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!