The psychologist Anders Ericsson passed away on June 17th at the age of 73. This passing of a legend in the field has deeply emotionally affected a lot of people in the field (for instance, see these beautiful obituaries by David Epstein and Nick Byrd).
I had prior drafts of this obituary, but decided to scrap them all because they were just too academic. They survey the history of his academic contributions. But is that all a person really is at the end of the day– their work contributions? Gosh, I hope not. Anders was a person. And my obituary of him will treat him as such.
Let me tell you what Anders meant to me.
The year was 2000. I was standing outside of Herbert Simon‘s office in the psychology department at Carnegie Mellon University. I was a junior undergraduate psychology major with a voracious curiosity for understanding the inner workings of intelligence and greatness. As a child, I was placed in special education for an auditory learning disability and treated by everyone as stupid. I had spent most of high school clawing my way out of special education and fighting my way into mainstream– and even advanced– classes. At every step, I felt as though I had to prove my intelligence. Now here I was standing in front of the office door of the Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon– the world’s leading expert on expertise.
“Come in”, I hear. I walk into his office. I tell Herb that I would like to take his graduate level class on expertise. I tell him I will do whatever it takes. I will study extra hard. I will do extra assignments. I will sacrifice everything, including all the things normal college students do. All I wanted was a coveted spot in his class as an undergraduate, knowing full well that he rarely lets any undergraduates into his class. We bonded over our mutual interests in music. He saw the fire in my eyes, I think. He let me in.
I devoured everything in the class, including research conducted in the late 70s with Herb’s postdoctoral student, K. Anders Ericsson. I became fascinated with their research on memory, which showed that with the right sort of dedicated training it was possible for people to overcome their own natural limitations. In fact, they showed more generally that it was possible for people to overcome preconceived notions of the limits of human potential! In their 1980 paper “Acquisition of a Memory Skill”, Ericsson, William Chase, and Steve Faloon (who was the research participant) wrote: “With an appropriate mnemonic system, there is seemingly no limit to memory performance with practice.”
I was fired up. I asked Herb if I could be his research assistant. Again, I would do anything! He said yes, and I worked with him and his graduate student on the organization of semantic memory. With his partial advisement, I also conducted a senior honors thesis showing that one’s IQ-like ability to detect patterns does not generalize to all patterns, especially patterns that require expertise. For instance, those with music expertise recognized the pattern in a musical snippet faster than a person with a higher IQ but with less musical expertise even though the pattern in the musical composition was the exact same pattern as what appeared on the IQ test! (As Simon would put it, the patterns were “isomorphs” of each other).
I was so excited to build off Ericsson’s work, even just a tiny bit, showing that under certain circumstances expertise acquisition could indeed trump IQ. I felt an affinity for Ericsson just by reading his papers, and hoped I could meet him someday. That chance came a decade later, ironically only after I amassed 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in psychology.
The year was 2011 or so, and I felt inspired to put together an edited book on the latest science of greatness (“The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice“). What does it really take to achieve greatness? What are the essential factors? I wanted all different perspectives represented to show the complexity of even beginning to answer such a question. Of course, I reached out to Ericsson.
He was very gracious in his reply. He was very encouraging of the book, and gave me permission to reprint an article of his in the volume. I was a little disappointed since I wanted an original contribution from him (all the other chapters in the book were original contributions), but was excited to even be emailing with the great Anders Ericsson. I decided to reprint an article he had written criticizing the notion of “giftedness” and explaining how he viewed the term gifted through the expert performance paradigm that he helped pioneer.
As I was editing the chapters from all of the contributions, I came across a chapter by the French Canadian giftedness researcher Francoys Gagné. Boy was that chapter a whopperdoozie! Gagné accused Ericsson of “professional malpractice” for ignoring critical studies in the literature on the existence of talent that seemingly contradicted Ericsson’s deliberate practice model. I reached out to Ericsson because I wanted to give him a heads up on the chapter. Well, unsurprisingly, Ericsson was livid. And I mean LIVID to have such a serious accusation be levied against him.
I took some deep breaths and tried to think this through. What to do, what to do. I wanted to give all contributors freedom to write what they wanted. But I could see Ericsson’s perspective for sure. I mean, was it really necessary to be ad hominem in these discussions? I spoke with Gagné, who certainly had some passionate and fiery views about Ericsson’s research! But I convinced Gagné to tone down his language and stick to the science. I told Ericsson that Gagné would take out the accusatory language and that I wanted to offer him a chance to respond directly to Gagné’s chapter in the book. NOW, Ericsson was in. Ericsson was fired up. He wrote what I think is the clearest and most direct explication of his life’s focus and position I’ve ever seen:
Here is Gagné’s article: Complexity of Greatness- Chapter 10
Here is Ericsson’s response: Complexity of Greatness- Chapter 11
In his response, Ericsson starts out: “I have always been an advocate for scientific discussion. I believe in seeking out scientists who disagree with me to learn about evidence that I was not aware of.” He then goes on to make his case– with zero ad-hominen– why he thinks that claims of innate talent don’t meet his criteria for good science, and precisely what he sees as the difference between his theoretical framework and Gagné’s theoretical framework:
“In my view, the biggest difference between Gagné’s and my own theoretical frameworks is that my collaborators and I have tried to develop detailed models of how performance can be changed in response to various forms of extended training and practice…. our work has focused on evidence that practice can dramatically influence the development of children, adolescents, and adults when it is designed and engaged in for several hours on a daily basis for months, years, and decades.”
In the chapter, Ericsson also takes a closer look at the prodigious development of the prodigy Sarah Chang and argues that while innate talent might not exist, “perceived talent” exists, “which is likely to influence their parents’ efforts to support the child’s needs for travel to teachers, public performances, and competitions; the need to have time for practice (relieved of other facility responsibilities); and even the need to move permanently to a different country to provide access to the best teachers in the world.”
In concluding his article, he says he is ultimately open to whatever the scientific evidence says about the determinants of high performance, even if it turns out to be more innate than he originally thought:
“If and when genetic researchers are able to extract information from whole-gene scans, which can reliably and accurately predict an athlete’s adult performance, this will be truly exciting, but a very recent report cautions us that this will not happen anytime soon… I will even be excited when DNA scans are able to predict the adult height and body size of a child, and be able to do so better than conventional methods based on the parents’ and the child’s current heights. At that time, researchers, aspiring expert performers, and their coaches and teachers will be able to successfully use genetic information, physiological information, and cognitive information to support the quest for expert performance, as well as our understanding of the development of the structure of superior performance and how it can be enhanced by deliberate practice.”
Ericsson was very appreciative of the opportunity to write his reply (it seemed like he had been wanting to write just such a reply for awhile). After the incident with the book, we became really quite friendly. Over the years, we would have discussions– some quite heated!– but always respectful and warm (I saw him in a Zoom meeting just a few weeks before he passed; he and I had gotten to the group call before others and we noted how good it was to see each other again).
Let me give you an example of his graciousness. In 2016 I wrote a piece in Scientific American called “Creativity is Much More than 10,000 Hours of Deliberate Practice“, in which I argued that Ericsson’s deliberate practice model is way too simplistic when applied to most creative domains in which the goals and ways of achieving success are constantly changing, and in which consistently replicable expert behaviors can actually be detrimental to success. Ericsson wrote me a kind email congratulating me on the article but noting that he was working on an article showing the compatibility of the deliberate practice paradigm and the creativity model I put forward.
I do think Ericsson tried too hard to slot everything into his framework. Personally, I believe he used a limited lens to look at a wide range of complex multi-determined phenomenon including the development of intellectual giftedness, prodigies, and clear indications of talent across domains. However, none of that takes away from his incredible legacy.
Anders was a very gracious man with a fierce commitment to the scientific method. Even when clear anecdotes overwhelmingly called for the inclusion of talent as part of the picture, he was able to go against the grain by disregarding the anecdotes and saying something along the lines: “Well, that may appear that way, but what happens if we systematically tested that proposition with our strict laboratory methods?”
In honor of Ericsson, let me give you some bullet points of what I believe are his greatest contributions to our understanding of the science of expert performance:
- Ericsson expanded our notions of the limits of human potential. He showed us that across domains, humans are constantly pushing beyond what we once thought was the upper limit for what a human could achieve. Also, while correlations do exist between certain cognitive characteristics and outcomes, Ericsson showed that the correlations don’t necessarily indicate limits on what a person can achieve.
- Ericsson showed that what’s more important than the quantity of practice is the quality of the practice. In essence, Ericsson believed that practice has the most bang for its buck when it is deliberate, focused, and disciplined, and when there is constant feedback and targeted engagement in challenging exercises designed to constantly grow and develop beyond where was one at before. Ironically, in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell drew on Ericsson’s research to emphasize the “10,000 hour rule” when in reality Anders’ repeatedly focused on the quality of the practice, not the “magic number of greatness” (as Gladwell put it).
- Ericsson and his colleagues created a new paradigm for the field: the expert performance approach. The approach goes like this: Find a group of people who are consistently good at something– whether it’s selecting the next best chess move, playing a rapturous violin concerto, making an accurate medical diagnosis, or predicting a soccer player’s next move– and deign representative tasks that can be administered in the laboratory. Bring people with differing levels of expertise into the lab and try to figure out what cognitive processes separate the experts from the novices by employing a variety of experimental techniques, including verbal reports, reaction times, and eye tracking. Aspects of the stimuli– whether it’s a musical note, or a 30-digit number– can be manipulated to see how experts respond. Based on a rigorous experimental procedure, researchers can come up with theories of what they think is really going one instead of relying on reports from the performers themselves and the performers mentors, family, and friends (which are highly subjective).
- Ericsson showed that experts don’t just know more about their specific domain of expertise, their knowledge is better organized, with richer networks of information and connections between their networks. Experts also have more sophisticated mental representations that allow them to anticipate the next move, control the aspects of performance necessary to achieve at higher levels, and evaluate many different alternatives quickly before making the next move. This allows them to work forward from a given problem instead of shooting in the dark and working backward from the goal. Experts are quicker at recognizing the relevant information because they have many strategies stored in their densely connected forest of information.
- Ericsson and his colleague Walter Kintsch proposed a cognitive mechanism that gives experts their advantage: long-term working memory (LTWM). According to them, LTWM is not the same thing as short-term memory (the simple maintenance of information or chunks in a temporary state), working memory (which requires the simultaneous maintenance and manipulation of information), or even long-term memory (the retrieval of permanent memories). Instead, LTWM is a hybrid of working and long-term memory, and involves deep encoding of information temporarily held in working memory based on the storehouse of knowledge held in long-term memory. Experts use their LTWM to anticipate future moves and construct their more elaborate representations and schemas.
- Ericsson’s research showed the incredible potency of expertise, sometimes trumping IQ in predicting complex reasoning. For instance, studies show that poor, uneducated children can solve problems when the task allows them to draw on their expertise, but that they may fail when presented with abstract versions of the same problem. Similar results have been found for adults who can do quite complex reasoning within their area of expertise but do poorly operating on content that is not within their area of expertise—from bartenders remembering drink orders to expert grocery shoppers doing mental arithmetic.
- Ericsson’s research emphasized the importance of consistency for world-class expertise. Ericsson had a very specific and precise definition of expertise as “reproducibly superior performance“. As Ericsson and his colleagues repeatedly pointed out, just because someone is subjectively given the label “expert” doesn’t make that person an expert. As the comedian Steve Martin once noted, “It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances.”
Ultimately, Ericsson’s legacy wasn’t just his research. It was the manner which he approached the world and others, and his dedication to the scientific method. His legacy is his groundbreaking work which has laid the foundation for so many other scientists to take on the mantle, and his encouragement of other scholars to systematically test his theories.
Anders sure inspired me at a very deep personal level. When I made contact with his research, I finally had an explanation for how in the world I could surpass the perceived limitations of everyone around me as a child. How could I go from special education to get a PhD in human intelligence?
What I realized is not that I surpassed my “innate talent” limitations, but that I overcame the “perceived talent” limitations coming from the people around me as a child. In my own career, I have found this to be the case among so many children and adults who are “written off” due to the perceived limitations of others and even their own self-imposed limitations. Does this mean that anyone is capable of anything with enough quality deliberate practice? Probably not, but it does mean that people can often far exceed expectations.
Thank you Anders for your contribution to the world, and may you Rest In Peace.