A lot of people believe in natural talent. They believe that some individuals have a genetic advantage, enabling them to perform far better than others. For example, Mozart is assumed to have a natural talent for music and Einstein for physics, and there are numerous star athletes whose performance seems so fantastic that they must be genetic freaks.
Researcher Anders Ericsson challenged this belief. With two colleagues, he studied violinists at a violin academy in Berlin. They divided the students into three groups: the most highly accomplished, those least accomplished and those in between. They then asked students how much violin practice they had undertaken in their lives.
If some of the violin students had natural talent, you would think that they could be in the most highly accomplished group with far less practice than others. But no, all of the top performers had put in large amounts of practice. Although the correlation between practice and performance was far from perfect, nonetheless none of the students seemed to be able to reach the highest level without thousands of hours of practice.
Furthermore, the practice needed to be of a particular type, involving students intensely concentrating on performance challenges at the edge of their abilities, under the guidance of experienced teachers. Ericsson called this “deliberate practice.” Just playing through the same easy pieces didn’t enable improvement. Deliberate practice did.
Ericsson went on to further investigate what is called “expert performance,” which refers to high-level performance in a domain where there are well-established and relatively objective criteria. Such domains include classical music, chess and competitive sports. In art, law or business, for example, measuring performance is more subjective.
Practice is essential for success in classical ballet
Although practice may be essential for outstanding performance, lots of practice does not guarantee such performance. It is difficult to determine the quality of an individual’s practice, given that this involves the level of focus interacting with the suitability of the challenge for one’s development. One person’s ability and willingness to focus may differ quite a bit from another’s. There is still much to learn about deliberate practice.
The strong interpretation of research on expert performance is that there is no such thing as natural talent. In some sports, like basketball, inherited physical attributes such as height make a difference but, other than this, the key to high-level performance is practice.
When you learned to drive a car, you had to practise. However, most people, after they can drive competently, stop practising. After you obtained your licence, you had no need to continue to improve. You can gain experience by driving a lot, but this does not do much for your skills. If you want to learn to drive a bus or a race car, this requires additional training.
In most domains, people practise until they are competent but then use their skills without additional focused practice. This applies in sales, carpentry, nursing and indeed most occupations.
Not everyone accepts the research on expert performance: belief in natural talent is deep-seated. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m no good at maths.” Underlying such statements is an assumption that they lack natural talent and hence can never hope to achieve even a modest competence. Additionally, some researchers contest claims made by Ericsson and others who study expert performance.
In 2008, science writer Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was published. Gladwell popularised expert performance research, including the “10,000 hour rule,” the idea that to become a world-class performer in any field, it’s necessary to devote 10,000 hours to deliberate practice. Gladwell gave the example of the Beatles, who spent long hours performing in German night clubs before their breakthrough into stardom. Unfortunately, Gladwell’s account of expert performance research was flawed.
Ericsson, in collaboration with writer Robert Pool, wrote the book Peak, published in 2016. I reviewed it at the time. Peak provides an accessible treatment of research on expert performance and its implications for a variety of endeavours. Along the way, Ericsson and Pool address Gladwell’s example of the Beatles.
They say that Gladwell had one important point right, namely that developing high-level skills requires a great amount of practice. However, contrary to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is not a special number for attaining world-class status, nor is any “rule” involved. The Beatles did indeed spend many hours performing in German nightclubs, but this was performance, not practice, and would contribute little to their skills. In any case, the Beatles never became great performers. Their most significant contribution was in song-writing, especially by Lennon and McCartney, so attention should be on the amount and quality of time that Lennon and McCartney spent becoming better song-writers.
Lennon and McCartney at work songwriting
David Epstein is another popular writer who has addressed expert performance. In his 2013 book The Sports Gene, he explored the role of genetics in sporting eminence. It is a fascinating book, with many examples. Epstein gives an account of research on expert performance, arguing that genetic factors play a much greater role. As a counter-example to the requirement for extensive practice, Epstein describes the case of a basketball player named Donald Thomas who jumped an impressive height at his first attempt at the high jump and before long won the world championship.
Ericsson has made a special project of studying claims of elite performance without much prior practice and found all of them wanting. In Peak, Ericsson and Pool point out that Thomas had competed in the high jump in high school. Subsequently, as a basketball player, he prided himself on dunking the ball, something that involves many of the same jumping muscles and skills as the high jump. So actually he could not be considered as lacking practice relevant to high jumping.
Having read The Sports Gene, I saw Epstein’s new book Range, and read it hoping to see how he would respond to Ericsson’s analysis. Range is an engaging account of what it takes to succeed in a variety of fields. Epstein argues that early specialisation and training may not be the best option. Instead, it is worthwhile to explore a range of activities until you find the one that best matches your interests. Range gives many revealing examples of individuals who have sampled diverse careers before finding one at which they excelled. Epstein also tells of how non-specialists can sometimes solve difficult problems that stump specialists.
Range in some ways seems to be a reply to Peak. Indeed, Epstein at various points argues that the 10,000-hour rule is relevant only for a narrow group of individuals and activities. As I read through Range, I found many valuable insights about what it takes to succeed, but also an unfortunate dismissal of insights about expert performance. It makes sense to try out different activities and then to pursue one that appeals to you. But once you’ve obtained what Epstein calls “match quality,” namely matching your interests to an endeavour, then it’s time to put in lots of practice. However, Epstein hardly mentions the effort required after finding your ideal match.
By my reading, deliberate practice is a necessary counterpart to finding the activity you want to pursue. I asked myself, why didn’t Epstein give due acknowledge to the role of practice? Why didn’t he take on board the arguments in Peak? I can’t answer these questions, but I did make a more detailed analysis of the arguments in Range in the light of expert performance research. This has been useful for my own understanding.
To become a best-selling author, like Gladwell and Epstein, perhaps it helps to make striking and memorable claims. Few scholars are good at this: to be published in academic journals, it’s usually necessary to write in scholarly style, with citations of previous work, exhaustive details about methods and results, and commonly in indigestible prose. When scholars seek to write in a more accessible way, often they are assisted by co-authors or editors, indeed as with Ericsson and Pool’s Peak. Some popularisations are true to the underlying research but others may have misrepresentations. How can you tell the difference? There’s no easy answer. All I can suggest is that if a topic is important to you, it is worthwhile exploring some of the underlying research papers yourself, reading reviews, and looking for contrary points of view. Along the way, you’re developing your own understanding. After a few thousand hours of this exploration, you might become really good at it!