Before passing away earlier this year, Dr. Anders Ericsson was the cognitive psychologist who discovered that deliberate practice, not natural talent, is the key to developing expertise. He was the co-author of Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise.
What We Discuss with Dr. Anders Ericsson:
- Why innate talent is a myth.
- How to set up a deliberate practice regimen to become more effective at anything you do.
- The truth about the 10,000-hour rule to mastery popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.
- Why “try differently” is a better recipe for success than “try harder.”
- Contrary to what was once believed, the brain can be rewired to excel toward a specific goal at any age with the proper training.
- And much more…
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Have you ever been deterred from attempting to learn something because you were told you were too old? Or perhaps you were convinced a certain gene was a prerequisite for success — one that was unlikely a part of your DNA — so you gave up before you even began. Maybe you’ve always believed that talent is an elusive quality that you’re either born with or you aren’t. How would you feel to find out science has debunked these beliefs?
On this episode, prior to his passing away earlier this year, we talked to Dr. Anders Ericsson, co-author of Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise. He’ll tell us how the brain rewires itself under the right circumstances (like deliberate practice) at any age, how extraordinary skills are learnable and teachable, and how we have far more power than ever before realized to take control of our own lives — regardless of genetics.
Listen to this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show to learn more about how human achievement has increased over the last century in nearly every field, why the adapting role of training is an important feature in this achievement on every front, how deliberate practice (with the assistance of a coach) differs from other training we may have used in the past and how it can help us become better at anything from writing to running, how we can stay motivated through the challenges of self-improvement, why some experts seem to get worse instead of better the more they practice their skills, what Malcolm Gladwell got wrong (and right) about the 10,000 hours rule to mastery, and lots more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Miss our two-parter with North Korean defector Charles Ryu? Catch up here starting with episode 84: Confessions of a North Korean Escape Artist Part One!
Something You Should Know with Mike Carruthers is a podcast that delves into snippets of uncommon knowledge and explains how your life will be better for knowing them. Listen here or wherever you prefer to listen to your favorite podcasts!
THANKS, DR. ANDERS ERICSSON!
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool
- Acquiring ‘Perfect’ Pitch May Be Possible for Some Adults | University of Chicago News
- Perfect Pitch Program | Ichionkai Music School
- Mozart’s Genius ’Down to Dad, Not God’ | The Independent
- About the Suzuki Method | Suzuki Association of the Americas
- Let’s Ballet Dance: When Should My Child Start Pointe Ballet? | Children’s Hospital Colorado
- Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery | Frontiers in Psychology
- The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice | James Clear
- How Chess Players Think | Chess.com
- Where Great Ideas Come From & How Diet Affects Your Mood and Mental Health | Something You Should Know 456
Transcript for Dr. Anders Ericsson | Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Episode 396)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Anders Ericsson: [00:00:02] One of the key things with people who are not successful is that they are almost often too impatient. So if you're actually starting with a training program, the worst thing you can do is to try to get in four or five hours and really have this rapid improvement. What you should be doing is maybe set aside 15, 20 minutes each day to do something that is focused to improve you. And as you are building up now more habits and routine, then you can kind of increase it and that's when you get the more effective results.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:41] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. If you're new to the show, we have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, psychologists, even the occasional former cult member or national security strategist. Each show turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:06] Today, we're talking with Dr. Anders Ericsson about his book Peak, co-authored with Robert Pool. We'll discover that innate talent is not real, or at least it's not what people think it is and it may not exist at all. We're going to discuss the concept of deliberate practice and how we can become amazing at just about any skill and how to set up a deliberate practice regimen to become more effective at anything that we do. This episode is a must for anyone who practices at any art or craft and wants to get better and eventually master it.
[00:01:34] If you're wondering how I managed to book all of these great thinkers, authors, and celebrities every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build your network for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. By the way, most of the guests on the show have subscribed or contributed to the course. So come and join us, you'll be in smart company. Now, here's Dr. Anders Ericsson.
[00:01:54] Tell us what you do in one sentence.
Anders Ericsson: [00:01:57] Well, I've always been very interested in trying to understand how people are very successful, how they're thinking, and how that's different from less accomplished individuals are able to do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:10] So let's talk about what that means. I'd like to define expert first because I think nowadays you can just tell yourself or tell other people on the Internet that you're an expert and technically now you are, but that's not what you mean, right?
Anders Ericsson: [00:02:22] No, in fact, I think that's one of the key points in our research is that for a long time, people were looking for birds and they have this idea of somebody who had been doing something for years and decades and somebody who had a long education. And I think that created some problems because once you started testing these individuals using kind of objective tests on their performance, you'd kind of surprisingly found that additionally years or decades of experience really didn't improve their ability to kind of perform at a higher level. So if we're talking about psychotherapists, for example, having 20 years of experience treating patients is not a predictor that your patients will be having better outcomes than a colleague with much less experience.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:13] Yes, exactly. So I think that's important. So you had just kind of codified this. And I want to step back and talk about perfect pitch because I thought this is a great example of innate talent or the fallacy of innate talent. Can you tell us what this discovery meant and what this was?
Anders Ericsson: [00:03:30] Right. People for a very long time were looking for these kinds of abilities that could possibly explain now why some people are more outstanding musicians than other people. And one of the things, you know, looking in particular at Mozart, which is, I think, the prototypical prodigy of somebody who performed at a very high level at a young age. And he had this ability that's referred to as perfect pitch. So you can actually play a tone in isolation. And one way of thinking about this test is that basically, your eyes closed and somebody is hitting a key on the piano. Somebody with perfect pitch would be able to tell you exactly which of the keys that somebody hit. And that ability is sort of intriguing because when adult musicians try to acquire this ability, they found that it was almost impossible for them to do. So here we have something that Mozart exhibited as a kid that other musicians when they tried to acquire that ability in adulthood are pretty much not able to do it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:37] Right, yeah.
Anders Ericsson: [00:04:39] So that would seem to be something that some people are born with and other people just don't have the genes to support that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:48] Genetic or innate talent, essentially.
Anders Ericsson: [00:04:51] One of the things that people found out that maybe, you know, modifies the importance here of perfect pitch is that several famous musicians who were very successful did not have it. It's not like you can't be a very famous musician without having it. But more recent research has really looked at and try to understand now at what age does this develop. And what they found was that, in fact, when you're young, between three and five, this is now something that's quite easy to develop.
[00:05:26] In fact, there's a recent study by a Japanese researcher who took average kids and basically gave them training and we're able to give them basically the performance of perfect pitch. So now I guess and this is consistent with some of it we proposed a long time ago namely that maybe it's the early training in music that actually provides this kind of training that allows children to acquire this ability. And what's intriguing is as the brain grows, when you're five or six, it seems that now it's developing in a different path if you haven't already acquired this ability. So basically, it's going to now be impossible for you to acquire it in the same way and very difficult to acquire using other different methods.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:16] The researchers ended up being able to teach people perfect pitch which is something that heretofore was considered something that you had to be born with.
Anders Ericsson: [00:06:25] Exactly. And these kids were now between three and five, which is a very young age to teach kids just about anything. And it's also related to the fact that some languages like Mandarin are tonal languages.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:40] Oh, don't I know it, yeah.
Anders Ericsson: [00:06:41] And in those languages, you really do have to be able to make that kind of pitch distinction in order to be able to understand the words. And in those cultures, individuals who start training music early on, almost always have perfect pitch.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:57] Interesting. It seems that the brain is actually susceptible to certain kinds of encodings. And if you get the training, now you will actually put the brain on a different path. And it turns out that you can actually see brain differences in those people who have perfect pitch from those who have not. You know that ability influences now the development of the brain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:20] So tell me this. I don't know if this makes any sense with your research, but when I was a kid, I decided to learn to play the flute, which was like a terrible decision socially because a boy who plays the flute, I didn't see this coming, which shows you where I was in my social development as a kid. I just thought, "Hey, it's really light. And I don't have to carry it around." I was the only guy who did it, but we got a chance to perform our own music, whatever we wanted to perform on Fridays. And most people would go to the music store and buy some sort of TV themes book or whatever, but they were all songs for girls, especially with the flute because they assumed that's who was playing it.
[00:07:56] So. I had to write my own because I wanted to play the A-Team, not the theme song from Hello Kitty or whatever it was. So I would sit there and watch things like cheers in A-Team. And I would memorize the song in my head, which was something that easily gets stuck in your head. And I would simply write down the notes and then I would go in and play it. I didn't need to necessarily read the notes. I would just play the instrument from memory. And now I can speak Chinese, by the way, I'm learning it. And I have no problem with the tones whatsoever. Is there a linkage there?
Anders Ericsson: [00:08:24] You know it's quite possible because I know that some people really do have difficulty with Chinese with respect to learning the difference of the tones. And in a sense here, I guess, perfect pitch when you can actually distinguish almost like a hundred tones that are obviously slightly different skills than being able to recognize different tones within sort of a more normal range. And people have told me here that there are certain kinds of things. So when you recognize — it used to be that car horns were actually in a particular tone. And people would say that they could kind of hear that this was a car horn which implies here that they were able to make some kind of distinction here about the tone level. So there may be a much more range of ability when it comes to making those distinctions then where perfect pitch is not an extreme case here of somebody who can distinguish close to a hundred different tones, whereas other activities may require discriminating four or five.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:32] Okay. This makes sense. I was just curious. I'm not trying to say like, "Oh, I'm a musical prodigy." I'm definitely far from anything like that. And I certainly can't speak Chinese fluently and flawlessly, but I can certainly hear the difference between the tones. And I just thought maybe those things were linked when I was reading the book. So essentially by teaching perfect pitch, researchers have shown that extraordinary skills are learnable and teachable, not just something you're born with. By the way, the book is called Peak, for those of you who missed the title the first time.
[00:09:58] You also mentioned later on that savants and people who are quote-unquote prodigies show no difference in their ability to learn things just in the amount of practice. And we can touch on the practice concept later on, but I can just hear people saying, "But what about prodigies? What about savants? People who are autistic, but can play the piano perfectly after hearing a song one time." You're saying that there's not necessarily anything genetic going on there or anything innate going on there. It's something else and it just happens to be a matter of obsessive practice.
Anders Ericsson: [00:10:30] So I think the key idea here is when we've looked at these exceptional performances and especially when they are done here by young kids — you know most people would say, "Wow, they must have been born with it." If you actually try to describe the detailed environment of many of these individuals, you find that they engaged in a lot of sort of guided practice where an adult was actually helping them develop these skills, especially when it comes to music performance. We're simply arguing here that if you look at the amount and the quality of the training that preceded their ability to perform, we don't see any evidence here that basically there's something innate or special about these individuals.
[00:11:17] And one example, coming back now to Mozart, you know, he was able to perform at a very young age. What most people do recognize there's that Mozart's father was actually a pioneer when it came to training children and thinking up ways in which you could actually design training activities for children. So they would be able to master a musical instrument at a very young age. And there is a development that most people have heard about with the Suzuki method for playing. The Suzuki method is basically based on the assumption here that every child learns to speak the language. And if you look at the kind of activities that the child engages in order to learn how to speak, you know, the native language, you can apply the same methods for them to learn how to sing and how to play an instrument.
[00:12:10] When you look at individuals now that have been trained with the Suzuki method and compare them with what Mozart was able to do at young ages, you find that so-called average children actually were able to acquire the same level of ability playing instruments. If they actually had this early training.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:29] This is super interesting because basically we're saying not only is innate talent, not necessarily real, but people used to think no amount of practice would help if you didn't have the right genes. And now we're saying, "Look, you've got the right genes because you have genes."
Anders Ericsson: [00:12:44] Just to be really careful here as a scientist. What I would say is reviewing all the evidence, I have found no evidence that you have to be born with certain genes to be able to achieve these performances. Now, I can't prove that that's the case and that future science will basically uncover something. But if you accept now one thing which is height and body size, we know that height and body size is not something that you can train. When it comes to virtually everything else, there are known training methods by which you can actually improve these abilities. So that then raises the question here. Is there enough flexibility and plasticity in normal people that with training, they would be able to reach these higher levels of performance?
[00:13:33] And again, here, we have to sometimes assume that some changes can only happen when you're actually training when you're in development. So for example, ballet dancers can turn out their feet more than normal people. That seems to be something that you have to actually acquire through training between nine and 11. Because as you get older, the bones calcify so then the joints are going to be fixed. You can actually then change that. But when you're young, then the bones are not fixed and then actually through training, you can actually make adjustments in the joints that will actually then, you know, make a big difference when you're an adult.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:18] Yeah, this makes sense. So what elements of talent that are genetic things like joints and maybe neuroplasticity and that's all we've seen so far?
Anders Ericsson: [00:14:27] Well, to be honest here, I think when it comes to the height, which is sort of useful in basketball and other sports, you know, to be tall, it turns out that the verse is true for artistic gymnastics, where being short is really a major advantage in order to be competitive in gymnastics.
[00:14:46] Now, I think when it comes to facial features, you're not really doing anything to modify your face here. And I'm kind of excluding plastic surgery, but basically, you know, normally nobody's really trying to change their facial structure. But if we're looking at muscles in your arms, the legs, everyone knows that training can actually dramatically modify the size and the strength and all sorts of characteristics of the muscles. And our point is that that's true for so many aspects of your body. One example that I think is interesting is if you donate one of your kidneys to somebody who desperately needs a kidney, what's interesting is that the body within the next three weeks after you've donated that kidney, the remaining kidney will actually grow about 70 percent in size to kind of absorb, basically the demand here for activities of the kidneys.
[00:15:46] So the body is incredibly modifiable in a way that if we understand how we can actually design training, that will stimulate the body in certain directions. We can get amazing changes even in the biology and physiology of the body.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:06] The science and the book is exciting, especially because it seems like anybody can do this. It suggests that we have far more power than we ever really realized to take control of our own lives and our performance. And the old view was that everybody's born with a certain potential for math and music and sports or even business. And the new view seems to be that the body and brain are adaptable to the point that we now see that there is no such thing as a predefined potential or ability. And this is a game-changer because learning now becomes a way of creating abilities rather than bringing people to the point where they meet some sort of innate potential.
Anders Ericsson: [00:16:44] Right. And I guess one of the key ideas that I always have told my students about is that many of them go around looking for their innate talent and gifts. It's almost, you know, you go sniff around here to kind of find what you really were innately predestined to succeed at. And our view is you're actually creating your own abilities. So by actually making an early decision here about something that you want to create, you're going to actually be on the path here of developing something. And you can always change to something else. If that looks more attractive or some opportunity arises. But the idea that you actively have to create yourself is something that I think is a really key new idea that will make a big difference to people.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:40] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Anders Ericsson. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:03] And now back to Anders Ericsson on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:20:08] Yeah. Well, the reason I picked up the book was because I saw that it was about the right sort of practice, deliberate practice. The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time, leading to improvement, not natural talent and not certain types of, "Just keep doing it and it will work." You mentioned in the book that human potential — or maybe potential is not the right word, given what we just discussed — but in the last hundred years or so human achievement, the things that people can do and individually in sports or whatever, seems to have increased dramatically in pretty much every field to what do you attribute that change?
Anders Ericsson: [00:20:44] Well, we kind of argue that if you try not to find the type of practice activities that's really effective. And the best way, I guess, to do that is to find a teacher who would be able to actually guide you to assess where you're at. In a sense, they're building something like a house. Well, you're going to do better here if you get the foundation, right? Because if you messed up here, in the beginning, you're going to acquire all sorts of habits that later on will actually make it more difficult for you to continue. These historical changes we find are closely related now to insights about effective practice.
[00:21:26] For example, I guess when it comes to long-distance running. The speed by which you can run long distances fast, people realize could actually be improved here by interval training. Now, interval training, you're actually pushing the limits for maybe a hundred yards, and then you basically are exhausted. So now you walk a little bit and then you push yourself for another a hundred yards. That kind of training will actually stimulate now the physiological structures. So you will be able to have more capillaries that will give your muscles blood, and it will even change the diameter of our arteries and change the structure of the heart to maximize your ability to actually pump blood. So the muscles can actually perform at a more effective and enduring level.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:18] I'd love to hear more about deliberate practice. I mean human potential or at least human achievement has increased so much over the past century in part or in large part to what we consider deliberate practice or different training methods. What do these training methods have in common and how can we start to harness these for ourselves? Because I think everybody listening is thinking, "All right, I'm writing down deliberate practice because I want to be better at anything from writing to running."
Anders Ericsson: [00:22:41] Right, and we kind of make distinctions between different kinds of practice. I think what a lot of people professionals, in particular, argue is practice. A doctor sees patients, tries to diagnose them and recommends treatment. Somebody else is doing their job and they're just doing essentially more of the same — you know, they may encounter different patients or different projects, but they basically are not asking the question here, "How could I basically do this better?" And I guess that is kind of the starting point for all we call the purposeful practice. So once you identify something that you want to improve, now, you can actually come up with training activities, which would allow you to now to repeatedly try to refine one aspect of what you're doing. And then eventually you would now bring that back into your regular training.
[00:23:37] Maybe my favorite example is when you play doubles tennis, and then you say you miss a backhand volley. Well, the game, if you're just playing with friends, it's just going to continue. So maybe an hour later, you get into the same situation. You're not going to be able to do any better at that time. Contrast that now with basically finding a tennis coach who will basically allow you to kind of be ready for the backhand volley and start out with simple ones and then basically give you harder ones. And then you have to run-up to the net and increase the difficulty once you have acquired the basic skills to do the task. And our claim is that within one hour or two hours working with a tennis coach, you will have improved your backhand volley performance by much more than you probably would in years of displaying recreational tennis.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:34] Sure. I mean, the best way to get past any barrier is to come at things from different directions and having teachers and coaches. Someone who is already familiar with the sorts of obstacles that you're likely to encounter, who can always suggest and drill ways to overcome them. One thing I thought was super interesting, speaking of coaching or lack of coaches, is that a lot of people find that they get to a certain level of performance where things become automated and they hit this weird plateau, even doctors, unfortunately. Like driving is the example you gave, but doctors and pie baking, you stop improving. You just go, "Yeah, I can do this good enough." And your brain doesn't challenge itself anymore. You don't challenge yourself. You're just kind of existing in this weird field of performance where some days are better than others, but you're not really growing. Yet, people as performers or experts in any field, we kind of delude ourselves into thinking, "Well, I'm practicing so I should technically be getting better." And this just isn't the case.
Anders Ericsson: [00:25:32] No. And I think that you're describing what a lot of people go through as it just gets easier to do what they used to be able to do. And what the key is to purposeful practice is essentially identifying things that you could do better. And one way to do it, you know, like in sports would be to videotape yourself and basically take a very close look at the products that you're doing and comparing them now with people that are kind of at the top of their field. And you can now start seeing things that are actually not as good with your product and that will actually now be a stimulus for you to do better.
[00:26:11] I think medicine is a great example because we're all probably patients at some point in time. And we would like to have a doctor that basically will diagnose us correctly, so we will be able to get the best treatment immediately. Now, we know that doctors and some doctors are better than others, but essentially there are going to be mistakes and the problem is that a doctor when they're doing their best to diagnose somebody — to give them treatment and they make a mistake, they won't get feedback on that. So it's very hard for them to actually improve. So what we've suggested here, that if you have videotapes of patients and then you wait until they actually get their final diagnosis, you can now give that sort of interview tape to a lot of doctors who will then make their diagnosis. And then once they've committed to a diagnosis, you can give them immediately the feedback about which one is correct.
[00:27:12] And we argue that that type of library of experiences where you can get that immediate feedback, learning laboratories, that would allow people to develop if they were motivated. So the idea is that if you're going to improve, you need to find something that you can't do. So if you just keep doing what you already know how to do, then it's unclear how you can improve. By setting a goal that is reachable from your current level of performance, so you cannot refine and actually by repetition now, find ways to approach this task differently, so you can reach that higher level. That is kind of the key here to improvement. And I think you could find anybody doing almost anything that, especially if you have a teacher looking at that individual, they would be able to help you to what it is that they should be paying attention to, that they may not.
[00:28:07] And we also try to emphasize this idea of mental representation. What is actually going on in the head of the person performing? Because that is kind of a key, so the more that you're aware of what you're doing — if you now make a mistake, you're going to be in a much better position here to make adjustments and corrections than if you're just relying on intuition. Because if you just did something and it turns out to be incorrect, what is it that you should be doing differently if you encounter a similar situation in the future
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:39] So purposeful practice, in a nutshell, it sounds like to get outside your comfort zone, do it in a focused way, have clear goals, and a plan for reaching those goals and a way to essentially monitor your progress. And then, of course, last but not least, stay motivated. And I would love to talk a little bit about motivation because I feel like that's something we hear about a lot from people who are high performers and low performers. Lazy people or people who seem to be lazy, lack of motivation. But even high-performers entrepreneurs and things like that often can lack motivation, at least in the beginning, because things are tough.
Anders Ericsson: [00:29:14] It's linked up here with this idea here that if you really experienced every situation as a new situation with new potential challenges, then I think you will enjoy that a whole lot more. It will also sensitize you to things that you need to be kind of paying attention to. And if the outcome is not the one that you wanted, it will now provide you with sort of an idea here about something that you may be able to work out. Not by interacting with new and other customers, but basically by finding a training environment that allows you now to repeat and refine what you're doing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:56] Now, we know about concepts such as neuroplasticity. With London cabbies and your study with them, with the parts that required a lot of memorization, things like that, we're actually growing. And we also know through MRI with blind people that they use the visual parts of their cortex to adapt to disability. Is it possible then to shape the brain — my brain, your brain, whatever — in ways that we want to through the training? Can we actually modify the structure of our brains?
Anders Ericsson: [00:30:24] Well, I think that all the research that I've seen with experts. Seems to suggest here that the training that you engage in will actually reshape the structure and the myelination of the brain to actually allow you now to develop the control that I think is the key to expert performance. It's not the automaticity but it's really the ability here to control your performance that I associate with a high level of performance.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:53] Is it safe to say that we can rewire our brains to become more talented, according to kind of our non-traditional definition?
Anders Ericsson: [00:31:01] No. Talent often describes very generalizable abilities. What we find here when we analyze the high level of performers is that they have developed very specialized abilities or adapted now to the particular kind of demands and constraints of the tasks that they're involved in. And that's actually one of the reasons why we would argue that the idea here that in a talent really plays a role when you're really skilled. It's really not well supported because we do find that when you start out with a domain like music or chess or something like that, then your performance on IQ tests is actually correlated with how well you do in the beginning.
[00:31:46] As we're now looking at people who train and acquire now these tailor-made mechanisms for dealing with a task that they're trying to improve. Then the correlations with these general abilities disappear. And I think basically the idea here of talent is almost like you have to assume that it's something general because how likely is it that being a violinist would be something that you're innately programmed for during the hundred thousands of years that humans were engaged in hunter-gathering activities?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:22] Of course, well, didn't necessarily evolve to play the guitar really well, right? That doesn't make sense.
Anders Ericsson: [00:32:28] Exactly. That's very hard to believe. And combined with this fact that when you look at people, as they get better and better, it seems that now the general abilities are no longer related to the individual differences and their ability to perform. So it makes more sense to assume now that any individual differences in the performance among experts, it's not reflecting the structure of the skill that they acquired rather than anything that they actually started out with.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:57] Do we have to maintain the brain gains that we get from training and practice? Do we have to do something special in order to keep them there? Or are we then able to get to a certain high level and then go back into autopilot mode?
Anders Ericsson: [00:33:10] Well, I think unfortunately there are experts who seem to have reached a high level and then go off on automatic pilot mode. And what we see is that those individuals, especially if they don't practice, they will actually get worse. And I guess in the book, we talk a little bit about examples from medicine. So when it comes to diagnosing heart sounds — you know, that there's something wrong with the heart when you listen to it — we find actually that the performance of general practitioners gets worse with a number of years since they graduated. The positive here is that on weekend of actually being trained now, so you listen to heart sounds and get immediate feedback, you can actually get back to the level that you had when you ended your medical training.
[00:34:10] A lot of these activities require sustained training and activation. And just listening to patients that you basically diagnose without now knowing if you actually are accurate in your assessment of the heart sounds. You know, it's basically not any activity here that allows you to maintain your skills, doing this activity. And I think it's true. Everyone probably knows here that if you haven't done something for a long time, your ability to do it, decrease this, whether it's speaking a foreign language or playing some kind of sport. So what we find here with professionals — those professionals who are able to sustain their high level of performance in their '60s — those are the ones who actually set aside 10, 15 hours a week, where they're doing nothing but practicing and trying to refine, or maybe in some cases still improving their ability when it comes to music performance.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:01] I'd love to hear more about mental representations. This was something that was very new to me. And I'm trying to think of what mine are. I just think this concept — it's almost like a different language that you speak inside your own brain when you're really, really good at something.
Anders Ericsson: [00:35:15] It is fascinating when you talk to experts who are really high performers, they actually have a very good memory of what has happened. And some of the early work that established this, you know, basically shows chess positions to people differing in chess skill. And they found that the world-class chess players after just seeing a position for five seconds, they were able to reproduce the entire position. So somehow when they saw something, they were able to kind of see the relationship between all the pieces, such that they would be able to kind of imagine that in their mind.
[00:35:50] That kind of general finding, we find with soccer players and basketball players and other competitive athletes, that if you were to kind of eliminate any visual input, they would actually know where various people were on the court. So if they were to get the ball at one point, they would actually have a good idea about what they should be doing with that ball because knowing where their own teammates are and defenders. And especially being able to extract maybe a second in the future of what they were going to be doing, you will actually be able to make really great decisions about what to do. But that ability of actually having a mental image in your head that allows you now to sort of think about the current situation. And often when it comes to ball sports, you don't have eyes in your back. So by actually monitoring, moving your head around, you can actually now form kind of a complete picture of what everyone is doing around you even if you can't see them at the time when you have to make a decision.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:58] This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Anders Ericsson. We'll be right back.
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[00:38:31] I think this is important. I want to sort of define this a little bit more clearly for people like me, who might not be able to follow some of the complexity. Let's talk about chess, for example, something I know nothing about. You can look at a chessboard and you can memorize where all of the pieces are. But if you're really, really damn good at chess, you don't just memorize where the pieces are, you look at things that you in the book lines of force, power, and things like that, where, you know, "Okay, this is the way that these pieces can work on this side of the board. And given where the pieces that you have are and more minor, I've got these different options." You're not just memorizing where the pieces are and where they can move. You've got different mental representations of what can be done, what's possible, what's impossible, what's on the table, and what's not okay for winning the game or proceeding in the game.
[00:39:21] This in turn illustrates a really crucial fact about expert performance in general, which is according to your work, there's no such thing as developing a general skill. You don't train memory. You don't train sports. You train your memory for strings of digits that are really long, or for collections of words, or for people's faces, or whatever it is that you're memorizing. Not just memory in general, which might explain why people who are really good at remembering really complex things, forget their keys all the time or forget people's names.
Anders Ericsson: [00:39:52] Exactly. And I think pointing out here that it's not like they have a photographic memory where basically they can just reproduce the details. In fact, you can actually just prove that it has anything to do with photographic memory because if you just rearrange the locations of the pieces, so they're now randomly distributed on the board, now there's hardly a benefit of being a chess master. So they're really kind of seeing the meaningful relationships between the pieces.
[00:40:25] And I often point to when you're reading a sentence, most people are able now to reproduce that sentence word by word. But if you scramble the words, so there's now a random order of the same words, then people can only reproduce maybe four or five of the words. So being able now to kind of understand the sentence gives you a sort of mental representation. And sometimes you hear people even have an image of what the sentence describes that somehow captures the meaning that then allows you to actually reproduce the words. So it's not that kind of photographic reproduction that is really very local. It's this higher level understanding that somehow allows you to reproduce the details.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:12] Does everyone use these mental representations versus something that high performers develop that's kind of exclusive to them?
Anders Ericsson: [00:41:19] What we find is that that is sort of something that develops along with the performance. So as you get better, you can kind of see a little bit sort of the consequences — let's say, if you're playing tennis, you can actually sort of perceive what's going to happen in the very near future. Or if you're in basketball, the idea here is that you get more skilled, you're actually able to represent more things and being able to represent what is actually about to happen as opposed to what you can actually see at the moment when you're looking at it. And in chess, there's some really good evidence — and this is really where I kind of started. I was interested in studying people's thinking. So one way you can actually get at what's going on in the head of a chess player is just to ask them to think. You give them a chess position, ask them to pick the best move, and then you can actually hear the thoughts that they generate on the route of actually picking the best move. And what you find is that the better chess players they're actually able to kind of explore it deeper. And they're also more able because of their meaningful analysis to pick the kind of more promising directions where they should focus their analysis. A beginning chess player, maybe they're looking for ways to make your opponent. But basically, as you get more skill, you know, acquire this ability to maybe think a couple of moves ahead, and then with even more skill, you can now basically think maybe 15, 20 moves ahead.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:52] So basically it seems like a hallmark of expert performance is maybe the ability to see patterns or things that would be random or confusing or all over the place to somebody who's not an expert. You can see them in these mental representations, they kind of bring order to chaos. As you say, in the book, in other words, experts see the forest when everyone else only sees trees.
Anders Ericsson: [00:43:12] Exactly. So you actually have that overview. I think we believe that those representations are really critical to be able to perform at a high level, but they're also equally important when it comes to you trying to keep improving. Because if you're going to improve something, you actually have to have something that you can change. And the more refined your representations are about how you actually ended up deciding what you ended up doing, you will now be able to review that and see how you need to change that in order to be avoiding making a mistake that you ended up doing.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:51] One thing I thought was great news in the book is that in every area, not just in music, but the relationship between skill and mental representations is a virtuous cycle. So the more skilled you become the better those mental representations are. And then, of course, the better the mental representations are the more effectively you can practice and get better at that skill. And that's great news, but the problem is it becomes kind of a chicken and egg thing, right? Do we develop the mental representations first or do we develop the skill first and then the representations come after that et cetera, et cetera? I mean, where do we begin? Can we begin to consciously create mental representations that help us become more effective?
Anders Ericsson: [00:44:29] That's where either the teacher comes in or if you basically engage now in some training activities that we find to be very closely related here to your improvement. So, for example, you could actually test your ability to play against world-class chess players by buying books, which documents each of the moves that they made in various games against other world-class players. Instead of just reading to see what they did, you can actually look at that position and ask yourself, "If I was playing against this world-class player, what would I do?" And then you come up with a move and then you can actually look at what basically that player did. And if that player did something quite different from what you intended, that sort of implies that your representations need to be altered and improved. So now you can actually start analyzing and try to understand why the player did this, whereas you didn't consider that move possibility.
[00:45:29] And similarly, you know, a teacher would be able to tell you and give you feedback that if you had done this move, that would have been much better, and here's why. So the question is, why did you not basically think about that when you were generating this move? And I think that way of seeking out ways to test yourself, and one of the nice things is that if you actually fail, that's an opportunity to improve. So now for a way to improve your representations, anytime when you actually make a mistake is typically the case here when you can actually do some refinements that will actually allow you to do better in the future.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:10] I would love to talk and wrap with how to set up a regimen of deliberate practice. I know there's a lot of things that go into this and I would love to just sort of gloss over these. I know if people want more, they can definitely find more on the website and in the book Peak. But deliberate practice is characterized by a set of traits. Would you discuss those with us?
Anders Ericsson: [00:46:30] Right. We argue that the key here is the kinds of aspects that are true for purposeful practice, where you actually have a goal with your practice. You can get immediate feedback and you kind of repeat doing whatever the training activity will actually help you raise your performance. And what we find is that the kind of focus that you need is really critical. People are really motivated to improve their performance. They tend to do is that they pick out the best time of day for engaging in these training activities. And if you're working, maybe an hour or two before you go to work, or if you're self-employed and maybe in the morning when you wake up, that seems to be the best time. So if you're really going to try to go beyond what you actually are able to do, so you're actually raising your performance, you need to have all the attention and the resources that you can actually contribute, and only then will you not be able to improve.
[00:47:32] And I would argue that one of the key things that I find with people who are not successful is that they are almost often too impatient. So if you're actually starting with a training program, the worst thing you can do is to try to get in four or five hours and really have this rapid improvement. What you should be doing is maybe set aside 15, 20 minutes each day to do something that is focused to improve you. And as you are building up now, more habits and routine, you know, then you can kind of increase it and that's when you get the more effective results. And I think working with a teacher, you will actually get that help of pacing yourself. So you're not actually going out there and pushing yourself to the limit.
[00:48:18] You know, I've heard of people who want it to go run a marathon, and then they go out and run for three or four hours. And then they are so sore that they can't train for the next three, four weeks. And basically, obviously, that's so incredibly counterproductive beyond the fact that you probably now destroyed whatever motivation you had for just the painting on the marathon. One good heuristic is to find somebody who is able to perform at a level that you eventually would want to reach. And if you can actually find a way here of contacting that person and actually now share some information about how this person was able to do it would be one way. Obviously, if there is an available teacher or some kind of mentor in the organization, that would also be sort of a great way of now initiating.
[00:49:08] And I think thinking about this as in the long term and actually making sort of slow and gradual if key. And that also, I think, really it's very related now to people who will ultimately be very successful. Because I think most of the time people burn out even before they are able to get to the point where you really get the self-enjoyment here of really feeling like you're actually able to do something that you're really proud of.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:38] So in the long run, it's the ones who practice more, who ended up prevailing and not the ones who had some sort of innate intelligence or other talents. One last question, though, what about people who have a higher IQ or what about people that just have the ability to focus better? Does it become a kind of tortoise and the hare? Where you say that person might start off — the first year, they're really killing it. You seem far behind, but then three to five years later, you've left them in the dust because of your practice regimen and mental representations.
Anders Ericsson: [00:50:07] I think that's a really interesting question. And I mentioned here that as far as we can tell here from research on scientists. That their IQ is not correlated now with their ability to publish journal articles and other things that are valued in the research community. One thing that I've found is, and I guess I don't really think that IQ tests measure what everyone thinks is intelligence, but more that it sorts of represents some that are highly related to your ability to read and understand instructions and being able to kind of start out in a domain well. And what I found is that people who perform well on IQ tests, they're great when they start out with various activities. When they get to this point, we actually argue that you need to develop new mechanisms to keep improving. That's when they kind of get bored and they don't really let's see here how they keep excelling. So it's not very tempting for them to actually pick up some other kind of activity where they can make the same rapid improvement that they did in other domains.
[00:51:17] Now, this is unfortunately a lot of speculation, but at least it's consistent with the evidence that we have. And I think that's really helpful when I talk to people who have been very successful in school. And when they realize what it seems to take for everyone to be successful in a domain, I think that's really helpful for them. And also it makes them perhaps be motivated now to put in what seems to be necessary for anybody to reach a high level Being able to master domain so you can actually improvise and think about it independently because, in the beginning, you're really dependent on a teacher who is actually guiding you because you really don't have the representations. But a good teacher will actually help you build up these representations and I think that is what ultimately will be the key for you to actually — once you've learned now, what the teacher can teach you, you can now be on your own because you've internalized all the representations and the types of comments that your teachers have been able to give you.
[00:52:23] And being at that point, I think is something that is really exhilarating because it's almost like you're now exploring new territory. It's like discovering a new world. It's not geographically but inside your own mind. And I think that excitement here of actually being developing and really seeing how you're going beyond and maybe discovering things that other people have never seen. That kind of excitement is something that I think is really a motor that is a positive way of pushing people to kind of go beyond what they currently can do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:00] Excellent. Thank you so much, Dr. Ericsson. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by yourself, Dr. Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Really complete book, a lot of research in there. I love it. Usually, it's hard to read science. It can get really tedious. You guys did a great job of making it, not that. So I applaud you for that and thanks again so much for your time and expertise.
Anders Ericsson: [00:53:22] Well, I really enjoyed this, and thank you so much.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:27] People always ask me about my favorite episodes of the show and that's always tough, but here's a clip from one of my top picks with Charles Ryu here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Charles Ryu: [00:53:36] When I was 14, I got my first opportunity to escape North Korea and go to China. Police came to our house. We are getting deported to North Korea. I got transported to a detention center. They are brainwashing us for nine months. I started working in a coal mine and I was paid only in rice. So one morning, instead of entering the mine, I walked up the path and began running. And in the distance, I saw a train come to stop this. This is my chance I need to get on the train. I finally made it to the border of the town. I'm really determined. The next day, right, I walked into the river that divides North Korea and China, which is Yellow River. And then I slowly walked into the water. I slipped on a rock and I let out a scream. A flashlight was on my back, and I heard soldiers screaming at me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:22] Oh man.
Charles Ryu: [00:54:23] [Foreign Language] Stop, stop or I will shoot. The guard kept screaming at me, but he never pulled the trigger. And then I went into the cornfield. I'm in China now. So I embarked on another long journey to Southeast Asia. I got to Thailand. That was the best day of my life, going to a Thai prison. And then I was trying to apply for South Korea, but they didn't recognize me as a refugee. They're like, "We would have to send you back to China." Chinese Government sent me back to North Korea, but you guys don't want to help me.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:56] And that's just the tip of the iceberg. He escaped the police. He had to run with secret police in China. I mean, this guy just has an absolutely amazing sense of survival and story. And that's episode 84 with Charles Ryu Confessions of a North Korean Escape Artist Part One and Part Two episode 84 of The Jordan Harbinger Show. Make sure you check it out.
[00:55:17] Big thank you to Dr. Anders Ericsson. The book title is Peak. And sadly, I learned that Dr. Anders Ericsson passed away in June of this year. So I am very grateful and fortunate to be able to share this episode with you. He really contributed an absolute ton to the field of psychology. His writing was prolific and he was a lovely man. This interview was a lot of fun. You can just hear in his voice how generous he was with everything that he'd learned. And he was very patient explaining these concepts to me here on the show and in return to you. So big thank you to him for that. Again, his books are great. They'll be linked in the show notes if you want to check them out.
[00:55:50] Please do use our website links if you buy books. It helps support the show. Worksheets for this episode in the show notes, transcripts of the episodes in the show notes. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can always connect with me on LinkedIn as well.
[00:56:03] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships, using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Dig that well before you get thirsty.
[00:56:15] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and my amazing team. That includes Jen Harbinger, Jay Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's interested in the 10,000-hour rule and you want to show them how it's fake. Or somebody who is interested in mastering a craft, this is the episode for them — of course, anybody interested in psychology. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode of the show, please do share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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