Six Hours with Dr. Anders Ericsson, the world’s leading expert on expertise

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 18, Issue No. 1b
May 15, 2019

By Dan Coughlin

 

Recently I gave a speech at Florida State University’s Center for Human Resource Management. There was such a wonderful mix of undergraduate students, MBA students, doctoral students, faculty, department heads, and senior-level HR executives in a wide range of companies. The conversations were rich and meaningful. That is a day I will not soon forget.

The day before and the day after my speech I had the opportunity to sit down for a total of six hours with Dr. Anders Ericsson to discuss his nearly 50 years of research into expert performance. Here are some of my highlights from my time with him.

Describing Anders

Anders Ericsson is a remarkably down-to-earth, friendly, polite, and unpretentious person. He drove me around to two restaurants, picked me up at the airport, and drove me back to the airport. He could not possibly have been a nicer or more patient host. He has an uncanny resemblance to Donald Sutherland in the film, The Hunger Games. The difference is that Anders is a thousand times nicer than Sutherland’s character in that film.

If I had not read his books, his academic papers, and all the books that referred to his work on deliberate practice and expert performance, I would never have guessed the enormous impact that Ander’s work has had on hundreds of thousands of people around the world. I said to Anders that he amazed me with his remarkable humility. He said, “In Sweden the number one thing that a person would be criticized for was excessive bragging. I was taught to do just do my best and not talk about it.” I told Anders that in the Midwest of the U.S., where I grew up and live, we were taught the same thing. The worst thing for someone to say to another person in St. Louis is, “You’re acting all fancy.”

Anders is the author or co-author of the following books: Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Development of Professional Expertise, and The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games. He is also the Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology at Florida State University.

Anders became famous when his work was highlighted in the following books: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell; Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner; The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle; Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. His work has been referenced more than 70,000 times in academic journals. One of his most famous academic papers is called The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.

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Early in his career Anders worked closely with the world-famous economist, political scientist, and cognitive psychologist, Herbert Simon, who is known as the founding father of artificial intelligence. Simon had a great impact on Anders’ thought processes and approach to his work.

Find a Really Big Mountain

I asked Anders what he thinks it takes to become truly great at anything. He said, “Go find a really big mountain. Find something that you can work at for a really long time like forty or fifty years. Something that you have a great deal of interest in so you won’t become bored too easily. You want to choose as your life’s work something really big that you can pour yourself into for your whole life. I’m trying to do my best to advance my understanding of the research topics that I’ve been thinking about for decades. The biggest factor in developing into a great performer is your commitment to changing your ability in a given field.”

For him, that has been the search for what it takes to become a truly expert performer. I felt like I was talking to Albert Einstein who achieved great fame for his work in 1905, but remained relentless in his pursuit of understanding the universe all the way until 1955. I feel the same way about Joseph Campbell who persevered from the age of 20 to 83 in studying and speaking about mythology.

For me, the really big mountain has been the desire to help people achieve whatever they want to achieve. In order to do that, I’ve been driven to learn and teach about personal effectiveness, leadership, focus, sacrifice, communication, teamwork, and organizational management. I’ve been at it for 34 years so I still have a long way to go. Anders has been studying great performers since 1970, and he still has an incredible desire to keep learning.

First Think, and Then Read a Lot

Anders told me that as a beginning graduate student he visited London during the summer and looked up one of his and his wife’s heros, Philip Johnson-Laird, who was a lecturer at the University College London. He took time to talk to us and gave him some great advice. Philip Johnson-Laird said, “Before you read anything on a topic that is important to you, write down what you believe about the topic. First think for yourself. Then read a ton on the topic and compare your thoughts to those of the authors. See what you agree with and what you disagree with. Be ready to defend your perspective if you choose to stay with it. If you only read about a topic and never write down your own thoughts about it, then you never develop the ability to think for yourself. You lose the ability to come up with something really insightful and original.”

Then Anders said, “After you write down your thoughts, read as much as you can on the topic. In my house right now I have between 16,000 and 18,000 books. Whenever I learn that a book touches on a topic that I’ve done research on, I order the book in order to understand what the author has to say.”

Timeout.

Read that again. There’s no typo. Anders has between 16,000 and 18,000 books in his personal library at home. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard that. Ok, I did fall out of my chair, but it would be embarrassing to admit that.

If you want to be truly great at something, find something you are extremely passionate about. Something you are willing to commit your life to learning about. And then dig into it as hard as you can and for as long as you can.

Start with the Micro and Work Toward the Macro

Anders told me that Herbert Simon extracted out a few really simple ideas and then applied them to economics, philosophy, psychology, and artificial intelligence. In his work on artificial intelligence he did very little of the actual programming work.

In my opinion, Anders did the same thing with expert performance. He extracted out a few key ideas that could be applied to every imaginable type of performance.

Anders said, “I don’t want to start with a general abstract generalization. I want to get down to the micro processes that led to the great performances. I want to get much deeper into the steps of what these people, the expert performers, are actually doing to improve performance. I’m interested in the way people think and what they do in the initial phases of long-term great performances. I’m particularly proud of three academic papers I’ve done on verbal reports on data where people are instructed to think out loud during a performance, deliberate practice, and long-term thinking memory.”

In anything that you want to become great at don’t start with someone’s awesome performance after many years on his or her journey. Start with what the person was thinking and doing at the earliest stages, even before there were stages. Keep digging into those initial thoughts and behaviors. Somewhere in there you might just find the secrets to the great performance that many people witnessed later on.

Listen

Anders said, “Herbert Simon really listened and then tried to offer something that was useful for that person.”

I would say the student has become the teacher. Anders listens like few people I have ever met. He would let me ramble a bit, and then when I simmered down he would wait a few more seconds. Then he would slowly offer his thought or question. He would say, “Well, I think it’s kind of like…” or “Well, have you considered…” His tone was calm and soothing, not intense and in-my-face.

In order to draw out something useful or offer something useful to another person, I think we can all learn from Anders. Listen with real patience and empathy, and then slowly offer something of value to the other person in a non-threatening way.

Simplicity and Integrity

Anders said, “Herbert Simon was a simple person. As a teacher he wrote 3-4 key ideas on the blackboard and that’s all he would cover in an hour.”

Simplicity, the ability to reduce complex situations down to simple insights, is a key to long-term great performance. Keep working at a big mountain so that you can extract out a few pieces of gold, the simple insights that can be applied in many situations.

And do what you do with integrity. Integrity, to me, means doing what you think is the right thing to do even if no one else knows.

Anders said, “With Peak I wanted to write a book that I could stand by because that’s how I live my life. I wanted it based on empirical evidence and not just on what sounded good. For example, many creativity tests are not predictive of long-term actual creativity. They just sound good. I wanted evidence to back up anything that I said.”

How do you know that what you are suggesting to other people will really be helpful? Challenge yourself to back up the ideas you are offering to other people. That will help you greatly in doing what you think is the right thing to do and say.

We talked about Robert Caro, the world-famous author of the series of books on Lyndon Johnson. I told Anders that Caro reminded me of him. Caro started full-time book writing in 1967 and has written 5 books, two of them won the Pulitzer Prize. He is considered to be the greatest political biographer in history. He writes at an agonizingly slow place, five books in fifty years.

In his new book, Working, Caro explains that his integrity has oftentimes slowed him down in his writing. In explaining why it took seven years to write his first book, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the highways in New York, and the people who were negatively affected by the highways, he wrote, “I tried to write The Power Broker without dramatizing the human cost. It was as if something in me would rebel, and I would sit there for hours, fiddling with the outline, knowing it was no good, knowing that if I went forward, the book behind me wouldn’t be the book it should be, and my heart just wouldn’t be in the writing anymore.”

Integrity in your work is essential to make the deep significant impact you are capable of making.

Naïve Practice vs Purposeful Practice vs Deliberate Practice

We started to talk about the importance of practice in improving any type of performance.

Anders said, “Deliberate practice is a reference point. Deliberate practice is guided by another person who is watching you and focusing on specific critical aspects of your performance. Purposeful practice is done on your own without anyone watching. As an individual you are working to improve specific aspects of your performance. This is designed to improve some performance. Naïve practice is just doing it to have fun. Doing naïve practice for a long time is not going to improve your performance. You’re just having fun. Focusing on specific aspects of your performance and really working to improve those critical elements is hard work. Doing that type of practice over a long period of time is what it takes to become a great performer.”

Discussed Performance vs Observed Performance vs Recorded Performance

We got into a discussion about how to review a past performance in order to improve a future performance. I explained to him that most of my work as an Executive Coach is spent discussing with a client what happened in an actual situation. I told him that sometimes I get to observe the client in action.

He said, “Could you record the person’s performance, and then discuss the performance in a more objective way with the person? Then could you record another performance and see if there was any clear, objective improvement? Also, could you record other people’s performances who are considered the best at that type of performance, and then compare your client’s performance to the other person’s standard?”

Wow, I loved that line of questioning. Anders was teaching me in a polite but direct manner how I can improve my impact as an executive coach. I can move from giving subjective feedback based on my opinions developed from working with other people to giving objective feedback based on studying recorded performances and then comparing those to future recorded performances and the recorded performances of other people. That’s not easy to implement, but it is possible. And that’s where I want to head with my executive coaching work in the future.

Anders said, “Videotape three actual business meetings and give the individual feedback as you stop the tape and rewind and watch certain parts. Focus on the consequential actions of managers. Don’t focus or comment on every action. Another way to record behavior is to keep a diary log of what you actually did and said in a certain type of situation. Or you can create an audio recording of the meetings. Of course, you have to get permission from the people in the room first, but if you get that, then you will have a recording of a performance that you can analyze with the client.”

He went on to say, “The scientific view is to gather data points from their perspective rather than just your perspective. And then have similar cases to compare them to. You want to convert subjective human behavior into objective recorded behavior. After you review the recorded behavior, do something to cause the person to reflect and discern what to do next. This is an essential step.”

Excellence and Success

We then got into a discussion about excellence and success. I asked two questions, “What does excellence mean? Is it the audience’s perspective that matters or the performer’s perspective?

Anders said, “My view is that excellence is in the eyes of the observer.” Later he said, “When it comes to success in performance other people’s opinions have limited value. Success is dependent on a lot of factors outside of your control.”

He closed his comments with this thought, “Success is being able to do every day what is really important to you. At least I think so. It’s not a question of whether you made as much money as someone else or became as well-known as someone else. The question is, ‘Are you spending your time in the way that you want to spend your time?’”

I shared with Anders my definition of excellence, which is “doing the best you can at whatever you’re doing while simultaneously learning how to do it better the next time.” I believe excellence should primarily be viewed from the perspective of the performer. If you get better over and over, eventually other people may notice your performance and think of it as excellent. The key is to keep working to improve your performance.

I told Anders that my definition of excellence was inspired by…. Anders Ericsson, and his work on deliberate practice.


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