A Deliberate Tribute

I was saddened to learn earlier today that Anders Ericsson, creator of deliberate practice theory, recently passed away. Longtime readers of mine know that his work greatly influenced me. I never met Anders in person, but we shared a sporadic correspondence that I cherished. I thought it appropriate to offer a brief personal tribute to his powerful ideas.

Anders tackled the fundamental question of how experts get really good at what they do. The framework he proposed, which clarified a lot of confusion in the field at the time, introduced these two big ideas (among others):

  1. When trying to get better at a skill, an effort called “deliberate practice” is most effective. Deliberate practice, which aims to isolate areas that need improvement and then stretch you past your comfort zone to induce growth, is the critical activity that helps individuals move past amateur status in many endeavors, both physical and cognitive.
  2. To reach an expert level often requires a lot of deliberate practice. In some of Anders’s more engaging studies, he would sift through accounts of so-called “prodigies”, and identify, time and again, prodigious quantities of deliberate practice surreptitiously squeezed into their early childhood years. As his New York Times obituary recalls, Anders once summarized this finding as follows in an interview: “This idea that somebody more or less discovers, suddenly, that they’re extremely good at something, I’ve yet to find even a single example of that type of phenomenon.”

I first came across Anders’s work in Geoff Colvin’s 2008 book, Talent is Overrated, which blew my mind, and led to a deep dive into deliberate practice theory. It provided an antidote to an increasingly frenetic, digital-mediated world, where everyone was trying to find their passion or seek to somehow transmute social media busyness into accomplishment. It explained a lot about what seemed to resonate for me when I reflected on my own life, or surveyed those I admired around me at MIT or in the biographies of big thinkers I was devouring at the time.

The theory laid the foundations in my own writing for the idea that the type of work you’re doing matters (elaborated in Deep Work), and that meaningful accomplishment often requires the diligent application of such efforts over a long period of time (elaborated in So Good They Can’t Ignore You.)

As with many big theories, the implications of Anders’s ideas were sometimes pushed to unsustainable extremes. In Outliers, for example, Malcolm Gladwell deployed these concepts to argue for an over-simplified egalitarian utopia in which all significant achievements are due to incidental environmental factors that enable rapid deliberate practice acquisition. (Anders may have egged Gladwell on, as Anders was known to enjoy advancing extreme versions of his theories; though given the good-natured manner with which he approached subsequent debate, I always suspected that this tendency was in part driven by a Socratic impulse to generate progress through the dialectical clash of opposing conceptions.)

In recent years, deliberate practice theory has continued to evolve. Most contemporary thinking on expert performance includes factors beyond just practice accumulation to understand high achievement, such as trainability, innate physiological advantage, and the complex and murky psychological cocktail we often summarize as “drive.”

There’s also an increased consideration of the type of skill being mastered. If there are clear cut rules and feedback, like when learning chess or golf, the application and advantages of deliberate practice are clear. In other pursuits, however, such as the ambiguous, semi-creative, semi-administrative efforts that define knowledge work, designing appropriate practice can be maddeningly difficult and its rewards less immediately obvious. (Though, as I argue in So Good, this is a challenge worth undertaking, as its difficulty scares most people off, leaving a huge competitive advantage for the few willing to apply a deliberate approach to their office-bound skills.)

In the end, however, Anders’s key ideas — that the type and quantity of practice matters a lot — remain widely accepted. He transformed our understanding of the world from a frustratingly unobtainable vision in which people stumbled into their prodigious talent and lived happily ever after, into a more democratized and tractable reality; one in which your abilities are mutable, and disciplined diligence — though perhaps unable to transform you into the next Tiger Woods — will almost always push your skills to a place where they can do you some real good.

Anders will be missed. His ideas will not be forgotten.

27 thoughts on “A Deliberate Tribute”

  1. Cal,

    I don’t recall where I first learned of the label “deliberate practice,” but I learned the concept from my favorite poet, Marge Piercy, in the final stanza of her poem “For The Young Who Want To” found in her 1980 collection “The Moon Is Always Female:”

    The real writer is one
    who really writes. Talent
    is an invention like phlogiston
    after the fact of fire.
    Work is its own cure. You have to
    like it better than being loved.

    I made those lines the epigraph for my blog–havecoffeewillwrite–when I launched back in 2004.

    They are hard words (especially for my students who I constantly reminded that “Genius is doing the work. Now!”) but true all the same.


    Jeff Hess

  2. Cal – I am also saddened; through you I got to know his works (I recommend the introductory “Peak”); as a matter of fact I reference him in a question I sent the other day for your podcast. He was a genius and he changed many lives.

  3. It was through you Cal that I first learned and applied the idea of deliberate practice after reading your book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” It had a big impact on me and changed the way I work. Thank you Cal!

  4. I was saddened to hear about Anders Ericsson’s passing. Much like your writings, Cal, the work of Prof Ericsson has influenced a lot of my thinking on how we (and our children) can get better at a skill we are pursuing deliberately. Thank you for the thoughtful tribute.

  5. At age 78 I’m practicing deliberately in two areas, one that requires a certain close adherence to rules, the other involving finding my way to what feels right. I rise at 4 a.m. to sing for an hour, and of course there are “issues” at my age, but once my voice is warmed up there are other hurdles, most strikingly, the need for deep focus of attention but also of feeling. I also work full time as a writer and editor, where the rules are directed toward a single end: clarity and delight for the reader. A singer and composer for whom I hold great respect said that the voice sounds sweeter when it’s completely relaxed – impossible to achieve when the mind is splitting its attention. Oh, and isn’t that what these modern devices are doing for us? – expertly dividing our attention whether it be Facebook, Powerpoint, or YouTube.

  6. In a world of constant change that seems to be changing at a faster pace – with greater scope – than it has changed maybe in millennia, more and more of us are tasked with making a living (and a difference) with our ideas and our minds. All of us who hope to get better at doing just that owe a debt of gratitude to thinkers like you, and a mountainous debt of gratitude to Anders Ericsson, for his discovery/articulation of “deliberate practice”, and related models.

    It is essentially a signal through noise and an outline in the fog for those who seek to be masters in paths that are essentially undefined … a way to become a true “expert” in a discovery domain.

    Go well sir.

  7. Anders’s work is phenomenal, but the pendulum in our culture might have swung too far to the deliberate practice (also: “grit” and the “10,000 hour” myth) side of the scale.

    I hope it’s not inappropriate on a Tribute post to point out the benefits of dabbling in lots of things. David Epstein’s excellent and refreshing book RANGE points out the limits of the Tiger Woods / deliberate practice / single-minded-focus approach to work and life. Roger Federer didn’t focus exclusively on tennis until relatively late in his development. Vincent Van Gough flip-flopped from pastor to teacher to merchant and back multiple times before attempting painting. Or Frances Hesselbein, hailed as the greatest CEO in the world by Peter Drucker, who didn’t take that position until the age of 60. And of course, there are too many entrepreneurs to count.

    Those who start and stop multiple endeavors over and over again, trying out multiple disciplines and careers and just dabbling with life, are potentially laying a foundation for deep, meaningful, creative work that the hyperspecialists could never achieve.

    • I love David’s work on this. We’ve actually talked about it and are pretty much in agreement on the main points about how deliberate practice theory applies.

      In particular: whether you want to be a hyperspecialist or a generalist, you still have to get good at things. The former wants to be the best in the world while the latter just needs to push varied skills past the amateur level and hope they recombine in a unique and rewarding manner (Federer deliberately trained hard at the various sports he pursued as a kid; Van Gogh spent countless hours understanding how to wield his artistic tools): in both cases, you’re trying to get better at hard things.

      Anders’s real contribution is understanding that deliberate practice is the way to get there, and that it’s going to take longer than you might guess. You’re unlikely to just wake up one morning and realize you’re naturally good enough at something to make a profitable living off of it.

      In other words, it’s hard to think of any interesting path in any interesting field that doesn’t require a lot of deliberate practice, whether it be focused over years on a single well-defined skill or deployed more diffusely to gather a unique arsenal of abilities.

      The over-extension of Anders’s theory that really probably generated the most justifiable push back, in my opinion, was the notion that practice is all that matters. If you talk to any professional in any elite field they’ll immediately tell you that there’s more to the story…

      • Well said, I agree with your points.

        Of course, in the strictest sense, “deliberate practice” is only possible in “kind” endeavors like violin, sports, chess, ballet, and I suppose many of the sciences, with well-defined rules of excellence or an established body of work, vs. “wicked” endeavors such as entrepreneurship.

        Obviously, some basic tenets of deliberate practice are still available in “wicked” worlds, e.g., find a mentor who has gone on a similar journey. She just won’t be able to give you scales to practice or chessboard patterns to memorize.

  8. This is very sad indeed, he will be missed! I’ve known about Deliberate Practice for more than a decade through the various popular books about it but finally read Peak a few months ago and have since made deliberate practice a big part of my life. For those who haven’t read it I’m linking to an interactive overview.

  9. I still get tingles when I recall reading Colvin’s book “Talent is Overrated” in 2009. I suspect it changed my life and my trajectory when I became a father 4 years later. Thanks for the robust tribute to Ericsson. GT

  10. Through you (Cal) and Ericsson, I live “Deliberate Practice” in all domains where I want to develop skill.

    Thank you both so much.

  11. Belated but heartiest tributes to Anders. Deliberate Practice theory is indeed a revolution and has transformed the lives of many, including me.


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