Many people believe natural talent plays a big role in whether someone can achieve at the highest levels. Think of famous figures in the arts and sciences, such as Mozart and Einstein. Surely they had natural talent. They were geniuses, otherwise they couldn’t possibly have produced such beautiful music and such profound scientific breakthroughs. This is a common line of thinking, anyway: geniuses are born with innate gifts. If so, there’s not much point in the rest of us trying too hard, because without the right genes we have no chance of doing something really outstanding.
However, having analysed the phenomenon of genius through the lives of famous figures, concluded that the evidence is compatible with the proposition that geniuses are made, not born. Another way to test this claim is to look for someone who is different: someone who achieves at a high level without having to work as hard as the others. Investigators looking for someone with natural talent went into a violin academy, where hundreds of youngsters live and breathe music, most of them hoping for a career as a performing violinist or, if not that, a music teacher. The investigators examined the practice routines of the students at the academy. If natural musical talent exists, they reasoned, they should find some top students who don’t need to practise as much as the others. But there weren’t any such top students. The students performing at the highest level had spent more hours practising their violins than those at a lower performance level. The evidence thus suggested that the key to becoming an outstanding musician is thousands of hours of practice 2 .
The role of practice is often hidden, for two main reasons. One is that when people believe in natural talent, they discount the effect of practice. Another is that many people hide their own hard work from others and sometimes from themselves. Many students feel comfortable saying “I didn’t study much for that exam” but are less likely to want to say “I’ve been studying really hard for that exam.” Why? Often it’s because they believe in talent too.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist, has studied the effects of beliefs about the causes of success. In her book Mindset she distinguishes between two main ways of thinking that she calls the fixed and growth mindsets 3 A person with a fixed mindset believes talent or ability reflects an innate capacity, for example that some people are naturally good at sports and some will never be any good no matter how hard they try, or that some people are smart and some are not so smart. A lot of people buy into this, for example when they say “Michael Jordan — he was a natural” or “I’m no good at mathematics.” A person with the growth mindset believes, on the other hand, that success is the result of hard work, so the key to achievement is persistence 4
People with a fixed mindset are often worried about failure, because failure might reveal that actually they are no good — and that’s disastrous to their self-image. If you have no natural talent, what’s the use of trying? If you think you have no mathematical ability, why bother trying to solve a few equations? You’ll just embarrass yourself by your ineptitude.
The effects of having a fixed mindset are even worse in areas where you think you’re good. For those with a fixed mindset, it’s sometimes better not to try than to try and not succeed, because maintaining a belief in your own natural ability is crucial. Dweck gives examples of top performers with a fixed mindset, for example the tennis star John McEnroe who would throw tantrums when he was losing, blaming someone or something for his problems. McEnroe refused to compete in mixed doubles for 20 years after one serious loss. 5
The growth mindset leads to a very different set of responses. If you didn’t do so well in the swimming race, it means that you need to do more training, or refine your stroke, or adjust your tactics. Failure doesn’t signify anything about innate capacity, only about what happened on this particular occasion. With a growth mindset, you might say “I never put much effort into mathematics.” If you wanted to become better, you would develop a training programme.
If you want to become an expert performer, you need to work at it. That’s what the research shows. Genetics may play a role — you’ll never become a championship basketball player if you’re short — but genetics alone won’t get you all that far. Even those who apparently have loads of natural talent need to work hard. Having a growth mindset is a better foundation for the hard work required, because you’re less likely to be stymied by setbacks.
To play a really fast and complicated passage, the usual process is to master it bit by bit, initially playing it slowly enough so every note is correct, and then going over and over it
at a gradually faster speed, periodically going back to a slower tempo when something isn’t quite right. You notice that there’s a slight unevenness in a group of notes, so you slow down to a glacial pace so you can determine exactly which finger is causing the problem. You get the group of notes just right, then add the ones around it, carefully listening for the overall effect as well as precision in the challenging group. Through all of this, you have to concentrate. This isn’t routine like running through scales or playing a familiar piece.
Then you have a lesson with your teacher, who points out a few things you hadn’t noticed — you were actually missing a note in one place, getting the timing wrong in another, and sounding a bit too mechanical overall. Your teacher helps you focus on crucial facets of playing so when you practice, you’re going in the right direction.
Consider two pianists. One practises hard for an hour per day and builds up to a short performance once a month. The other pianist performs for three hours per day in a cocktail lounge. Which one will improve the most? According to the research on deliberate practice, it will be the one who concentrates the most on improvement, and that will probably be the one-hour-per-day player. The performing pianist can easily get into a routine and has little opportunity to diagnose problems and work carefully on difficult passages until they sound better. The point here is that just playing is not enough to become ever better — you need to practise.
A pianist who performs all the time seldom has an opportunity to slow things down and fix problems, or likewise to push the limits. There’s an audience, and the audience expects a decent performance. Concentrating on producing an acceptable performance is good for solidifying what it takes to perform at that level but not to extend it. Great pianists continue to practise intensively throughout their performing careers, typically several hours per day.
Becoming an expert performer requires laying down circuits in the brain that are highly efficient for the task involved. Every day through your life, new brain cells are created and the connections in your brain are changed. The brain is flexible and adaptable: it is moulded through use and experience. 7 Deliberate practice is a process of moulding the brain.
To become more expert, you need to tackle something that is sufficiently difficult to keep you alert. You concentrate, laying down new brain circuits. As a driver, you might take up racing: that requires attention! Or you might set yourself challenges such as minimising acceleration and deceleration or plotting a slightly different route each day. For a musician, you need to play ever more difficult pieces and prepare them at higher standards. For chess players, you need to play better opponents and analyse more complex positions.
In summary, developing the capacity for expert performance involves an interplay between conscious and unconscious processing. The goal is to make high-level performance automatic. But to get there, deliberate practice is needed, involving intense concentration — conscious attention — to areas needing improvement or reinforcement. This conscious processing lays the basis for more and more aspects of the performance to become automatic, namely run by the unconscious.
A high-level performer can ignore routine aspects of the job — they are being monitored by the unconscious — and concentrate on advanced aspects. An experienced driver doesn’t need to pay special attention to cars nearby but can concentrate on emerging traffic opportunities or risks. A skilled pianist worries less about getting the notes right and can concentrate more on expression and affinity with the audience. A highly rated chess player will automatically notice combinations in the next few moves and concentrate more on creating favourable positions further along.
Deliberate practice can be used in all sorts of fields besides chess, music and sports, for example to develop skills in management and teaching. 8 Most relevantly here, research on expert performance applies directly to writing.
Writing as expert performance
The key to becoming a good writer is deliberate practice, and lots of it over many years — not natural talent or some mystical notion of creativity.
The maximum amount of deliberate practice that people can maintain is about four hours per day. The limit is due to the requirement to maintain concentration. It’s quite possible to work on something for six, eight or more hours per day, but not with the same level of attention and effort.
A human’s capacity for deliberate practice may be debatable, but that is not the problem for most researchers, for whom the biggest challenge is setting aside any regular time at all for writing. To turn writing into a habit, it’s best to start small and gradually build up. Just 15 minutes per day doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a huge leap from none at all. Research on expert performance and the Boice-Gray approach to writing are completely in tune concerning the importance of practice. There’s no substitute for putting words on a page.
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- Michael J. A. Howe, Genius Explained (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). See also Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (New York: Basic- Books, 1993). ↩
- K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” Psychological Review, 100(3), 1993, 363-406. The authors used a much more rigorous research design than my description suggests. ↩
- Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine, 2006). ↩
- On the importance of persistence for success among physicists, see Joseph C. Hermanowicz, “What does it take to be successful?” Science, Technology, & Human Values, 31, 2006, 135-152. ↩
- Dweck, Mindset, 100. ↩
- K. Anders Ericsson, “The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance,” in K. Anders Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 685-706. ↩
- Sharon Begley, The Plastic Mind (UK: Constable, 2009); Richard Restak, Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential (New York: Harmony, 2001). ↩
- Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World- class Performers from Everybody Else (New York: Penguin, 2010); Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code. Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How (New York: Bantam, 2009); David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told about Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong (New York: Doubleday, 2010). ↩