Freakonomics – How to Become Great at Just About Anything

 Podcast 

Notes:

  • CHARLES DUHIGG: There’s actually a big difference between being busy and being productive.
  • How do you do it? How do you attain excellence in anything? Is it all about the genes, the natural-born talent? Or: is there an actual science of expertise?
  • BARGMANN: And what we can see when we look at the research is that the outcome of psychotherapy hasn’t really improved over the last 40 years.
  • BARGMANN: I’d been plowing through all the literature on deliberate practice, but it still seems a bit abstract when you read it. It was hard for me to really understand what it felt like so we started talking about how could try this out on ourselves. And after discussing this for a while, we decided if we are going to study the process it needs to be not our work, because we’re too close to our work to be able to see it. So we decided to pick up something else outside of our work and then apply the principles of deliberate practice.
  • You don’t always grow up to be what you wanted to be as a child So Bargmann wanted to use deliberate practice to try to improve at something, but something personal, not her profession. What should she do? BARGMANN: When I was a kid, I had this dream of becoming a famous singer.Her favorite singer?BARGMANN: It was Whitney Houston. Oh, she was amazing.But the dream got deferred, and then …BARGMANN: Life took over, so instead, I became a psychologist and had a family and had a job.Now, however, many years later, as part of her job, Bargmann thought that maybe …BARGMANN: … I should give it a go and see if it was actually possible to improve my singing, improve my voice.So she got back to it. The first thing to do was record herself to see what she sounded like.BARGMANN: I started using this karaoke program, and I started singing. And then I started listening, and it was really horrible.
  • ERICSSON: Ballet dancers, gymnasts, and all sorts of athletes, a lot of coaches; we’ve looked at chess experts, surgeons, doctors, teachers, musicians, taxi drivers, recreational activities like golf, and even, there’s some research on scientists.
  • LEVITT: He was infectious. His ideas and his enthusiasm just set me on fire. It was interesting because he studied topics I hadn’t really thought could be studied, like expertise and learning. The beauty of Anders — he’s really an amazing academic in the sense that he just was so interested in what he did and also so interested in the truth and willing to be challenged. I do remember. I remember I had lunch with him, and I immediately came back and called you on the phone and said, “We’ve got to write about this guy. He’s amazing.”
  • LEVITT: The part that really resonated with me is the idea that absent hard work, no one is really great at anything — because it’s an interesting insight. We’d like to think that Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Taylor Swift just emerge as savants, but they don’t. If you start with someone with talent, and another person who has no talent, if the person with talent works just as hard as the person without talent, almost for certain they’re going to have a better outcome. So, if our measure is true virtuosity, true expertise, it seems unlikely to me that this populist version of “oh, you don’t have to be good; you just have to try hard,” I think that’s probably a fallacy. But I firmly believe the other direction, which is that: if you don’t try hard, no matter how much talent you have, there’s always going to be someone else who has a similar amount of talent who outworks you, and therefore outperforms you.
  • ERICSSON: We actually find that with the right kind of training, any individual will be able to acquire abilities that were previously viewed as only attainable if you had the right kind of genetic talent.DUBNER: Would it be fair to say that the kind of overarching thesis of your work is that this thing that we tend to call talent, is in fact more of an accumulation of ability that is caused by what you’ve labeled “deliberate practice”?
  • For more than 30 years, Ericsson and his colleagues around the world have studied people who stand out in their field. They’ve conducted lab experiments and interviews; they’ve collected data of every sort, all in service of answering a simple question: when someone is very good at something, how did they get so good? If you can figure that out, the thinking goes, then any of us can use those strategies to also get much better at whatever we’re trying to do. You don’t necessarily need to have been born with a special talent, a special ability. Something like perfect pitch, or absolute pitch — that’s the ability to identify or produce a particular musical note, with no reference point. It’s an incredibly rare ability; roughly one in 10,000 people are thought to have it. And while having perfect pitch doesn’t guarantee that you’ll become a great musician or composer, it can be a big help. Consider one of the most acclaimed composers in history:Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
  • A second point about Mozart. Ericsson argues that as great as he was — having nothing to do with perfect pitch — that he wasn’t necessarily born that way; Mozart became Mozart by starting very young and training long and hard. We may think of him today as a freak of nature. But, Ericsson says: ERICSSON: If you compare the kind of music pieces that Mozart can play at various ages to today’s Suzuki-trained children, he is not exceptional. If anything, he’s relatively average.
  • ERICSSON: Purposeful practice is when you actually pick a target — something that you want to improve — and you find a training activity that would allow you to actually improve that particular aspect. Purposeful practice is very different from playing a tennis game or if you’re playing basketball scrimmages. Because when you’re playing, there’s really no target where you’re actually trying to change something specifically and where you have the opportunity of repeating it and actually refine it so you can assure that you will improve that particular aspect.
  • That’s right. In order to just qualify to run the Boston Marathon today, a male in the 18- to 34-year-old group has to have run a 3-hour, 5-minute marathon. That’s only about six minutes slower than the winner of the marathon in the first modern Olympics, in 1896. The current marathon world record? Two hours, two minutes, and fifty-seven seconds. That’s nearly 56 minutes faster than the Olympic gold medalist in 1896. Or consider the improvements in golf, which this year is returning to the Olympics after more than a century. In the 1900 Summer Olympics, the men played two 18-hole rounds; the American golfer Charles Sands won the gold medal with scores of 82 and 85, which, these days, wouldn’t get you on a good high school team in some parts of the country. Yeah, the equipment and ball have changed, a lot. But still: the undeniable fact — whether it’s golf or running the marathon or playing the piano — is that as a species we have improved a lot at just about everything. How? Have we been selectively breeding for talent? Perhaps.
  • But, that is not what Anders Ericsson thinks is largely responsible. He thinks we’ve gotten so much better primarily because we’ve learned how to learn. And that if you study the people who have learned the best, and if you codify the techniques and strategies that they use, then we can all radically improve. But let me warn you: there’s no magic bullet. Improvement comes only with practice — lots and lots and lots of practice. You may have heard of the “10,000-hour rule”? The idea that you need to practice for 10,000 hours to become great at something? That idea originates from the research of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues. They were studying the most accomplished young musicians at a German academy. ERICSSON: We found that the average of that elite group was over 10,000 hours by the time they reach 20.
  • ERICSSON: Well, I think this has to do with the body. If you’re just doing things that feel comfortable and go out and jog, the body basically won’t change. In order to actually change your aerobic ability, people now know that the only way you can do that is if you practice now at a heart rate that is above 70 percent of your maximal heart rate. So it would be maybe around 140 for a young adult. And you have to do that for about 30 minutes at least two or three times a week. If you practice at a lower intensity, the body will actually not develop this difficult, challenging biochemical situation, which will elicit now genes to create physiological adaptations.
  • DUBNER: You write that this rule, or the number, really — 10,000, nice, big round number — is “irresistibly appealing.” “Unfortunately,” you write, “this rule, which is the only thing many people today know about the effects of practice, is wrong in several ways.” One example that you give, that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in Outliers that you say looks good on first glance, maybe to a layperson, but falls apart upon inspection, is the Beatles playing all those nights at clubs in Hamburg. Can you talk about why that example doesn’t serve as an example of what you’re talking about deliberate practice representing?
  • ERICSSON: So to us, the Beatles — and I think a lot of other people agree — what really made them outstanding was their composing of a new type of music. So it wasn’t like they excelled as being exceptional instrumentalists. So if we want to explain here their ability to compose this really important music, deliberate practice should now be linked to activities that allowed them to basically improve their compositional skills and basically get feedback on their compositions. So counting up the number of hours that they performed together wouldn’t really enhance the ability here to write really innovative music.
  • ERICSSON: Exactly, and I think the same thing in sports, where new techniques will allow individuals to reach kind of a higher level and practice more effectively than previous generations.
  • DUBNER: You write that “deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals, and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance. It is not aimed at some vague, overall improvement.” Do you think that is a mistake that many people make when they’re trying to, “get better at something?” A “vague, overall improvement”?
  • ERICSSON: I think that is one of the most important pieces that we’re advocating, because you need feedback in order to be able to tell what kind of adjustments you should be making. If you don’t have a clear criterion here for what it is that you were doing, then it’s unclear how you actually  are going to improve if you get subsequent opportunities to do the same thing. So anytime you can focus your performance on improving one aspect, that is the most effective way of improving performance.
  • DUBNER: So there’s a sentence in, I believe, it’s in the chapter called “The 10,000-Hour Rule” in Outliers where you write that “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” I understand that was one sentence within many paragraphs within many chapters that’s trying to prove your larger point, and yet, I’ve heard from a lot of people— and I’m guessing for every one I’ve heard from, you’ve heard 50 — who’ve embarked on these trajectories, where “I want to be a ballerina, a golfer, a whatever, whatever, whatever, and if I can get to 10,000 hours, that will make me great.” So that seems to be a causal relationship. How do you feel about people drawing that conclusion and taking action on it?
  • GLADWELL: Well, elsewhere in that same chapter, there is a very explicit moment where I say that you also have to have talent. That, what we’re talking about with 10,000 hours is: how long does it take to bring talent to fruition? To take some baseline level of ability and allow it to properly express itself and flourish. Ten thousand hours is meaningless in the absence of that baseline level of ability. I could play music for 20,000 hours. I am not becoming Mozart — never, ever, ever. I can play chess for 50,000 hours, and I am not becoming a grandmaster —ever, ever, ever.
  • DUBNER: But the idea may be, presumably, that there could have been another group of four guys, even from Liverpool, who went to Hamburg and played for many, many hours — and played as many hours, but never got good. That’s the kind of hair that I think I’m trying to help you and Anders split.  Because I don’t hear as much disagreement as either of you hear, frankly. What I hear is that you’re more focused on the holistic creation of expertise, and he’s focused more on, I guess, what I would call the more technical version, which has to do with deliberate practice and what it is. And it sounds like he’s saying that 10,000 hours of something isn’t necessarily deliberate practice. And you’re saying 10,000 hours of practice isn’t necessarily deliberate practice, but there are things that happen in that process that you can’t get to without the 10,000 hours anyway.
  • GLADWELL: Yeah, and particularly when the four guys who are playing together 1,200 times under very, very trying circumstances are themselves insanely talented, right? So it’s not four schmoes — it’s, for goodness sake, it’s Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. (I’m not going to mention Ringo Starr.) Each one of whom individually could have had an extraordinary career as a rock-and-roll musician. We had three of them in the same room for years playing together. So there you have this kind of recipe for something extraordinary.
  • So, you might have the most experienced bus driver in the world. But experience of that sort – driving the same route over and over and over again – doesn’t seem to lead to growth. Which, if you move the conversation out of transportation and into something like medicine … well, I asked Ericsson about that.
  • BARGMANN: I really believe that it can inspire people to: instead of limiting themselves to what they think they can, to actually choose something they dream of or they have a passion for, and then experience how they can improve.

 

  • Our brains have two kinds of neural tissue: grey matter and white matter. The grey matter processes information in the brain, directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells, while white matter is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers. In order for our bodies to move, information needs to travel from the brain’s grey matter, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles.
  • The axons that exist in the white matter are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin. And it’s this myelin covering, or sheath, that seems to change with practice. Myelin is similar to insulation on electrical cables. It prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways.
  • And the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains, forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles. So while many athletes and performers attribute their successes to muscle memory, muscles themselves don’t really have memory. Rather, it may be the myelination of neural pathways that gives these athletes and performers their edge with faster and more efficient neural pathways. There are many theories that attempt to quantify the number of hours, days, and even years of practice that it takes to master a skill.
  • In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups. Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws while Group B only mentally practiced them. When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment, the intermediate and experienced players in both groups had improved by nearly the same amount. As scientists get closer to unraveling the secrets of our brains, our understanding of effective practice will only improve. In the meantime, effective practice is the best way we have of pushing our individual limits, achieving new heights, and maximizing our potential.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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