Lessons in Learning from Professor Anders Ericsson

Dedicated to Professor Anders Ericsson

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Source: Florida State University News¹

Lesson 1: Forget about talent. Focus on the work.

Professor Ericsson taught me to forget about talent and focus on the work.

You may think, “I don’t have any talent.” I guarantee you: I had no talent. None. I didn’t know how — I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t act. I didn’t know how to think up jokes, or tell jokes, or do anything. I just started doing it because I — I liked it…so don’t be intimidated starting with nothing. In fact, if you start with nothing, the workaround can lead you to originality.³

Steve Martin is a true Renaissance Man. Thanks, Steve.

I felt that I was not a genius at all, that I wanted to write good books — I had to work. And Flaubert was a great inspiration because he was a writer that had built his talent, his genius, through very, very hard work, through a very deep commitment with his vocation, with what he wanted to achieve.⁵

Forget about talent. Focus on the work.

  • “I adore the theater and daydream about acting…if only I had ‘talent’.”
  • “That person who’s been doing this for 50 years is ‘talented’. If only I, who just started doing this, had been born with ‘talent’. I guess I’ll quit...”

Lesson 2: The only practice that counts is deliberate practice.

Professor Ericsson taught me that the only practice that counts is deliberate practice.

  • Clear goals: After warming up, each lesson had a clear goal, whether it be polishing my backhand, increasing my agility, or improving my serve.
  • Focus on technique: Each lesson was, at its core, about improving my technique, not about randomly playing tennis.

Lesson 3: Studying over doing.

Professor Ericsson taught me that studying is more important than doing.

  • “Want to polish your French pronunciation? Speak French every day!”
  • “Want to be a better musician? Play music every day!”
  • “Want to improve your French pronunciation? Study the sounds of the French language that don’t exist in your first language and train your vocal apparatus to make those sounds, through deliberate practice!”
  • “Want to be a better musician? Study the music you love and internalize the elements that make you love it…through deliberate practice!”
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I transcribed every word, note, and chord of Don McLean’s “Vincent” by ear.⁸ It took me 14 days (and six pages) of deliberate study to do this. It would’ve taken me less than 14 minutes to play “Vincent” a few times. But now, every lyrical and musical nuance of this song is in me, forever. Studying over doing!

Lesson 4: Mental representations over memorization.

Professor Ericsson taught me that building mental representations is more important than rote memorization.

My advice might sound a little unfun, but it’s that, everything you learn, learn the thing that is the building block for the thing you just learned. And that might be scales, you know, instead of just parts of songs. Trace back why you like the thing and learn the thing that made the thing you like, and you will be five times better every time you do that.¹⁰

Yes, the guy who wrote “Your Body Is A Wonderland” just gave perfect advice on how to build mental representations…

Lesson 5: The “10,000-Hour Rule” is not a thing.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” from his book Outliers has become a cultural cliché. If you’re unfamiliar with the rule, it basically states that in order to master a skill, you need to practice it for about 10,000 hours, which should take you about 10 years to do.

  • I’ve done a lot but studied little (see Lesson 3): Most of the hours I’ve invested into swimming have gone into just swimming, not into studying how to be a better swimmer.
  • I haven’t done much deliberate practice (see Lesson 2): I have rarely focused on my technique, I have rarely set clear goals, and I haven’t received that much expert feedback.

1,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice Is Better than 10,000 Hours of Haphazard Practice.

The 10,000-Hour Rule is not a thing. It’s not how much you practice. It’s how.

Notes

  1. Psychology Professor Anders Ericsson — the World’s Top Expert on Expertise — Dies (Florida State University News, June 24, 2020), https://news.fsu.edu/news/2020/06/24/fsu-psychology-professor-anders-ericsson-the-worlds-top-expert-on-expertises-dies/.
  2. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, “But What About Natural Talent?,” in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), Kindle.
  3. Steve Martin, “Getting Started in Comedy,” MasterClass (MasterClass, December 19, 2018).
  4. If possible, read Mario Vargas Llosa’s work in its original Spanish.
  5. Nobel Prize. “‘Flaubert’s talent was achieved through discipline and hard work.’ Mario Vargas Llosa’s inspiration.” YouTube video, 2:51, June 17, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5bGWoyzG0U.
  6. Steven Kurutz, “Anders Ericsson, Psychologist and ‘Expert on Experts,’ Dies at 72,” The New York Times (The New York Times, July 1, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/science/anders-ericsson-dead.html.
  7. Ericsson and Pool, “The Power of Purposeful Practice,” in Peak.
  8. Don McLean, “Vincent,” track 3 on American Pie (Deluxe Edition),
    Capitol Records, 2003, compact disc.
  9. Ericsson and Pool, “Mental Representations,” in Peak.
  10. Guitar Center. “John Mayer | Guitar Musings with the PRS Silver Sky.” YouTube video, 4:15, April 9, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JO5SfbucSX0.

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