By Eric Barker
March 15, 2016
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

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:

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:

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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

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:

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…

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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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

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.

Dan Coyle says you only want to be succeeding in 50-80% of your attempts. Less than that and you’ll get frustrated. More than that and you’re not pushing yourself.

And you want to be working on your weak points. That’s how you get better.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

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…

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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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

Once you have the knowledge, you need to focus on building the skills. Remember the three F’s:

  1. Focus
  2. Feedback
  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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

(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:

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:

(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…

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Sum Up

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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

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.

From Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise:

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:

There’s an old saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I believe it.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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