A top psychologist says you can't call yourself an expert unless you've gotten things wrong - a lot


"Very few people like to make mistakes."


This from Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who's spent decades studying the science of expertise. Ericsson was speaking with bestselling business author Daniel Pink about deliberate practice, which he says is the only way to become a pro in any field.

Deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, is what separates the greats from the not-so-greats. It's a process of continually stepping outside your comfort zone, setting precise goals, and enlisting a teacher who helps you hit those goals.

It's also, as Ericsson told Pink, about failing a lot - and being okay with that. Not many people are.

Here's the full quotation from Ericsson on failure:


"You're going to fail a number of times before you're able to consistently perform at this new level. Very few people like to make mistakes. Embedding it in a long-term process where you get better, that's the foundation for providing you with the information that you need to be able to make adjustments."

In his recent book, "Peak," co-written with the journalist Robert Pool, Ericsson uses real-life examples to illustrate the function of regular failure.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carl Wieman and colleagues developed a program for a physics class at the University of British Columbia. Part of the program emphasized the importance of repeating the same concepts and getting feedback.

Ericsson and Pool write that students received "feedback that identified their mistakes and showed them how to correct them," sometimes from each other and sometimes from the instructors. "The important thing was that the students were getting immediate responses that told them when they were doing something wrong and how to fix it," Ericsson and Pool write. The idea was to institute a "regular cycle of try, fail get feedback, try again, and so on."

After 12 weeks, students in this class performed 2.5 times better on an exam than students who hadn't used these methods.


Ericsson also cites the example of Benjamin Franklin, who reportedly taught himself to write well by copying the style of essays published in the English gentleman's magazine The Spectator. Specifically, Franklin would read an essay, summarize it, and then try writing his own version to see if his was better than the original.

"If he found places where he'd failed to order his thoughts as well as the original writer," Ericsson and Pool write, "he would correct his work and try to learn from his mistakes."

Bottom line: Making mistakes and correcting them is rarely a thrilling process. But it's often necessary to reach the next level of performance. The key part is getting comfortable with - and even embracing - the opportunity to fail.

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