice is a specialized–and particularly effective– form of purposeful practice: An experienced teacher or coach designs the training exercises and monitors a student’s progress, modifying the training as necessary to keep the student progressing steadily. Anyone can apply these same methods on the job. Say you have someone in your company who is a masterly communicator, and you learn that he is going to give a talk to a unit that will be laying off workers. Sit down and write your own speech, and then compare his actual speech with what you wrote. Observe the reactions to his talk and imagine what the reactions would be to yours. Each time you can generate by yourself decisions, interactions, or speeches that match those of people who excel, you move one step closer to reaching the level of an expert performer. Having expert coaches makes a difference in a variety of ways. To start with, they can help you accelerate your learning process. Simple practice isn’t enough to rapidly gain skills.
How can this be applied to the work setting?
This kind of deliberate practice can be adapted to developing business and leadership expertise. The classic example is the case method taught by many business schools, which presents students with real-life situations that require action. Because the eventual outcomes of those situations are known, the students can immediately judge the merits of their proposed solutions. In this way, they can practice making decisions ten to 20 times a week.
In a similar manner it is now possible to build simulators, where a pilot can repeatedly practice landing on aircraft carrier and a surgeon can practice new surgical techniques again and again. A very effective technique is to video tape someone’s behaviour in real-world contexts, and then have a coach review with video identify aspects that can and should be improved. Once a coach or teacher has identified a bad habit or a weakness in performance of an employee then it is possible to design a training activity with immediate feedback that allows that person to gradually adopt the superior habit or improve the targeted aspect of their performance. Sometimes it is more effective to have trainees encounter skilled actors, who can deliberately generate challenging problem situations that occur only rarely. For example, individuals can be trained to react as patients, who need to be told their cancer is inoperable. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice—practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Above all, if you want to achieve top performance as a manager and a leader, you’ve got to forget the folklore about genius that makes many people think they cannot take a scientific approach to developing expertise.
In your opinion what is the path to true greatness?
The crucial element is an awareness of what it takes to become an expert and, therefore, you are better equipped to maintain the deliberate practice essential to construct new skills. I don’t deny that genetic limitations, such as those on height and body size, can constrain expert performance in areas like athletics However, I believe there is no good evidence so far that proves that genetic factors related to intelligence or other brain attributes matter when it comes to less physically driven pursuits. Don’t postpone to do anything just do it. Experts are experts at maintaining high-levels of practice and improving performance.
What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Bill Chase said “In order to be successful you have to be the best in the world at something and that something can be very small.
What’s the next challenge for us?
If everybody were concerned about making our world a better place our world would benefit so much. Once people retire they could do so much for the younger generation, their experience their knowledge is so useful and essential for youngsters.
What’s next for you?
I want to continue to make a positive impact on someone outside myself. My parents were religious and serving others and doing good was a key part of my upbringing. I was very lucky to meet the Dalai Lama and his commitment to wanting happiness, not suffering. So what is your impact on people and what are you able to do – that is my mantra.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson
Article by Sunita Sehmi