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Secrets of Greatness: Practice and Hard Work

While most of us think natural talent explains greatness, science says otherwise.

Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn’t mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It’s an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, “The evidence we have surveyed … does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”

To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.

The irresistible question – the “fundamental challenge” for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University – is, Why? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.

Scientists worldwide have conducted scores of studies since the 1993 publication of a landmark paper by Ericsson and two colleagues, many focusing on sports, music and chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time. But plenty of additional studies have also examined other fields, including business.

The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It’s nice to believe that if you find the field where you’re naturally gifted, you’ll be great from day one, but it doesn’t happen. There’s no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice. Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.

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The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call “deliberate practice.” It’s activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one’s level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition. For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don’t get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day – that’s deliberate practice.

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Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn’t do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you’d expect: Ericsson notes, “Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s.” The more research that’s done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.

This is contrary to the findings of, for example, Herstein and Murray’s Bell Curve. An acorn will never grown into a pine tree, no matter how much care it is given. The precise amount that nature and nurture contribute to various traits is simply not known.

It’s inconceivable to me that I could have become, for example, an NFL quarterback or a Field Medal caliber mathematician had I simply worked harder. On the other hand, I could probably have played football at the small college level and gotten A’s in calculus given the proper motivation and dedication, which I lacked. Those who naturally excel at activities are far more likely to devote ten years of “deliberate practice” to them than those who are lousy.

Most of us never muster the level of dedication needed to achieve greatness, though, even in area where we have natural talent. Hard work, sustained on a daily basis, is, well, hard. People with a great deal of what has been termed “focused energy” somehow manage to persevere day after day, improving over time. Whether that’s a hard-wired natural predisposition or something that can be achieved, I haven’t the foggiest.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I would say that the study shows that while nature is an important trait, it is not sufficient nor determinate. You may not get to pick your field, but in the fields you are suited for, your success will depend on how you nurture your natural talents.

    To use your example, no amount of nurture is going to make the acorn into a pine tree, but it will sure have an effect on how big an oak tree might be produced.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I find it hard to believe that anyone will put the amount of devotion into anything to achieve greatness (whatever that may mean) that they don’t take a certain amount of joy in. Is the joy derived from nature or nurture? Some combination?

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  3. Just Me says:

    Also, I think niche areas may come into play. Some people may not be super smart, but they may excel in one or two areas, and if those one or two areas are something you can turn into success, then they can see success.

    I do think hard work is important-I don’t know that hard work alone makes somebody successful, but I am willing to bet that a lack of hard work doesn’t equal success, even when combined with talent. There was a very good football player at my University-he had a reputation as being lazy and not giving 110%. He left college early, was drafter fairly early, and lasted maybe two seasons in the NFL before he was let go. He was a very talented running back, but his lack of hard work caught up to him. While he could get by at the University level with his laziness on his talent alone, it just didn’t equal success at the proffessional level.

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  4. Herb says:

    I don’t know just how accurate this scientific is but I do agree with the conclusion.

    If one is in doubt, then just look a Exxon Mobile and their quarterly earnings. 10.490 Billion.
    Exxon Mobile sure knows how to fleece the American Public quite well and gets away with it, which may be proof of what the scientific community concludes

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