How to become great at just about anything

This was the title of a podcast I was listening to recently.

It featured Professor K Anders Ericcson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

His main idea is that what we call talent depends on many hours of “deliberate practice”; that even someone considered to be a child prodigy, such as Mozart, actually only became a gen

ius thanks to starting very young and training long and hard. As he says, “If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart can play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average”.  This is, in part, because standards in most areas of human activity have risen over time. To stand out as a genius today requires a higher standard than it used to. This is particularly noticeable in sports where achievements can be measured, such as athletics.  Ericcson is the originator of the idea that you need to practise for 10,000 hours to become great at something. He was studying the most accomplished musicians at German academy, and found that, on average, they had practised for more than 10,000 hours by the time they were 20.

Ericcson distinguishes between “purposeful practice”, where you train on one particular aspect of your performance that you want to improve, and “deliberate practice”. The latter is based on proven techniques to improve skills that have previously been established, and involves specific goals to improve some aspect of the performance. Feedback is also important, so you can tell what adjustments you need to make.

Another key component of deliberate practice is that it requires the student to push themselves so that they are constantly trying to achieve things that are just beyond their current abilities. As Ericcson says, “It demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable”. It relies on the fact that you’re making errors, and then finding ways to eliminate those errors.But Ericcson stresses that 10,000 hours isn’t a magic number. That number of hours will make you more experienced, but will not necessarily take you to expert levels without the other elements of deliberate practice.

Dr Ericcson’s research seems to be focused on individual activity, and I think that in team sports the evidence is slightly different. We know, for instance, that someone who has played many different sports in their youth needs far fewer hours to reach expert level in a different team sport.

It also seems that in many team sports, “deliberate play” might be a better description of what’s required. Many elite team players will describe having spent many hours of their childhood playing games such as football with their friends or relatives, often in a nearby park. They will often imagine that they are their favourite team or player. And I’m sure they would describe those times as anything but “not enjoyable”.


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