Brain Health,

#128: Expertise With Dr. Karl Anders Ericsson

May 13, 2016

We’ve all heard of the 10,000 Hour Rule (popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers — that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill and become an expert.

Turns out 10,000 is not a magic number, it’s just a big number.  In Episode 128, Jesse talks to an expert on becoming an expert, Dr. Karl Anders Ericsson, Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, and author of the new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.  Although Gladwell drew on Dr. Ericsson’s research, they never spoke before Outliers was published.  Dr. Ericsson believes the most important element of mastering a skill was lost in translation:  deliberate practice.

Deliberate Practice

According to Dr. Ericsson’s research, deliberate practice is the secret sauce for achieving expertise.  Deliberate practice involves practicing a skill in a way that pushes you to improve as much as possible, through the right sequence of training, guided by a teacher.

Both the amount and quality of practice are important.  Deliberate practice is sustained and specific.  It’s not fun — you’re working on what you can’t do, or can’t do well — and it’s not quick — it takes a long time to become an expert.

The myth of natural gifts is destructive.  Even Mozart wasn’t born with perfect pitch.  Research has found that perfect pitch can be taught to children between the ages of three and five.  So don’t waste time trying to discover your unique talent.  Pick a goal, find the best teacher possible, and dedicate yourself to improving.

Constant Improvement

People at the highest levels of performance share key characteristics:  they are in control of their skill development, and are constant analyzing and measuring their performance.

They get feedback quickly and early, and actually change what they’re doing based on that feedback.  Think of it this way:  You wouldn’t practice free throws without checking if the ball actually went through the hoop, would you?

Experts keep practicing even when they aren’t physically practicing.  Experts are able visualize situations so accurately that they can improve from mental training alone.  Word of caution:  before you can benefit from mental training, you have to be skilled enough that you can visualize in detail what you’re practicing.

Listen to the episode for more on state-dependent memory, whether rituals are effective, and becoming a chess master.

PS:  Become an expert on your own brain with our weekly neuroscience dispatch, straight to your inbox every week.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:27

    Intro to Dr. Karl Anders Ericsson

  • 00:01:28

    This Week in Neuroscience: Prejudice Can Actually Change How You View Faces

  • 00:04:45

    The audience interaction settings

  • 00:05:20

    Water Fast Week 2016

  • 00:08:10

    Expertise on expertise

  • 00:09:15

    Perfect pitch vs relative pitch, and brain changes as you age

  • 00:11:07

    Deliberate practice

  • 00:12:51

    Do experts know how they become experts?

  • 00:13:48

    Looking for your gifts vs honing your skills

  • 00:15:09

    The 10,000 hour rule - is it real?

  • 00:17:29

    The correlation between the time takes to gain expertise and how quickly a skill is acquired

  • 00:20:48

    The difficulty in quantifying improvement

  • 00:22:05

    Parents helping their children, and finding the right teacher

  • 00:25:55

    The reality of testing the 10,000 rule

  • 00:29:06

    State-dependent memory

  • 00:31:40

    Visualization vs real-world practice

  • 00:35:05

    How, when and why do breakthroughs happen?

  • 00:36:01

    The OODA loop

  • 00:37:37

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Scientists revive water bears after 30 years of deep freeze


  1. mike says:

    Ericsson mentioned a teacher having a great success rate teaching 3-5 year olds perfect pitch. I can’t find this study/fact anywhere? Can someone please provide links. Thanks.

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi there Mike — I swear I’m not trying to punt on answering, but in the interests of replying fast rather than letting this languish unanswered… He wrote about this in the book, and I remember it as being in the first 1-2 chapters (somewhere pretty early). I’d grab a copy of the book (or just read the first couple chapters in your local bookstore) and I’m guessing you’ll find the details you’re after. 🙂

  2. mike says:

    thanks, jesse! Got it on hold at the library. You do enough work for me and my brain already. Plus it seems like a solid read anyway.

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