Anyone can have his shot

So says an expert on experts, whose research shows that phenoms are made, not born.

Published May 27, 2006

They’ve asked a college student to spend hundreds of hours memorizing random numbers. They’ve interviewed a surgeon about how he wields a scalpel. They’ve parsed a golfer’s putt from his brain to his fingertips.

Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, is among a group of researchers who want to know why some people become experts and others never get beyond amateur.

They’ve studied chess players and pianists, software designers and dart players. What they are finding is that superstars are made, not born. And the experts, Ericsson says, practice in a way that commits the “how’’ of what they do to memory.

For example, expertise at the free throw line does not come from simply lofting a basketball 1,000 times. Instead, the shooter must create a memory of exactly what to do to make the ball go in the hoop.

“I get the information from people thinking out loud,’’ says Ericsson, 58, a citizen of Sweden and a resident of the United States for 30 years. In June, Ericsson and co-editors Neil Charness, Paul Feltovich and Robert Hoffman will publish a 900-page academic book on the subject, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.
Here Ericsson discusses the research, and its populist notion that almost anyone can be a star if they are willing to work hard and smart:

You’ve been called the ringleader of the “expert performance movement.” What is that?

I started to do this work trying to understand how people could improve their memory. As I saw the tremendous effects of training on memory performance, I got interested in looking at people who were
experts at other things. I was asking if those people who were successful in virtually any domain had done something to be that successful.

What happened with your work on memory?

Good memory was believed by many to be something you were born with. The way we started was allowing a particular college student room to improve. He was given random digits, read one per second. An average person can easily get seven, kind of like a phone number. Eventually that first subject was able to reproduce 82 digits.

He could memorize 82 numbers while someone read them aloud, one number per second?

Yes. It took him 200 hours to learn. We didn’t teach the subject anything. He figured it out for himself. You have to have all sorts of groupings . . . groups of four, maybe threes. He was a distance runner. He encoded them like they were running times.

So how does that apply to other expert performers: athletes, musicians, chess players?

For experts, they encode things meaningfully. Chess players, if you show them a chess board, they can encode it in long-term memory. You build up these structures that allow you places to put things (for retrieval).

Structures? Do you mean structures in the brain?

Think of it as someone sitting at a desk and getting something and putting in a drawer. When you need it, you go to the place it should be. With long-term memory, you have addresses for information, like a desk drawer.

So memory enhances expertise. You also talk about “deliberate practice.” Can you explain that to me?

Deliberate practice is to repeat what you’re doing so you can correct it. Experience does not improve performance. Some amateur golfers can play at the same level for 30 years, and they don’t automatically get better. Once people reach some acceptable level, they seem to get stuck there. In order to keep improving, you need to structure your training around specific goals. If you are a golfer, you don’t just stand there and hit balls as hard as you can.

Do you mean that practice, or experience, isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be?

Not all experts are performing at consistently high levels. Stockbrokers who invest in the market are not necessarily more successful than average individuals. Psychotherapists who have extensive training and experience are not more successful than those with much less training. We’re really not interested in socially defined expertise. We’re interested in expert performance where people can consistently do things at a superior level. Then we can start asking, what are they thinking when they’re successful, and how is their developmental history different?

So what do you do, say, if you’re a golfer, to get better?

You decide you want to change something. You pick out a club and decide to hit a ball to a specific spot. You are not hitting the ball to the hole but hitting the ball to an aim point. You are setting a goal. You evaluate whether you achieved that goal. If not, you make corrections. You have to develop these cognitive structures.

Isn’t that just the same thing as practice makes perfect?

That idea of finding the mistakes and correcting those is the key. You figure out ways to adjust aspects to improve performance. As you get better, you primarily need to know what you should have done. One of the examples I give is, if someone misses a volley when you’re playing tennis, it’s not like you stop the game to talk about the 10 things you did that made you miss the shot. It might take a while in the match before you get another shot like it. If you’re working with a tennis coach, who can throw you balls in the same way, you get as much opportunity to improve on that shot as you would in three months of play.

So feedback, or coaching, is key. In what way?

Look at playing chess. If you can beat everyone very easily, how can you become a better chess player? People who become very successful chess players, they re-create games played by experts to see why these other players were picking these moves. If you find you pick the same move as they did, then you’re playing as well as them. If not, then it’s a clue that you’re not doing something right.

You mentioned doctors. How would this apply to them?

A surgeon, for example. He gets feedback on performance that other doctors do not.
I like how you insert passion into the equation: Do what you love.

It takes passion not to give up when the work is so hard. As they progress, they start to realize they can’t do the more difficult things. But in my research, I’ve never seen cases where people are naturally able.

So Michael Jordan is not a phenom?

When you look at the amount of training he engages in . . . To explain why they invest that amount of time is where the motivational thing enters in. The more we’re studying experts, the harder it is to see any innate, immutable limits that would hold average people back. The other side of that coin is, to get really good, you have to put in a lot of training and effort.

What about the child star, the one who can play concert violin at age 3 or hit the ball out of the park in Little League?

When we go back and look at these talented children, we see all kinds of training activities. When I read biographies of Olympic athletes, I found that even as children they set up competitive games for themselves — how long it took to complete the obstacle course. Competition almost forces people to come up with feedback.
Sounds like we’re all supposed to be stage parents.

In the long run, most children will rebel. If a child doesn’t want to engage in deliberate practice, there’s no way you can force them. It’s problem-solving. You can’t push someone to do it if they don’t want to.

Can you apply your research to many areas of expertise?

We’re doing research on police officers and critical care nurses. A lot of the things that happen for a critical care nurse or police officer — it’s not like they’ve had that happen before. You want them to handle that first time successfully. We look at what the most skilled people do and think, and convert it to a methodology for all to use.

So like the chess players, you model the best?

There’s a real interesting experiment that demonstrated this in airplane simulators. Pilots that encountered emergency procedures during real flying who had actually trained in a simulator were much more likely to deal with it. But you only saw that benefit for the most experienced pilots. Somehow, you have to acquire some encoding ability. When we studied older pianists, (they) showed the same age-related decline as others unless we gave them a task related to their piano playing. Then there was no decline.

What is the lesson here for work and for play?

It makes it more democratic. If everyone has a shot, then it’s up to them to decide. If they don’t have the motivation and the drive, then they’re not going to reach the higher levels. It’s not so much that someone put in thousands of hours to be good at something. It’s that someone else gave up after an hour and a half. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Susan Aschoff can be reached at aschoff@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.