Peak-copyWhatever your chosen field or avocation may be, if you take it seriously, you probably wish you could become an expert – the sort of person who earns real success, better opportunities or even just more personal satisfaction from what you do. And if you’re not an expert, you may look at those who are and think, maybe they just came to the task with more natural ability. 

In fact, it may just be that they have been going about the tasks of getting better in a better way. Florida State professor Anders Ericsson – one of the researchers whose work led to the idea of the 10,000-Hour Rule – has written a new book on the topic with journalist Robert Pool called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. He joined us on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 to talk about what helps top performers reach that level, why the 10,000-Hour Rule was actually a misinterpretation and the one thing that anyone who really wants to become an expert must have. 

You can listen to the interview using the player above. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge at Wharton: Much of your life’s work has really been trying to figure out what makes experts stand out from the rest, correct?

Anders Ericsson: That’s exactly right. We’re first trying to identify people who can really do something again and again that is better than their peers. Then we try to understand is there something in their background that can explain how they were able to get to that point?

Knowledge at Wharton: You were among those who helped define the 10,000-Hour Rule many years ago. How did you come to that belief originally? Reading the new book, I sense that in some respects, you’ve come off that 10,000-Hour Rule a bit.

Ericsson: Malcolm Gladwell read our work, and he misinterpreted some of our findings. We [studied] violinists who had been at an international academy [and were] viewed as being on track for international careers. When we estimated how many hours they had spent working on trying to improve their performance by themselves, we came up with an average, across the group, of 10,000 hours. But that really meant that there was a fair amount of variability.

I would argue that the key thing that people have misinterpreted is that it’s not just a matter of accumulating hours. If you’re doing your job, and you’re just doing more and more of the same, you’re not actually going to get better. There’s a lot of research to really prove that.

“It’s not just a matter of accumulating hours. If you’re doing your job, and you’re just doing more and more of the same, you’re not actually going to get better.”

With the musicians, they were working with their teachers, who constantly prodded them to try to learn new things. In the time that they were spending alone, they were really trying to push the boundaries, so they would gradually improve their performance while they were at the music academy. That is the kind of argument that we’re making. Just working harder or working more does not seem to be associated with high levels of performance. Rather, if you’re working with a teacher or a mentor who has attained this high level of performance, that individual can help you now design the kind of training activities that they may have engaged in in order to reach that higher level of performance.

Knowledge at Wharton: This brings us to a term that is a common theme in your book: “deliberate practice.”

Ericsson: Exactly. We argue that when you’re taking time off to work on improving one thing — and especially if that one thing as has been agreed upon and recommended by your teacher — that is what we call deliberate practice. We’ve found in many domains that the amount of time that you actually engage in that type of fully concentrated work, on really trying to push the bounds of what you can do, is correlated with how far people get.

Knowledge at Wharton: You bring up examples of athletes and musicians to exemplify this philosophy. But you also talk about the fact that this really does have a correlation for a lot of people out there, especially in the business world.

Ericsson: Exactly. It seems to me that the same methodology can be applied to virtually any kind of occupation. Most of the work that we talk about in the book is actually related to doctors. They face a specific type of problem when they’re in practice: They try to do their best, but they really don’t know if they were coming up with an exactly correct decision. They only find out maybe months later if the diagnosis was different and should have ideally been associated with a different kind of treatment.

What we’re arguing is that one could set up learning environments where people are encountering new data from old patients, from which we really know what the problem was. Then they can diagnose them and get immediate feedback to see if their diagnosis matches the correct one.

Knowledge at Wharton: I’d expect with doctors, it becomes even more complicated because of the pressures that they’re under on a daily basis, in terms of being able to independently gather all of that information from prior patients, to be able to have that knowledge at their fingertips, correct?

Ericsson: Right. So you would need to really invest here and build up libraries of these past patients. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects where they’ve actually done that. What they’re finding is that it becomes so much more effective to learn when you can actually make a mistake. Then you can get all sorts of related patients that would allow you to practice and make sure that you correct the thing that caused the original problem.

If you’re in practice, it may be months before you see a similar kind of patient. And again, you never really have that immediate feedback. Our argument is that you can apply that type of feedback to sales jobs, where teachers — people who have actually demonstrated superior sales performance — would be able to take a look at what you’re doing, and then give you feedback. Then, they’d have you practice certain things and come back, and essentially, gradually refine what you’re doing.

“We know that in order to get benefits from training, you really need to be fully concentrated.”

Knowledge at Wharton: There are a lot of people out there who want to be better at their jobs. They may get to a certain point and say, “Well, you know, I’m pretty good at my job.” But they don’t really look to take that next step. How hard is it to break through what in some respects is a bit of a barrier?

Ericsson: Some of the really great companies seem to realize that everyone will be gaining if you’re giving support for training. And I think that’s one of the problems — that there really aren’t the kind of training environments and time taken off where you can actually put in training. Because we know that in order to get benefits from training, you really need to be fully concentrated. If you’re trying to do it on your lunch hour, relaxing, there’s really going to be very minor benefits from that.

Knowledge at Wharton: In some respects, have businesses started to figure that out anyway, because they realize how valuable employees are? I say that because we’ve talked on this show about the problems of HR departments and the cost of having to go out and constantly hire new employees because employees are leaving for better opportunities. It’s a big factor on the bottom line of a company. So if you can keep an employee and help them get better at their job, it helps the bottom line on a couple of different fronts.

Ericsson: Right. I personally find that those people who are really involved in this improvement, that gives them a lot of personal satisfaction — in particular, if you’re in the health care business, where you do actually have direct consequences on the patients…. In domains like music, sports, where there’s a lot of individual training, you see the ratio between training and performance. You probably perform less than 1% of the time that you spent training. Whereas in business, it’s more like 99% performance and 1% training.

Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about how this could be a potential good approach for school systems as well, to help improve education in the future.

Ericsson: I think much of the school systems’ methods are based on having students learn knowledge and facts. Then they get tested on the facts. When you look at expert performers, they’re really more interested in learning how to do something to build up skill. There are some really great examples in physics, where instead of having the lecturers give the same lecture every year to a large group of students, the students can actually see that video when they’re at home. Then when the teacher meets with the students, they can actually try to apply this knowledge to show the students how you can think appropriately about events and phenomena that you will encounter in the real world.

Knowledge at Wharton: How important, though, could that potentially be for improving school systems in general over the next 30 or 40 years? Because certainly when you think about a lot of the big cities in the United States that have issues, improving schools is right at the top of the list.

“If you help somebody get very good within a domain, they actually learn a lot about effective learning.”

Ericsson: Right. It seems to me that we should be showing our students how they can actually use knowledge directly, and getting away from this memorizing, where they memorize something and then they forget it within a year, and then they memorize it again. Instead of that, let’s help the students build up skills, so they actually feel that they’re learning something that’s going to be really useful for them in their daily lives. And even as adults. I think that looking for motivation and helping students, you really become able to act appropriately in the world, and almost feel more self-confident as they’re gaining that skill. That, I think, is really important.

Now, with the new technology, you don’t have to have just textbooks. You can actually create simulated environments where students can practice and demonstrate their ability to deal with the problems of finance, or making judgments about probability, or whatever, as opposed to keeping it as a clearly academic activity that is only marginally related to the real world.

Knowledge at Wharton: For somebody who’s working a nine-to-five job and likes to go out and play golf on the weekend, can being a better golfer, and perfecting that ability, end up starting to help that person think that that greater ability can carry over and they can be better in their work as well?

Ericsson: That’s a great idea, and something that we feel. If you help somebody get very good within a domain, they actually learn a lot about effective learning. Basically, you don’t spend more time than you can fully concentrate. I think it’s a problem that people often spend four or five hours when they want to learn something. If you want to have that maximum concentration, maybe 15, 20 minutes is the more appropriate time that you should focus, if you really want to be at the edge of what you can do.

If we can help people get good within various domains, I think they’re going to learn the things that are mediating their performance. Especially, we talked in the book about mental representations. Essentially, you become more capable of thinking about the situations you’re in, and also monitoring what you’re doing, so if something goes wrong, you’re able to figure out where you need to be thinking differently next time you encounter a similar situation.

Knowledge at Wharton: You talk about Mozart and the abilities that he had. How does he figure into this whole process?

Ericsson: We’ve been looking for counter-examples because I think there is a belief among many that some people are just born gifted. Mozart may be one of the examples that comes to mind for most people. But if we look at the background of Mozart, we find that his father was one of the pioneering teachers and designers of education for young children that would allow them to actually play music. We talked about perfect pitch, which is something that typically only very good musicians have, but not all of them do. That seems to be one of those curious abilities that adults can’t acquire, even if they spend a fair amount of time trying to do so.

“Even prodigies follow that same path. It’s just that they typically start with training earlier and are encouraged to train more.”

So people thought that was actually innate. Now, research has now shown that there’s a developmental window between ages three and five. And if you train kids during that period, it seems like any child can acquire perfect pitch. As you grow older, then the brain changes. And those kids who train pitch are sort of like the bent twig. Their brains are going to be slightly different, so they actually are capable now of preserving this ability of identifying tones. I guess with Mozart, he started so early on with his music training, on a piano, where you actually learn the association between tones and keys, that it sort of explains that magical ability.

I would say in general, once you start looking at what people have learned about effective training techniques, there’s a lot of things that go against this idea that you start by yourself, and then you just try harder, or work on it longer. What we find is that you really need the guidance of a teacher to help you get the fundamentals, and also to identify those training techniques that experience has shown them to be somewhat more effective than the kind of techniques that people spontaneously would apply.

Knowledge at Wharton: Therefore, if you are looking to get better at something, whatever that might be, you should really seek out a teacher of some kind to help you with that process.

Ericsson: Exactly. That’s very validating — to see other individuals who have actually gone through this journey, especially with good teachers. They have guided a large number of students along this path. That gives you the confidence that you’re not going to run into an obstacle. Because a teacher is going to be able to figure out what it is that is problematic for you. I think that’s an intriguing finding — that we can find any sort of limiting factors that people really can surpass with the right kind of training. With the exception of body size: You can’t train to be taller.

Knowledge at Wharton: Someone who wants to improve and get better should really learn from the successes that they have along the way, as well.

Ericsson: Right. There are communities of learning, like in music, where they’ve actually codified and come up with the best paths. What’s interesting is that even prodigies follow that same path. It’s just that they typically start with training earlier and are encouraged to train more. So they actually reach high levels faster at younger ages.

Knowledge at Wharton: But realistically, the ability for people to improve and to get better at whatever they’re looking to get better at, it’s there for everyone. This is not an exclusive concept.

Ericsson: No. That’s the most exciting trend that I’ve seen in the last five years — that people are now really starting their own personal projects of getting better at things that are really important to them. We talked about a few examples in the book. But in the time just since we finished the book manuscript, I’ve had contact with a lot of people. It’s really so satisfying to find that individuals who thought that they really couldn’t become good at, for example, drawing have discovered that’s one of the things where you can get actually so good that you can actually make drawings and give them as gifts to people, after about 200 to 400 hours of training.

This is a way of finding activities that will allow you to develop and actually experience things that you wouldn’t have if you didn’t have these methods for expressing yourself. Art, sports — but also just professionally. Thinking of people that you admire, and then figuring out what they’re doing, and then being able to learn from them.