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K. Anders Ericsson has spent much of his career studying what makes the world's best musicians and athletes the best. It turns out the old adage is true: Practice — 10,000 hours of it, to be precise — really does make perfect.

Ericsson, the Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at The Florida State University and an international expert on the topic of expertise, pioneered the idea that it is not innate talent that propels the greatest performers to the top of their field but practice — thousands of hours of a very focused and strategic kind that he calls "deliberate practice."

His argument that almost anybody could be the next Yo-Yo Ma or David Beckham if they start training young and invest roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over 10 years has brought Ericsson a lot of attention. "Freakonomics" authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have written about him, and several recent best-selling books on the subject of expertise, such as Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers: The Story of Success," also have featured his work.

Now, Ericsson, a native of Sweden, has been elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences.

"It is by far the most prestigious honor that I have received in my life," Ericsson said. "Coming from Sweden, being recognized by my colleagues means a tremendous amount to me."

The Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) was established in 1919 to promote the engineering and economic sciences for the benefit of society. Unlike in the United States, where the National Academy of Engineering is strictly about engineering, the IVA has members from a wide range of sciences, including the social sciences, psychology and business. King Carl XVI Gustaf is its highest patron and actively participates in IVA activities.

"This is a great honor that recognizes the enormous contribution that Anders' work has made," said Joseph Travis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which includes the psychology department. "His studies on expert performance have inspired applications in everything from developing skills in soccer to improving performance on Advanced Placement Course tests. The Royal Swedish Academy is acknowledging what other scientists have known for a long time: that Anders is one of the best."

Janet Kistner, chair of the psychology department, said Ericsson's work has really changed the way researchers think about expert performance.

"He has earned the reputation of the world's expert on expertise, and I am very pleased that his accomplishments have been formally recognized by such an elite academic group," she said.

It was in Sweden that Ericsson began the research that launched his career. As a doctoral student at the University of Stockholm, Ericsson wanted to see how the mind works to improve memory. Knowing that the average person can hear and recall about seven digits in a random sequence, such as a phone number, he wanted to find out if someone could be taught how to recall more numbers. With training, a graduate student was able to acquire skills that allowed him to store new information in his long-term memory. After about 200 hours, he was able to hear and repeat 80 random numbers — the most anybody in the world had achieved.

"That was the first demonstration that an ordinary person could acquire really remarkable levels of performance through training," Ericsson said. "Since then I haven't been studying in the laboratory. Instead, I've found experts who are really good at something and then analyzed what they're doing so we can get a better understanding of how they are able to perform at really high levels. We have found consistently that they are not innately different but they have acquired skills that seem impossible until you understand the thousands of hours they have devoted."

In fact, there is no scientific evidence that people are born with special gifts — other than perhaps the advantage that certain physical traits will bring to a sport — but Ericsson has amassed plenty of research to show that top performers of all kinds reached superstardom through deliberate practice. Ericsson's theory makes clear that no matter in what domain one is working — whether the arts, sports, or even medicine or business — the practice must involve setting specific goals, refining technique through repetition and receiving instruction and feedback.

Among those first experts he studied were violinists at the Music Academy of West Berlin in 1987. At the time, the thinking was that the very best violinists would have trained less because they were so gifted they did not need as much practice. In fact, he found the very best ones had practiced — again, the magic number — about 10,000 hours by the time they were 20. Their less accomplished peers had practiced less than half of that time.

Ericsson, who earned his doctorate in psychology in 1976 from the University of Stockholm, came to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University. He joined the faculty at Florida State in 1992 after serving on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the editor or co-editor of several books including "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance."

After decades of studying how superstars are made, Ericsson said the reason why his work has captured the public's attention in recent years is simple: "A lot of people want to be the very best they can be. The deliberate practice notion has kind of opened up the possibility that people can achieve higher levels of performance than they previously thought possible."

By Jill Elish

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