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Does Mastering One Thing Help You Master Something Totally Different?

By Motley Fool Staff - Oct 11, 2017 at 4:03PM

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The human brain can be trained, and its power expanded. But does working one set of mental muscles offer cross-training benefits?

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 tackle questions posed by a Rule Breaker and Ericsson fan. First, can learning something totally unrelated to your primary skill set help improve your abilities in that skill? And how realistic is the polymath master archetype exemplified in the character of Sherlock Holmes? Are there any people with a large array of masteries?

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Oct. 4, 2017.

David Gardner: Actually, I want to mention that I first heard about your book from one of my listeners here at Rule Breaker Investing. It's a guy named Evan DaSilva, who was, at that time, a senior at the University of Michigan. He mentioned this book and I've read and enjoyed your book so much.

I did ask Evan to send me a question or two for the author, since I'm getting to talk to him right now, so these next two questions are coming from Evan. I'm dropping them in right now, because it connects very much with something that you just said in terms of trying to be really great at more than one thing.

The question that Evan had was, "First Abraham Lincoln learned geometry, even though his profession was law, because he thought mastering a hard topic would help boost his intellectual abilities to deal with other problems that came up. Is it possible, Dr. Ericsson, that learning something in-depth that is unrelated to your career could actually make you better at the field that you want to master?"

Anders Ericsson: I think that's a really interesting question, and one that, I guess, I've been talking to a lot of people about. And it has to do with how do you actually learn to engage in what we call deliberate practice? Because that really requires you to set goals outside of what you're currently able to do and then actually focus and gradually stretch yourself toward those goals.

And I believe that learning how to understand something, whether it's geometry or some other domain, if you approach that in that kind of systematic way, where you're actually developing your understanding, as opposed to -- which I guess a lot of students do -- they're trying to figure out the easiest way to get their homework done and basically are not really interested in fundamentally understanding what they're doing.

And we believe that if we look at people who have engaged in music and been successful during childhood and adolescence, or sports, or any of these other domains, that they have now learned some more general aspect of learning that they then can apply to whatever professional interest or, you know, professional domain that they eventually select for their lifetime.

Gardner: So, and that kicks, then, into Evan's second question, and I'm kind of paraphrasing here. It's sort of the Renaissance man question a little bit that we're talking about. So he wanted me to ask you, "How realistic is a character like Sherlock Holmes, who's mastered a number of intellectual disciplines, which he ties together with unparalleled logical skills while also being notably strong and skilled in jujitsu, shooting, boxing, violin, and other physical activities? Did Conan Doyle have some unique insights into performance? Indeed, Holmes certainly doesn't try to balance his interests, but rather he works obsessively on whichever one interests him at the moment."

Ericsson: I personally think that I don't know of anybody who'd reach international and world class that basically have a lot of different activities that they are trying to reach that extreme level. I think I know of some people who decide to be good at certain things. But one of the things that I've found when I explored more carefully these individuals is that they maybe pick two or three things that they are clearly better than most of their friends, and then focus in on those three things, and they really don't do the other things or aren't willing to be part of activities that would reflect their ability.

So it's almost like you get the impression here that they're great at everything because they're only restricting themselves to the kind of activities where they really made that investment. But they wouldn't really be world class, or at least that's not been my experience, that people become world class in really competitive domains at the same time.

Gardner: We can certainly think of Michael Jordan trying to take up baseball when he took that really interesting departure from the basketball court for a few years in his prime as maybe one such example.

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