Lessons in Learning from Professor Anders Ericsson

Source: Florida State University News¹

Professor Anders Ericsson was an earned genius, and his research on learning and expertise changed my life.

I used to have countless limiting beliefs about my abilities and potential, all of which have disappeared thanks to Professor Ericsson’s work.

So, when I learned of his passing, I decided to write this piece as a tribute to him, and so that perhaps his work could also change someone else’s life.

Here are five lessons in learning from Professor Anders Ericsson:

Lesson 1: Forget about talent. Focus on the work.
Lesson 2: The only practice that counts is deliberate practice.
Lesson 3: Studying over doing.
Lesson 4: Mental representations over memorization.
Lesson 5: The “10,000-Hour Rule” is not a thing.

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

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

His research shows that our romantic (and limiting) idea of talent, as in a certain skill that’s bestowed onto someone at birth by the gods and cannot be otherwise earned…is not a thing.

Here’s his take on how experts actually develop extraordinary abilities:

Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process. There are no shortcuts.²

No shortcuts…and no mention of talent.

The chapter in Professor Ericsson’s book from which I pulled this quote is aptly titled “But What About Natural Talent?” and, in it, he explains away our romantic idea of talent, Mozart included. If you can, it’s a must-read.

Since I love the arts, I’d like to support Professor Ericsson’s expert research with the help of two creative masters I admire.

First, arguably the creative person I most admire: author, stand-up comedian, actor, novelist, musician, scriptwriter, songwriter, and playwright…Steve Martin. Here’s Steve’s perspective:

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.

Second, Peruvian Nobel Laureate in Literature and perhaps my favorite fiction writer ever…Mario Vargas Llosa.⁴ Here’s Vargas Llosa on his perception of his own ability and on Gustave Flaubert, the French writer who helped him forget about our romantic idea of talent:

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 blame the word “talent” for a huge amount of waste in human potential:

  • “I would love to learn French, but I have no ‘talent’ for languages…”
  • “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...”

It’s worth repeating: Forget about talent. Focus on the work.

If the word “talent” is holding you back, permanently erase it from your vocabulary. Don’t use or think the word again. When someone else uses the word, ignore it.

Some people have natural dispositions that drive them to develop a certain skill, sure. Some others have grown up in an environment that was conducive to the development of a certain skill, sure. Some have slight genetic advantages that give them slightly more potential for the development of a certain skill (e.g., height in basketball), sure.

Say what you will. Just forget about talent. And focus on the work.

Thank you for this lesson, Professor Ericsson.

Note: Stay away from people who will say you cannot learn whatever it is you want to learn. Science says you can do it.

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

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

Here’s a succinct definition of deliberate practice from journalist Steven Kurutz:

Professor Ericsson focused on what he called “deliberate practice,” which entails immediate feedback, clear goals and focus on technique. According to his research, the lack of deliberate practice explained why so many people reach only basic proficiency at something, whether it be a sport, pastime or profession, without ever attaining elite status.⁶

If your practice doesn’t entail immediate feedback, clear goals, and a focus on technique…it doesn’t count.

My tennis game improved more in one month of tennis lessons with an expert coach than in the one year I had previously spent “practicing” tennis. Now we know why:

  • Immediate feedback: My expert coach was right by me and would correct me if I made a mistake in my forehand or footwork.
  • 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.

Remember: The only practice that counts is deliberate practice.

Thank you, Professor Ericsson.

Note: If possible, hire an expert coach. This will help you learn and, in the long run, will save you time and money.

Lesson 3: Studying over doing.

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

There’s a widespread misconception that “doing” something repeatedly is the way to improve:

  • “Want to be a better tennis player? Play tennis every day!”
  • “Want to polish your French pronunciation? Speak French every day!”
  • “Want to be a better musician? Play music every day!”

Except…this doesn’t work. Doing something repeatedly doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get better at it, at least not past a certain point. Plus, if you’re doing something wrong, repeatedly, then you’ll actually get worse at it.

Here’s Professor Ericsson:

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.⁷

Thanks, Professor Ericsson.

Studying something deliberately helps you improve, whereas just doing something repeatedly may not.

With this new understanding, let’s rewrite those three examples, from doing, to studying:

  • “Want to be a better tennis player? Study proper technique with the help of an expert coach and grow as a player, through deliberate practice!”
  • “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!”

Remember: Studying over doing.

Thank you, Professor Ericsson.

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.

We all have some concept of what memorization is. But what are mental representations? Here’s Professor Ericsson:

Because the details of mental representations can differ dramatically from field to field, it’s hard to offer an overarching definition that is not too vague, but in essence these representations are preexisting patterns of information — facts, images, rules, relationships, and so on — that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations.

The thing all mental representations have in common is that they make it possible to process large amounts of information quickly, despite the limitations of short-term memory. Indeed, one could define a mental representation as a conceptual structure designed to sidestep the usual restrictions that short-term memory places on mental processing.⁹

Thanks, Professor Ericsson.

Ask yourself: What is the underlying structure of the thing I want to learn? How do experts conceive of that structure in their mind?

It’s not enough to just memorize parts of something. If you truly want to learn, you have to go deeper.

To help illustrate this lesson, here’s John Mayer’s master advice on how people can “find the promised land for themselves on the guitar”:

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…

Learn the structure, not just the instance. Learn the framework, not just the example. Learn scales and musical relationships, not just parts of songs.

Remember: Mental representations over memorization.

Thank you, Professor Ericsson.

P.S. Remember my transcription of Don McLean’s “Vincent” from Lesson 3? Notice how I didn’t transcribe the exact names of notes and chords, but rather the musical relationships between them. Mental representations over memorization!

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.

Professor Ericsson’s work (which Gladwell misinterpreted in coining the 10,000-Hour Rule) has taught me that this rule…is not a thing.

My experience has taught me the same.

I started swimming when I was three. I’ve been swimming regularly ever since. I’m writing this being twenty-five. I’ve easily swum for more than 10,000 hours. Easily. And I’m a good swimmer. But I’m not even close to being a great swimmer. Why? Because it’s not how much I’ve swum. It’s how:

  • I haven’t built mental representations (see Lesson 4): I’ve memorized tips and tricks here and there and repeated them for years, instead of learning and internalizing the principles of swimming.
  • 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.

So, inspired by Professor Ericsson’s work, here’s a new rule for mastery, which I expect will go viral due to how catchy it is: The 1,000-Hours-of-Deliberate-Practice-Are-Better-than-10,000-Hours-of-Haphazard-Practice Rule!

1,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice Are 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.

Thank you, Professor Ericsson.

Let’s recap. Here are five lessons in learning from Professor Anders Ericsson:

Lesson 1: Forget about talent. Focus on the work.
Lesson 2: The only practice that counts is deliberate practice.
Lesson 3: Studying over doing.
Lesson 4: Mental representations over memorization.
Lesson 5: The “10,000-Hour Rule” is not a thing.

When I discovered Professor Ericsson’s work, I had just begun my last semester as an undergraduate Accounting student at Florida State University.

I randomly discovered his book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, which I read carefully for a month, making copious notes and implementing its insights into my classes and my regular practice of creative disciplines.

By the time finals week came around, I had A’s in all my classes (no gods-given talent here; I failed algebra in the 8th grade) and had improved as a stand-up, writer, and musician way more than I thought would’ve been possible in one semester, all while having plenty of free time.

So, filled with gratitude and admiration, I did more research on Professor Ericsson, and I learned that…he taught at Florida State University!

His office was in a building I walked by every morning!

I knew I had to visit him during office hours to thank him for changing my life…but I didn’t. Why? Because I thought he would be busy with finals week, and I didn’t want to bother him.

Now, I can’t thank him.

What is the point of this anecdote? To introduce a bonus lesson:

Bonus Lesson: If you want to reach out to someone…do it. Always.

Still, better late than never: Thank you, Professor Ericsson.

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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