We hear a lot about “10,000 hours” being what it takes to become an expert. But the majority of people totally misunderstand the idea.
So I decided to go to the source and talk to the guy who actually created the theory.
Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. His wonderful new book is Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
So what does everybody get wrong? 2 things.
First, the “10,000 hour rule” is not a rule and it’s not an exact number. The amount of time varies from field to field. It’s an average. But it’s always a lot and more is better. Here’s Anders:
“In most domains it’s remarkable how much time even the most “talented” individuals need in order to reach the highest levels of performance. The 10,000 hour number just gives you a sense that we’re talking years of 10 to 20 hours a week which those who some people would argue are the most innately talented individuals still need to get to the highest level.”
What’s the second mistake? Becoming an expert is not merely doing something over and over for 10,000 hours. There’s a right way — and an awful lot of wrong ways — to spend that time.
Let’s learn the right way…
1) Find A Mentor
The most important part of deliberate practice is solitary practice. Hard work. But that’s not the first step.
The first step is social. You need to know what to do. And that’s where mentors, coaches and teachers come in. (To find the best mentor for you, click here.) Here’s Anders:
“They need to talk to somebody that they really admire, a person that is doing something in a way that they would like to eventually be able to do. Have this person help you identify what it is that you might need to change in order to be able to do what that other person is doing. Interview that person about how they were able to do it, and then have that person help you identify what is it that you can’t do right now and what are the steps towards reaching that desired level of performance.”
The secret here is “mental representations.” You want to be able to clearly and specifically visualize the right way to do something in your head. This is what separates the experts from the chumps.
“What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields… These representations allow them to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation. This, more than anything else, explains the difference in performance between novices and experts.”
How good can those mental representations get? Top chess players can play blindfolded.
They can see the board in their mind’s eye. And Anders explains that they don’t even train to do this, with enough hours it just occurs naturally.
So you need a clear idea of what it is you’re trying to do, whether it’s playing an instrument or performing an appendectomy. The clearer your vision of it, the better you’ll be able to detect and correct mistakes. Here’s Anders:
“What a skilled musician does is think about what kind of experience they want to give the audience. Once you have an idea here about what it is that you want to produce, then you can now start working on trying to be able to generate that experience. That requires a representation about what it should sound like. Then, when you try to do it, you’re going to find that there are going to be differences between the representation and their performance. Those differences you can now focus on and eliminate. Successively, you’re going to be able to produce that music performance that sounds like what you had originally imaged.”
And you want to keep improving those mental representations as you learn, creating a clearer and clearer image of every detail.
(To learn the four rituals new neuroscience research says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, you talked to someone who is better than you and you’ve got an image in your head of how to do things right. Now just do that over and over until you begin crying uncontrollably, right? Wrong…
2) It’s Not “Try Harder”, It’s “Try Different”
Anders says the biggest problem most people have with getting better at something is that they’re not actually trying to get better at something.
Doing something over and over again does not necessarily make you better at it. If it did, we would all be excellent drivers. Repetition is not expertise.
To prove the point (and to scare the crap out of you) I’ll mention that this applies to doctors as well. Think your surgeon is better because he’s been doing this for 20 years? Nope. He’s probably worse.
“Research on many specialties shows that doctors who have been in practice for twenty or thirty years do worse on certain objective measures of performance than those who are just two or three years out of medical school. It turns out that most of what doctors do in their day-to-day practice does nothing to improve or even maintain their abilities; little of it challenges them or pushes them out of their comfort zones.”
To improve, you need to get out of your comfort zone. Anders says this is one of the most critical things to remember. Mindlessly going through the motions does not improve performance.
When you try to get better at something is it fun? Yes? Congratulations, you’re doing it dead wrong.
Anders cites a study where they talked to singers after practice. Who was happy? The amateurs. The experts were pushing themselves. It was hard. And they were tired afterwards, not elated.
And you want to be working on your weak points. That’s how you get better.
“First, figure out exactly what is holding you back. What mistakes are you making, and when? Push yourself well outside of your comfort zone and see what breaks down first. Then design a practice technique aimed at improving that particular weakness. Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, you may be able to fix it yourself, or you may need to go to an experienced coach or teacher for suggestions.”
And your goals need to be specific. Don’t say, “I want to be better at business.” Say, “I want to get better at engaging the audience at the beginning of my presentations.”
(To learn how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
So you’ve accumulated the knowledge on what’s right, what you’re doing wrong and what you need to do to get better. And that’s where most people breathe a sigh of relief. And then they fail miserably. Here’s what’s missing…
3) It’s About Doing, Not Knowing
You’ve read half this blog post. Are you half of an expert now? No.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that knowing equals doing. It doesn’t.
Watching a lot of football does not make you a great quarterback. 60 years of sitcoms hasn’t made people funnier.
“When you look at how people are trained in the professional and business worlds, you find a tendency to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. The main reasons are tradition and convenience: it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people than it is to set up conditions under which individuals can develop skills through practice.”
Once you have the knowledge, you need to focus on building the skills. Remember the three F’s:
3 Fix it
You need to concentrate on having your execution match your mental representation. Then you need objective feedback on how well you performed. Then you need to analyze what you did wrong and how to do it better.
“Get outside your comfort zone but do it in a focused way, with clear goals, a plan for reaching those goals, and a way to monitor your progress.”
(To learn the schedule that the most successful people follow every day, click here.)
So you know the right system for improving any skill. But a lot of people might say, “I’m not a violinist or an athlete. This won’t help me in my career.” Wrong…
4) Study The Past To Have A Better Future
Sometimes feedback isn’t fast. And this is a big problem for most jobs you want to get better at. Only getting an annual review turns 10,000 hours into something more like 10,000 years.
Anders says doctors can improve their skills by looking at older x-rays where the patient’s outcome is already established. Here’s Anders:
“One way that you could actually train this more effectively is to have x-rays for old patients where they now know what the correct diagnosis was, and now you can guess these diagnoses and get immediate feedback. That turns out to be a very effective way of actually improving performance, where you can now, maybe in an afternoon, encounter and get as much feedback as somebody might accumulate over a year or even longer.”
Look at examples of work that has already been evaluated. Can you detect the errors? Or what was done well? This is a good way to develop your mental muscles and improve your skills when feedback is scarce or slow.
When’s the best time to do the work needed to get better? First thing in the morning, when you’re fresh. Here’s Anders:
“Often it’s ideal to make that the first activity of the day. Then you can basically move over and do whatever else you need to do. I think that constraint of for how long you can actually sustain this deliberate practice, where you’re really attending 100% and stretching yourself to really change, that that time is actually limited.”
(To learn how to get people to like you — from an FBI behavior expert — click here.)
Okay, let’s round up what we’ve learned about learning and get the happy secret to staying motivated…
Here’s what Anders says can make you an expert:
• Get Help: Find a mentor who can help you develop that image in your head of the best way to do something.
• It’s Not “Try Harder”, It’s “Try Different”: Design specific activities to address your weak points.
• It’s About Doing, Not Knowing: Remember the three F’s: Focus, Feedback, Fix it.
• Study The Past To Have A Better Future: Find examples that have been judged and quiz yourself.
Don’t worry; you do not have to be a genius to become an expert at most things. In fact, Anders says it might be an advantage not to be a genius.
When elite chess players were studied, the ones with lower IQ’s often worked harder and then did better because they felt they were at a disadvantage.
“…among these young, elite chess players, not only was a higher IQ no advantage, but it seemed to put them at a slight disadvantage. The reason, the researchers found, was that the elite players with lower IQ’s tended to practice more, which improved their chess game to the point that they played better than the high-IQ elite players.”
Expertise takes a lot of hard, solitary work. That can be difficult to get motivated for. But this is where friends come in. Surround yourself with people who love and support you.
“One of the best ways to create and sustain social motivation is to surround yourself with people who will encourage and support and challenge you in your endeavors.”
When I interviewed Yale professor Nicholas Christakis, he talked about just how important the people who love us are in the process of achieving our goals:
“It’s very important for people to understand that when they make a positive change in their lives it doesn’t just affect them. It affects everyone they know and many of the people that those people know and many of the people that those people in turn know. If you make a positive change in your life it actually ripples through the social fabric and comes to benefit many other people. This recognition that we are all connected and that in our connectedness we affect each other’s lives I think is a very fundamental and moving observation of our humanity.”
There’s an old saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I believe it.