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.
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.
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.