The Expertise Expert Explains the 3 Kinds of Practice

In this Rule Breaker Investing podcast, David Gardner is highly pleased to interview Dr. Anders Ericsson, one of the world's foremost experts on expertise. His work has been cited in multiple best sellers, including Moonwalking with Einstein, Outliers, and How Children Succeed. It also was the basis for an idea that Malcolm Gladwell popularized -- the "10,000 Hour Rule," which posits that it takes that much practice to reach mastery of a skill. Of course, as Ericsson has oft repeated since then, there's a lot more to mastery than that.

In this segment, they talk about the three types of practice, and why doing the right kind matters so much more than the amount of time spent.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Oct. 4, 2017.

David Gardner: Now we have to talk some about practice. There's practice. There's purposeful practice. There's deliberate practice. These three terms, while a lot of us may not have association with them, are really technical terms and they're very important to Dr. Ericsson's work. Glibly, I asked, earlier, does practice make perfect? One of our podcast personalities here at The Motley Fool, Mac Greer, said that he had a junior high band director who used to say, "Practice perfect makes perfect." Let me ask you, Dr. Ericsson. Could you lay out these three types of practice?

Anders Ericsson: Just taking an example of a tennis player who's playing doubles tennis. You basically start up, and then maybe after six months or a year, you're able to play. You keep the ball so you can actually have a game with your friends. Now, just engaging in that kind of play, some people might refer to as practice. And some people, when they're just doing their job, they would think of that as being practice. Well, we refer to that as "naive practice." You're just reacting to the situations you're in and doing your best. You're really not trying to change what you're doing.

I would argue that what we call "purposeful practice" is that when you actually look at what you're doing, you're pinpointing out something that you want to change. This is now something that you would spend extra special time engaging in. So if you want to practice your serve, you could actually do that by yourself. Do one serve after the other. You could see where they're landing, and you would try to improve the power and control that you have over the serve.

We refer to that as purposeful practice, because you have identified, now, something that you can change, and you're now focusing in on training that would actually allow you to change and improve that particular aspect. One of the problems is that if you're just trying to improve something like your serve, it becomes even harder if you want to improve your backhand. When you're figuring out things that you can do by yourself to improve, this is purposeful practice.

Now, when you seek out a teacher and that teacher can take a look at your game and say, "Hmm, you would really be able to improve your game if you worked on your backhand volley," now the coach can help you get the fundamental strokes right when you're standing there by the net, and then you would be forced to run up to the net, perhaps, and finally integrate it into the game. The argument is that with a coach, you will actually be able to improve your backhand so much more than if you were just playing the game and occasionally running into an opportunity for a backhand volley that you may not be able to control.

Gardner: So from naive practice -- the phrase I should have led off with -- naive practice to purposeful practice to "deliberate practice." And you use a term called "homeostasis," which I think is one of the key concepts that I want my listeners to hear about. Could you define homeostasis and its role within better and better practice?

Ericsson: Right. Maybe running is a good example. If you just run the same route at the same speed day after day...

Gardner: Guilty as charged, although I wish I did do it day after day. I'd be a much better human being. But keep going.

Ericsson: Well, the thing is that after a while you will adapt to that, and if you see how fast you can run races, you're not going to see an improvement. The argument is that if you want to change something, you need to do something that will get your body out of this comfort state of doing an activity that you're used to be doing, so you actually have to push it. And one of the more effective ways to improve your speed for running, say, 10Ks, is "interval running," where you actually are running as fast as you can for maybe 10 or 15 seconds and then you walk until you recover, and then you push yourself again.

That kind of pushing will now push you outside this comfort zone, and the biochemicals that are generated will stimulate genes to start to be activated. That will lead to more capillaries and all sorts of physiological adaptations in your body, which, in turn, will actually allow you to run faster.

Gardner: So it is that process of getting outside of what I might call and you call, quotes, "good enough," and pushing ourselves outside of that if we want to get better at something. And I think it's worth putting in a quick note here, for those lazy bums among us -- and I include myself for most -- that homeostasis being good enough for a lot of areas of life is just fine.

Ericsson: Exactly, and if you tried to be world class in any of a hundred different activities, I would be very surprised if you were able to get even close.

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