Anders Ericsson on Becoming Great
Anders Ericsson is the author of Peak and the world’s leading expert on what it takes to become truly great at something. He’s studied masters in different fields and has discovered the common practices that separate the best from the rest. Our conversation covers deliberate practice, how to use mental representations, the skills that our kids should be learning, and why we grow to love things as we are becoming better.
The podcast with Anders goes hand-in-hand with episode 1 with Josh Waitzkin. Anders has done more research than anyone on mastery and understands the commonalities of the best. Josh has been at the tip of the spear in chess, Tai Chi push hands, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and in The Art of Learning explains in details his process of mastery.
In the conversation we reference my Paddlewoo Podcast with Kai Lenny. You can listen to that here.
The Importance of Quality in Mental Representation
Since our forced move to the states I’ve been finding flow where I can. One of those places is on the e-kart track. In Jacksonville we have an Autobahn Speedway that has e-karts which go insanely fast given the short track. The laps are electronically timed, and there is a screen after the timeline where you see your time on every lap. It’s the fasted deliberate practice loop I’ve found for a complex activity.
Driving is in my blood more than surfing. My dad raced cars, and I got my first go-kart at 10 years old. I love driving, and have found myself drawn to the track after a day of no surf or wind.
I’m getting better, times have dropped to within 1 second of the best track times, 18.4, but that last second is exponential. The closer you get the harder it is. Last week I plateaued at a 19.3.
The race gene is in both of my kids, and it’s a great family activity. We draw lines and strategize passes, then go test our ideas. On Monday my daughter and I decided to go early in hopes that we could drive together. Usually juniors and adults can’t, but if the track is empty they will allow it. We wanted to drive together so I could show her some new lines. The track was, and we shared an insane race and in following me she knocked a second off her best time.
It just so happened that Chris, the overall track leader, was there at the same time. He used to work at the speedway and now shows up early to drive before it gets crowded. I asked him if he would race with me and let me follow his lines. He agreed.
Driving is like anything else. At some point we didn’t know anything. We find what works for us and then get better at doing it and then we level off somewhere. The thing is, we rarely initially land on the best practice for a skill. So, our subsequent refinement is getting us better, but the foundation isn’t ideal. And no amount of practice will get us to the tip of the spear.
Following Chris blew my minid. His lines were completely counterintuitive to the way I approached the course. My goal had always been to shorten the track while smoothing out the corners, driving the shortest fast distance. But in two corners Chris lengthened the track, actually diving outside, staying wide and fast for an additional 8 feet and then diving in, carrying 4 or 5mph more through the turn. Trading speed for distance. These lines weren’t in my database for driving representations.
Chris let me follow him for 12 laps at a distance of 2 to 4 feet. It might be the most pure mental representation experience that I’ve ever felt. In those laps I was able to internalize his lines, how they felt, and can now run visualizations that I had never imagined.
So, the next time you’re hitting a plateau, maybe working harder isn’t the answer. Maybe it’s time to find a better model.