Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice

Repetition is the mother of skill

Tony Robins*

Tony Robins is mostly right.

10,000 hours

You’re probably familiar with the 10,000 hour rule as ‘discovered’ by Anders Ericsson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Outliers‘. If you haven’t heard much about this before, I highly recommend Freakonomics Radio episode 244, “How to Become Great at just about Anything.” It’s a great summary of the research, and has one of my favourite stories of someone who was pretty average learning to be excellent through deliberate practice – I won’t spoil it by saying more.

This post used quotes from that episode to sums up some key ideas. Here’s the first piece of the puzzle:

In the 1900 Summer Olympics, the men played two 18-hole rounds; the American golfer Charles Sands won the gold medal with scores of 82 and 85, which, these days, wouldn’t get you on a good high school team in some parts of the country. Yeah, the equipment and ball have changed, a lot. But still: the undeniable fact — whether it’s golf or running the marathon or playing the piano — is that as a species we have improved a lot at just about everything. How? Have we been selectively breeding for talent? Perhaps.

But that is not what Anders Ericsson thinks is largely responsible. He thinks we’ve gotten so much better primarily because we’ve learned how to learn. And that if you study the people who have learned the best, and if you codify the techniques and strategies that they use, then we can all radically improve. But let me warn you: there’s no magic bullet.

Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”? The idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to become great at something? That idea originates from the research of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German academy.

ERICSSON: We found that the average of that elite group was over 10,000 hours by the time they reach 20.

Stephen Dubner and Anders Ericsson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

Quantity and quality

Of course, quantity – lots of repetitions – isn’t enough. They need to be (or aspire to be) good repetitions. Ericsson describes two varieties:

Purposeful Practice

ERICSSON: Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.

Anders Ericsson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

Deliberate Practice

ERICSSON: We think of deliberate practice requiring a teacher that actually has had experience of how to help individuals reach very high levels of performance.

DUBNER: I want to go through one by one the components of deliberate practice and have you explain a little bit more if necessary, or acknowledge why they are important. So you write that “deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. … Which I guess helps us explain why a pianist from 80 or 100 years ago who was considered the gold standard is now considered not very good, because the instruction is built on top of itself to get people better faster

You write that “deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals, and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance. It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.” Do you think that is a mistake that many people make when they’re trying to, “get better at something?” A “vague, overall improvement”?

ERICSSON: I think that is one of the most important pieces that we’re advocating, because you need feedback in order to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you should be making. If you don’t have a clear criterion here for what it is that you were doing, then it’s unclear how you actually  are going to improve if you get subsequent opportunities to do the same thing. So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.

DUBNER: Here’s another component. You write: “Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities.” That sounds horrible, first of all. You write, “Further thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.” So you just discouraged everyone from ever wanting to do deliberate practice. But why is that important? Do you want to get out of what’s comfortable because that enables you to try harder in a way that you otherwise can’t?


ERICSSON: Well, I think this has to do with the body. If you’re just doing things that feel comfortable and go out and jog, the body basically won’t change. In order to actually change your aerobic ability, people now know that the only way you can do that is if you practice now at a heart rate that is above 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. So it would be maybe around 140 for a young adult. And you have to do that for about 30 minutes at least two or three times a week. If you practice at a lower intensity, the body will actually not develop this difficult, challenging biochemical situation, which will elicit now genes to create physiological adaptations. 

DUBNER: Let’s say I’m a crummy piano player, and I want to become a good piano player. For something like that, or for something like writing, or for something like selling insurance, what does it mean to get outside of one’s comfort zone and why does that improve my ability to get good?

ERICSSON: Deliberate practice relies on this fact that if you make errors, you’re going to find ways to eliminate those errors. So if you’re not actually stretching yourself outside of what you already can do, you’re probably not engaging in deliberate practice.

Stephen Dubner and Anders Ericsson – Freakonomics Radio, ep.244

So what?

So… decide what you’d like to get better at. Start doing it. Then start practicing purposefully. If you can, find a (good) coach.

You. Will. Get. Better.

* I didn’t know this was a Tony Robbins quote – and I’m sure it’s a very old idea.

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