You may not have the frame to be an NBA frontcourt player, but everything else is pretty much open to you. And I do mean everything — musical ability, chess, mastery of calculus. Because the speed at which you acquire skill, and the level of expertise you eventually achieve, is primarily a function of how intensely, and how wisely, you practice.
This is the groundbreaking conclusion arrived at by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson — Conradi Eminent Scholar and professor of psychology at Florida State University. In 2006, he and his fellow researchers published the weighty Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, a compendium of the first century of study on humanity’s capacity for achievement.
According to Ericcson, the argument that genetically inherited talent is primarily responsible for one’s capacities dates to 1869, from the pages of Sir Francis Galton’s landmark Hereditary Genius. Ericcson writes:
Galton clearly acknowledged the need for training and practice to reach high levels of performance in any domain. However, he argued that improvements of performance for mature adults are rapid only in the beginning of training and that subsequent increases diminish, until “maximal performance becomes a rigidly determinate quantity.” According to Galton, the relevant heritable capacities determine the upper bound for the performance that an individual can attain through practice, and reflect the immutable limit that “nature has rendered him capable of performing.” …
Galton’s arguments for the importance of innate factors for attaining the highest levers of performance were compelling and thus, have had a lasting impact on our culture’s view of ability and expertise.
Galton’s initial advancement of the “born with it” argument stuck, and it’s easy to see why. People hitting impenetrable plateaus of achievement simply seems to be what’s happening.
Ericcson notes that later studies strengthened Galton’s theory. People tend to achieve an acceptable level of performance at most everyday activities (typing, driving a car, playing tennis) after less than 50 hours of practice time. Following the acquisition of an acceptable skill level, the skill becomes “automated” — one no longer needs to actively concentrate on the task. At this point, the plateau is observed, and further improvement is well nigh impossible for most people.
But not all. The “born with it” theory forwards that hereditary factors allow some to reach the highest levels of achievement, but only following many years of experience. Chess masters typically need ten years of play before being able to compete at an international level. Musicians generally do not reach their peak abilities until 20 to 30 years of exposure.
So Galton’s theory simply appeared to be correct — we have dominant hereditary limits, and these are only achieved following extensive experience. Twenty years of practice may occasionally produce Pete Sampras, but more likely it just produces a competent, competitive player.
So where’s the theoretical flaw?
Look again — it’s there. And Ericcson and his fellow scholars have explored and examined it, and concluded that the flaw is sufficient to sink Galton’s whole enterprise. Ahem:
Why does the upper limit of human achievement in various activities continue to rise? If we are genetically limited by heredity and time spent practicing, why are we able to continually break records?
Why is what was once considered to be expert-level performance now considered pedestrian?