Anders Ericsson: There’s only one way to become the best in your field

Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology, grew up as a regular teenager in Sweden. He played chess with one particular classmate, who happened to be the worse chess player. He made the most of this opportunity and won at every game. However, one day he experienced defeat at the hands of his weak opponent.

Ericsson’s Fading Interest In Chess, Led To The Development of Deliberate Practice Theory

Since then, Ericsson pondered over the entire episode. He seriously wanted to know what led the kid to deliver such an awesome performance. What did the worse chess player do to enhance his skills? At that time, these were merely questions for the teen. But they defined Ericsson’s work. Ever since he lost against his classmate, Ericsson pulled away from playing chess. Instead, he started to focus people’s ability to improve skills and deliver their best in anything.

Expert of Experts

Ericsson – today – is The Florida State University’s professor of psychology. He specializes in the science of enhanced and apex performance, along with other subjects. You can call him the Expert of Experts!

Deliberate Practice

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The research that Ericsson conducted and continues to work is based on the concept – “deliberate practice”. It’s this logic that sets world leaders, maestros, Olympic gold medalists and top class performers from regular people, mediocre people.

Ericsson defines deliberate practice as a process that forces a person out of his/her comfort zone. Such an individual goes beyond his/her abilities and delivers the highest level of performance in different activities.

Outlined Goals, Guidance of a Teacher

Channelizing our mastered skills, provides us ultimate satisfaction. But we don’t get better than that. The want, the zeal, the urge to enhance our skills isn’t enough. Along with our mastered skills, we also require set goals and an expert or teacher who can guide us to attaining the same. The expert or teacher is key to helping us with our achievements. S/he continuously provides us with feedback and opinions, unless and until, we can determine our problems and work towards solving them.

Ericsson started his journey with the study and research of world-class athletes, spelling bee winners, and champions. He concludes that these performers are capable of delivering such winning performances because of deliberate practice.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “10000-hour rule” Interpretation

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Outliers, written by Malcolm Gladwell, writes about the “10,000-hour rule”, which is based on Ericsson’s deliberate practice theory. The logic is that we can become experts in our fields, if we invest ten thousand hours practicing our skill-set and expertise. He studied and concluded the thesis by reviewing a paper – written and published by Ericsson and his team in 1993.

Ericsson wrote the paper after studying 40 Germany-based violinists. He further outlined the difference between maestros and sub-standard performers. Gladwell – according to Ericsson – misinterpreted his ‘10000 hours’ theory. Repeating a particular activity hundreds and thousands of times does not drive a person to reach the top.

Paper Analysis and Gladwell’s conclusion

Ericsson requested the 40 violinists to provide him with a concrete set of records, including the number of hours spent in their practice and on other daily routines. He further analyzed that the violinist group consisted of two set of performers – one, devoted hours of practice. The study also concluded activities of pianists. Gladwell interpreted his view via this process, where 10,000 hours training in two decades led to the creation of master class violinists.

Three Decades’ of Ericsson’s Findings

Ericsson has been studying and researching about Deliberate Practice for 30 years. From these three decades’ of findings, he concluded the theory – The key to higher performance level and achievement of goals is Practice.

Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise

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Anders Ericsson co-wrote a book, along with Robert Pool (journalist) – ‘Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise’. The book talks about deliberate practice and the principle that defines it. It is written in a plain, easy to understand language.

According to Ericsson, individuals who believe rigorous practice can bring them success, aren’t aligned with the same definition of practice that he researched. He is further skeptical about genes defining the power of achievement in a person. Physical or mental prowess, from body size, height, weight, etc, are genetically preset attributes that are incapable of any transformation via practice. These traits do not define the effect of one’s performance.

Children with High IQ, are Advanced Learners

He further talks about intelligence and how it does not link the performance of an expert. The book reveals a study conducted by British researchers. The study discovered the impact of intelligence on a person’s performance. In fact, intelligence – as per the study – is capable of predicting the presence of chess expertise in children. The same researchers also examined children, consisting of high IQ levels and expert chess skill-set and concluded that they had weak skills.

Ericsson explains that the degree of intelligence becomes insignificant once kids start catching up with those having higher IQ levels. However, the deliberate practice remains relevant throughout. He shares a lot about his life, on how he spent 30 years’ of his life in exploring different types of limits that are capable of preventing people from attaining success in their respective fields. And he is yet to locate such limits.

Intense Scrutiny of Deliberate Practice Theory by Psychologists

Many analysts have scrutinized Ericsson’s research on Deliberate Practice in an extraordinary manner.

In May 2016, a string of research papers was published that gave an analysis of deliberate practice and its findings. The studies say that deliberate practice does differentiate between skilled and under-performing athletes.

However, it does not mean the theory applies to all. Researchers are unable to pinpoint factors that determine these defining traits. But they don’t hold back from the concept that genetically induced characters do play a major role.

Researchers made an analysis out of 8 studies conducted on musicians, and 6 studies on chess players. It was before 2014. And they discovered that deliberate practice is not the only factor that determines performance criteria in every sector. There are other factors involved too, for example, intelligence, genes, etc.

Ericsson defends and states his response in the same journal through a 2016 paper. He writes about the inaccuracy of conclusions. He believes that one does not undergo the process of deliberate practice, if s/he is performing exercises under the guidance of teachers, designed to enhance his/her caliber in a particular field.

  1. Zachary Hambrick Debunks Ericsson’s Findings

Theoretically, deliberate practice is a possibility, but it will take a lot of time to stick to such a rigid requisite of practice. We asked D. Zachary Hambrick – another renowned professor of psychology – at the University of Michigan about Ericsson’s findings and the 2015 and 2016 papers that were written to contract his theory. To be noted: D. Zachary Hambrick co-authored the papers.

When enquired about the papers, he said that till date no research has been able to determine deliberate practice and its role in writing expertise. However, he exclaims that it will not come to him as a surprise if it was discovered that writing expertise was completely based on deliberate practice logic.

But he accepted the importance of the practice in the development of performance in every field. He further shares his thoughts and how he values and believes the impact of practice. However, he does believe that there is a presence of loophole in the thought process that anything is achievable by anyone without any limit.

According to Hambrick, individuals training in their respective fields might not attain the results. They could have spent their efforts and time on resources and programs where they could become successful.

The book “Peak” ponders over controversies, like, deliberate practice mounts to the development of expertise. But the most significant insight was that about becoming an expert. To transform into an expert, one must be determined to sacrifice pleasures. Also the fact that the process is not a smooth and fun journey. It is about getting out of your comfort zone and undergoing activities that are tough and challenging. You’re bound to fail – says Ericsson – but eventually gain an achievement.

He also cites research conducted on figure skaters. The elite figure skaters devoted many hours practicing their routines, compared to the average skaters. However, the average skaters worked on routines that they were good at.

Drawback of becoming an expert

The only drawback of becoming an expert is that you have to commit yourself to a niche domain. In fact, Ericsson divulged that he is yet to know of any individual who mastered many skills at once. He also said that giving 100% in a single domain might not be the right pathway for most people. What he meant was that there is nothing wrong about being an average person. Working hard in different fields is a daunting task.

Ericsson is a man of his words and principles. He uses his own theory of Deliberate Practice in the process of transforming himself into a valuable researcher. His work covers opinions and feedback of fellow psychologists and colleagues. In a 1980 paper, he speaks about a paper that he co-wrote with Bill Chase – a cognitive psychologist. The paper was from Journal Science.

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