Freakonomics in the Times Magazine: A Star Is Made

The May 7, 2006, Freakonomics column in the New York Times Magazine asks a fundamental — but very hard — question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

To find the answer to this question, Dubner and Levitt turn to Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement. Ericsson and his colleagues have spent years trying to figure out how the best pianists, golfers, soccer players, surgeons, writers, stockbrokers, and chess players in the world got so good. How far can talent take you? What role does selection play — and how about practice? Click here to read their article.

The research of Ericsson and his Expert Performance crew has been collected in a forthcoming book, a rather weighty academic reference work called The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. For a taste, here is a look at the book’s table of contents.

Ericsson himself has studied a vast array of expert performance. Here is a paper of his (co-authored with Linda J. Duffy and Bahman Baluch) on the pursuit of excellence in darts. Here is a working draft of a paper (co-authored with Patric Andersson and Edward T. Cokely) on people who picks stocks for a living. And here is the paper (co-authored with Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer) that gets to the root of what Ericsson thinks is the driver of all expert performance: a concept he calls “deliberate practice.”

The Freakonomics article describes some non-Ericsson work as well, including research on the “relative age effect” in sports like soccer and hockey. Here is one paper on that subject, here is another, and here is a very engaging website that rolls up a lot of research on the subject.

So it seems that only one pressing question remains: when do Ericsson and his pals start studying what makes a good blogger good?


Michael Cregan

I am of the strong opinion that "deliberate practice" as enunciated by Prof Ericsson et al is the most plausible theory in acquiring high skill levels. I and my brother Eamon reached very high levels of skill in Ireland's national game, Hurling (which is a wilder form of field hockey with no holds barred). From a very young age we had been playing/practising the game for many hours each day, interspersed with other popular games, soccer, Gaelic football etc. However when I was aged fourteen, after ten years of play it was suggested that I switch from my natural way of gripping the hurley(stick)as it was percieved by coaches as unnatural or unorthodox and within a short space of time my skills deteriorated alarmingly. For years I continued to struggle the retain the skills I had developed over the previous ten years. I never succeeded because I could never replicate the amount of practice time I had devoted to acquiring my initial skills and i became a "hurling dyslexic". The "chunks" of "acquired memory" I had developed with my natural grip were now of no use to me because I now had a new grip and the neuro muscular patterns were never fully developed and reinforced by sufficient practice. Needless to say my standards dropped and I never regained them. It was when I reached my late twenties that I again switched back to the original grip I had as a child that suddenly all the skills that I had developed as a boy came flooding back as if they had never gone away. But at that stage in my career it was too late for me as a player. My brother went on to greater things in Hurling and was percieved as an elite performer.
As a result I have researched and studied the acquisition of expertise for over thirty years and, aided by my military instructor profession, discovered through field trials that motor skills in sport can be rapidly developed if task specific practice methods are applied simply by increasing "intensity" then complex motor patterns and sequencing can be reinforced and retained in long term memory in less than three hours a day. In fact it can be converted into a trained reflex which is what most sportsmen and women aspire to. Prof Ericsson may be interested.

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Michael Cregan

I am of the strong opinion that "deliberate practice" as enunciated by Prof Ericsson et al is the most plausible theory in acquiring high skill levels. I and my brother Eamon reached very high levels of skill in Ireland's national game, Hurling (which is a wilder form of field hockey with no holds barred). From a very young age we had been playing/practising the game for many hours each day, interspersed with other popular games, soccer, Gaelic football etc. However when I was aged fourteen, after ten years of play it was suggested that I switch from my natural way of gripping the hurley(stick)as it was percieved by coaches as unnatural or unorthodox and within a short space of time my skills deteriorated alarmingly. For years I continued to struggle the retain the skills I had developed over the previous ten years. I never succeeded because I could never replicate the amount of practice time I had devoted to acquiring my initial skills and i became a "hurling dyslexic". The "chunks" of "acquired memory" I had developed with my natural grip were now of no use to me because I now had a new grip and the neuro muscular patterns were never fully developed and reinforced by sufficient practice. Needless to say my standards dropped and I never regained them. It was when I reached my late twenties that I again switched back to the original grip I had as a child that suddenly all the skills that I had developed as a boy came flooding back as if they had never gone away. But at that stage in my career it was too late for me as a player. My brother went on to greater things in Hurling and was percieved as an elite performer.
As a result I have researched and studied the acquisition of expertise for over thirty years and, aided by my military instructor profession, discovered through field trials that motor skills in sport can be rapidly developed if task specific practice methods are applied simply by increasing "intensity" then complex motor patterns and sequencing can be reinforced and retained in long term memory in less than three hours a day. In fact it can be converted into a trained reflex which is what most sportsmen and women aspire to. Prof Ericsson may be interested.

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Raman K. Attri

I would like to add that we need to be cautious about applicability of deliberate practice research and its role in developing expert level performance. I would question the applicability of this 20 years old research in today's fast pacing business context.

The expert performance research is more applicable for fairly closed professions like sports, music and others where same set of skills are required to highest degree of perfection.

Three points to consider before we assume it is applicable to a professional or in workplace.

1) First I reiterate Ericsson's comments in some of the posts that this research talks 10K hours required to achieve world class mastery (and not day to day expertise). In normal professions, individuals do not target world class mastery.

2) Secondly this was applicable to repeatable kind of skills like chess, music and other trades in which you are expected to demonstrate precise level of consistency and repeatability of your performance. Room for error or room for second place is not acceptable. In professional world such precision may be either not required or may be unfeasible to achieve.

3) And thirdly it talked about one specific set of skills, no broad range of skills. It would be rather unfeasible to apply in organizational settings. Imagine you have a job which requires you to apply narrow set of skills and then you keep sharpening that skill for 10K hours (or 10 years). But again, if you apply in broader job roles, it would not necessarily lead you to mastery because look at how many times your projects, tasks, assignments and even role and job scope get changed before you hit 10K hours. Unless you are prepared to repeat same task over and over again for 10K hours or 10 years, mastery at work place is a myth.

Specialization, yes, thats feeasible reality. We also need to be conscious that we are trying to apply 25 years old research in a world where shelf life of knowledge and skills is hardly couple of months. I do agree those who have been working on some specific skill set for last 20 years may have accumulated 10K hours on narrow span of the skills. Ask them if they still find themselves relevant to today's world. By the time you accumulate 10K hours, I bet your skills and knowledge would have gone obsolete especially in today's context. Isn't it?

Raman K. Attri
Researcher: Training strategies for speed to proficiency
Check my research at Personal Resonance©: Accelerating Time-to-Expertise
http://www.personal-resonance.com

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