Florida State University researcher K. Anders Ericsson is best known for his work as the expert on expertise, studying top performers in fields as diverse as medicine, athletics, chess and music. Ericsson set out to find out what makes some people the “best of the best.”
What he has discovered may contradict everything you have come to believe about exceptional performance, and may even make you wonder about your supposedly inborn strengths. Debunking the conventional wisdom, showing that those at the top of their fields are made, not born, Ericsson’s work opens the door for a new understanding about how individuals become “tops.”
Here are some important findings that can inform the ways we understand amazing performances. Also see previous articles from various authors on this site covering the following topics:
1. The best performers practice the most. Good performers practice only 20% of the time that top performers do, regardless of talent or ability. Without practice, Tiger Woods is only a very good player.
2. Gradual, disciplined refinement of particular aspects of one’s performance are part of this practice, and are required to get to expert levels. Ask Sarah and Emily Hughes’ parents what it took to get to the Oympics.
3. Get regular, immediate feedback from a top coach or teacher that reinforces refinement, whether you are an actor, athlete, musician, physician or chess player. Think of Cate Blanchett or Daniel Day-Lewis, Dr. Benjamin Carson (eminent pediatric neurosurgeon), or Yo-Yo Ma. They have all worked with coaches; they all seek mastery of their craft.
4. Spend extensive time—10, 000 hours of solitary practice spent before the age of 20 characterized the most expert performers. They spent time in highly focused, mindful practice, noting through constant self-evaluation how they could improve to even higher levels.
5. Set strategic goals for self-improvement. The most expert performers develop what my students and I call a “unique technique.” They make note of exactly how they may be different from other top performers, (whose work they take careful note of) and how that difference works for them.
Here’s why I believe practice is important, seen through the lens of my three favorite “selves”:
self-regulation: Practice requires goal-setting and perseverance.
self-efficacy: Practice till the point of success reinforces the “how” you will need to be able to replicate—or even improve—a performance.
self-determination: Practice that you choose, that you determine, is valuable to you. Yes, there are necessary extrinsic motivators along the way, as any coach or parent or teacher will tell you. But when you choose a habit of mindful practice, it is your success, not just what someone else made you do.
Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Start creating those chances: Practice!
What a great article. Am really enjoying your top 5, top 10 lists articles, Sherri. Merci.
Explaining what leads to success in this manner has really worked for my clients.
Glad you find those posts very useful.. I will keep that in mind for future ones 🙂
I had lunch with Dr. Ericsson in June and was fascinated by his research since it is another one of those subfields of PP which have direct connections to teaching and learning. There was a NYT article last week about practice that reminded me to write about it. It mentioned Mike Csikszentmihalyi and flow, but not the researcher who actually studies practice! So there you have it–I have filled in that missing piece.
Sherri & Nicholas (Nick?),
I loved the article on expertise. I think educators should have a working knowledge of the principles of expertise. Plus it was just a really fun article to read.
“Practice makes Permanent” I once read in a brain-based pedagogy manual. From a sports psych book “Perfect practice makes perfect”.
You know what I’d like to see from you? An article with accelerated learning as its theme. You are the expert on learning, so I think that would make for an exciting read.
Peace as a character strength? Interesting and creative and I never would have thought of it. With self-awareness, will this make #26. VIA will have some serious rewriting of questionnaires to do.
I love the idea of peace as a strength, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around it. I look at those regions of the world which are dominated by warfare, the Sudan, Eastern Europe, Chechnya, pick a country in the Middle East and I ask myself if peace would work for the oppressed? Sometimes war is the least evil answer of many poor options. Can you remain peaceful while waging war or struggling with an opposition group? Does that fit into your framework for peace as a strength?
Wondering what/if anything was said about the satisfaction/happiness of these top performers?
Great article with useful reminders Sherri! EJ knows this by heart but sometimes the disconnect between know and do gets in the way and the ‘elephant’ gets the blame 🙂
That is a very interesting question. Just because you are a top performer, I bet that doesn’t equate to a happy top performer. I’d like to know Sherri’s answer to that one.
If happiness is a skill, or at least skill based, is it reasonable to assume that regular practice could potentially build expertise in happiness? That seems to be the assumptive premise of this website.
Something that excites me is the concept of an online Virtual Happiness Gym (VHG). Sort of a virtual place where you can practice, get feedback and social support, create your own customized happiness interventions/tactics/strategies. Maybe some researchers could share pro bono questionnaires like the Oxford Happiness Quiz, CES-D, Seligman Authentic Happiness Questionnaire, VIA, whatever.
The key extension that goes above and beyond just theorizing about happiness strategies is the actual practice of these interventions. The biggest splinter under my thumbnail is that there are no VHG easily accessible from Pos-psych.com. The vast internet is a fertile valley for growing interventions and informally testing them. Borrowing Kathryn Britton’s concept of the tension between application & evaluation, a successful VHG would guarantee forward movement of application. Assuredly. (Even if I’m the only one using it)!
I think that a VHG would best provide free access to interested parties who want to improve their personal and community happiness levels. A small step toward a VHG might be a simple forum option on positivepsychologynews.com. It could function as a sort of workspace to play with the ideas mentioned by the brilliant authors here.
The best bit of all would be that simple anonymous data-tracking could provide tentative support for newly minted interventions from this site’s articles. A simple (anonymous) tally of happiness/depression scores individualized to each category of intervention could prove quite enlightening and spur more directions for creative growth.
I’m sure everyone here is intimately familiar with http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu and its quizzes? Why not selectively use these probes (and others) to measure increases possibly related by VHG practice. Where, I ask, is the harm? If nobody uses it, what has positivepsychologynews.com lost? A few hours of theorizing and chit-chat amongst PP educated friends and partners? Isn’t that what the authors here do anyway?
You can’t learn to play the piano without a place to practice. Why should the skill of flourishing prove any different? The bottom line is that I’d commit to using a VHG and I think I’m among the many readers who would benefit.
The simple answer to your question is that then it would not be science. Your idea is interesting, and I know of an organization that has a “Coaching Gym” which functions as you suggest. It is moderated by a counselor/coach.
The other reason is that once it is not science, you cannot account for all of the outcomes since confounds are not controlled for.
Reflective Learning offers validated interventions on line. See what you think.