“America’s Got Talent!” proclaims the title of the popular TV show. A more provocative question is, “Does anyone have talent?” A dichotomy regarding expertise exists, especially in America. For one, we hear things like “Practice makes perfect” that extol the virtues of working hard as the road to greatness. On the other hand, we hear how some people are simply innately talented or gifted – “He’s such a natural athlete!” or “Just listen to her play the piano – she’s so musically gifted!” In Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, acclaimed journalist Geoff Colvin takes on this question.
Colvin eloquently presents the research findings and corroborating stories to debunk the notion that there is some special innate talent that separates top performers from average Joes (and Joannas). Whether we are talking chess grandmasters, piano virtuosos, memory whizzes, Scrabble champions, or elite athletes, study after study consistently finds that there are not any discernible, quantifiable abilities that characterize the most adept performers.
Lets just take Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example. Clearly he created many works of genius. This is not in question. The question is, did he inherently possess skills that are one in a billion? Colvin demonstrates that a close an examination of Mozart’s life yields a resounding ”no” to that. Wolfgang’s father, Leopold, was a fairly accomplished musician and composer in his own right, but was also an instructor. He began Wolfgang’s musical instruction at a very young age – around 3 – and Wolfgang trained (or was trained?) for countless hours. Although many astounding accomplishments have been attributed to Mozart’s precocity (e.g., composing at age 5), his first work that was considered “genius” was not completed until he was 21 years of age. That’s after 18 YEARS of very rigorous practice! Now, what would have been truly exceptional and an unmatched level of innate genius is if Mozart had composed The Magic Flute at age 5. And in that regard, he didn’t even come close…and no one else has either.
Whether we are talking about Tiger Woods, Marie Curie, Wayne Gretzky, Joshua Bell, Steffi Graf, or Bobby Fischer, the common thread among these…and any…top performer is (drum roll, please): deliberate practice. Practicing…meaning just doing the activity for many hours over time…does not improve our performance much after a certain point. Deliberate practice is the tough stuff – the boring, “grinding it out” aspect of practice that the majority of people avoid. It is practicing scales or other specific finger movements on the violin over and over again with basically no built-in rewards. It is hitting the same drop shot in tennis practice hundreds of times just to gain small, almost imperceptible improvements. In martial arts, it might be practicing the same submission move hundreds or thousands of times until it is instinctive. Moreover, these hours of deliberate practice are done under the guidance of top instructors or coaches from early on to guide and mold the “prodigy.”
Colvin points out that there are some chess grandmasters who have average IQs, Scrabble champions with below average verbal IQs, and memory experts who possess only average memories. Regarding the training of memory, Colvin chronicles how one college student performed no better than average on standardized tests of memory prior to practicing a specific memory task. When asked to repeat a string of orally presented digits, this student could initially only recall about 7 digits, which is a typical amount. But with ongoing, deliberate practice, this individual was able to accurately repeat a string of 82 digits!
A big nod to the research findings chronicled in Talent is Overrated comes from the pioneering work of Swedish psychologist Dr. Anders Ericsson who is one of the world’s foremost experts on expertise. And he’s only an expert on this subject through deliberate practice – his expertise is not innate! Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers is also partly inspired by Ericsson’s groundbreaking work. To become an expert, a top-performer, Ericsson found that we need about 10,000 hours of training. Gladwell dubbed this the “10,000 Hour Rule.” That comes to 20 hours per week for 10 years. If we put that amount of time in, we WILL become experts at whatever endeavor we have chosen. But again, it isn’t JUST doing the 10,000 hours that will make us experts – as if that isn’t challenging enough. To truly become elite at an activity, a very large portion of these hours must come in the form of the deliberate practice. This type of painstaking, grinding practice is what most people avoid.
Now, this is not to say that genetics or innate attributes don’t come into play at all. I mean, a guy who is 5’10″ isn’t going to be able to play center in the NBA or become an NFL lineman. Also, some people might have a certain innate attributes (e.g., strength, speed, intelligence) that might help them excel at an activity more quickly than their peers who are average in these same attributes. However, over time the deliberate practice will easily trump innate ability.
For the sake of argument, let’s compare a girl with tremendous innate musical ability at age 5 (let’s call her Sarah) with another girl (also age 5) of average innate musical ability (let’s call her Mary). Although very “talented,” Sarah never really dedicates herself to practicing a musical instrument. She just takes a few piano lessons here and there, sings along to her favorite artists, does some karaoke, but never really dedicates herself to any one instrument. Mary, on the other hand, takes up piano at age 5 and puts in 10,000 hours of practice (much of it deliberate) over the next 10 years under the tutelage of a masterful teacher . Now Sarah and Mary are both 15, and they sit down to for a little musical competition at the piano. Who can play which songs competently? Who’s going to win this friendly competition? Despite Sarah’s greater innate musical ability, Mary’s practice is going to totally blow Sarah out of the water (er, off the piano bench). Mary will be playing Mozart and Sarah will be playing Jingle Bells. If we switched out athletic or mathematical ability for musical ability, we would see the same results.
What we have to remember is that it is impossible to distinguish innate ability from an acquired skill. Joey, the four-year old who seems like such the natural athlete on his first organized soccer team, has likely been throwing, hitting, and kicking balls around regularly with his parents (both of whom were former competitive athletes) since he was 2. Plus, he’s been getting LOTS of encouragement and positive reinforcement for his athletics from his parents and relatives. PLUS he tries to keep up with his older siblings, who are also athletes. So, by the time Joey starts his first soccer practice, he might have already had hundreds of hours of athletic practice in one form or another. When we see Joey doing so well at his soccer practices, we don’t know this back-story behind his “gifts.”
So, we have the good news/bad news from the research on expertise. The good news: Virtually anyone can be an expert at anything he or she chooses, providing that the he/she put in countless hours of deliberate practice over the course of many years (and with high-quality instructors). It’s mainly a matter of choice. Well, cost does come into play for those high-caliber instructors! The bad news: It is a grind to become an expert AND, if we aren’t an expert at something, we can’t really just use the excuse that “I have no artistic talent” or the like. It has been said that there are no shortcuts to success, and the same can be said for becoming an expert.
What might be a more of a “gift” than innate talent is an internal drive to become elite at an activity – to endure the grind of countless hours of deliberate practice over the course of years. There are plenty of tiger parents who coerce their children into working these countless hours to become great, but I think this comes at a price. The child who passionately pursues an activity year after year because he or she loves it so much, now THAT is a rarity for sure.