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You Can Achieve Whatever You Set Your Mind To — No, Really!

Decades of study on expertise prove that virtually anyone can be great at anything — "bad genes" are an excuse, not a cause.

by
David Steinberg

Bio

August 23, 2009 - 12:31 am

As sporting competition tends to induce ego-driven behavior, I assume I was not the only high-school athlete to bristle when a new kid on the team — one who had never played the sport before — was suddenly outperforming me and taking my glory.

Bruised and desperate, I commonly used the “natural athlete” defense. They were, and I was not, and that’s a life lesson. Several of my teammates were similarly “born with it,” whereas I treaded water. Sweaty and determined, proud even, but never notably improving my skills or athleticism.

Maturity softened the blow, and I accepted that a man like me — a body like mine — simply wasn’t meant to compete at a higher level. I stopped playing baseball, didn’t make my Division III college tennis team, and that was okay.

I simply wasn’t “talented.” Right?

Absolutely.

But strangely enough, it turns out that neither were they.

Athletes acquiring new skills at different speeds, and peaking at different levels of competence, is the rule. And genetically-coded capacity — otherwise known as “talent” — is generally the accepted cause. This is likely because the conventional wisdom of the “talent” argument goes a ways toward soothing the emotions of the less-accomplished teammate.

Only problem is, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. The “talent” fallacy is so obviously false that it should have been dumped long ago, a failed theory best left for the trash man along with a Smith machine and the old food pyramid. Off to the dump where it can’t hurt you any longer. The Human Genome Project has yet to discover the “Sampras” gene, and you shouldn’t expect an RNA-modifying, grass-court specialist “Wimbletrex” pill in your lifetimes.

That new kid who just picked up a racquet and stole my starting spot? He got better — faster — because he practiced better. And practicing well is an acquired behavior — not an innate ability.

Which is good news for all of us.

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?

“I Found Longer Races Boring. I Found the Mile Just Perfect.”

Four minutes.

As of 1954, it was considered the upper limit of human performance. Then Sir Roger Bannister posted a 3:59.4 — “the Miracle Mile.”

It was not a miracle for long. The long-standing barrier was rapidly broken by several men.

In 2009, the four-minute mile is an expected ability of top runners, and Morocco’s Hicham El-Guerrouj holds the record at 3:43.13.

Olympic swimmers of the early 20th century put up times that would land them on high school junior varsity squads today.

Same top-shelf genes, but significantly less practice time, is consistently producing far superior results. The only answer? People saw what Roger Bannister was doing to prepare, and they copied it. They produced the same, or improved, performances.

Dr. Ericcson and his fellows asked a radical question. If the nature of one’s practice activity is of such crucial importance and if an individual is able to progress from an elite to being the world’s best solely through better practice, is it possible that the same individual advanced through each lower level of achievement the same way?

Roger Bannister progressed from elite to world record holder because of his preparation techniques. Did he also progress from competitive to elite because of his preparation? From novice to competitive? Is it possible his path from absolute beginner to record holder was entirely due to his practice habits?

Dr. Ericcson and his brethren study how the best of the best get better. The data, now piled high, clearly trends towards a common conclusion:

As a rule, experts practice things differently. Better than the rest of us, and similar to each other.

Genetics, heredity, and “talent”? The evidence simply isn’t there, or is overwhelmed by the practice factor.

So what are they doing? And can you learn to do it, too?

Nature Does Not Assign Your Upper Limit: The Theory of “Deliberate Practice”

Dr. Ericcson coined the term “deliberate practice” to represent habits that are conducive to achieving the highest levels of performance. One’s level of ability is very strongly predictive of how much time one has spent engaged in these types of activities — much more so than any genetic markers.

And you are absolutely capable of learning how to practice like the experts. While some aspects of deliberate practice are activity-specific, the core aspects will help you whether you are memorizing state capitals, playing the flute, or trying to execute perfectly balanced, mechanically advantaged clean-and-jerks.

First, two contributing factors that are not practice habits, but are absolutely necessary to performance improvement. …

1. Passion

Dr. Ericcson writes of his fellow researcher Benjamin Bloom, who concluded that:

elite performers are typically introduced to their future realm of excellence in a playful manner at a young age. As soon as they enjoy the activity and show promise compared to peers in the neighborhood, their parents help them seek out a teacher and initiate regular practice.

Want to improve? Be great? Passion matters. Rarely does an expert form who neither enjoys their mastered activity nor has a driving desire to improve. Pete Sampras likely found tennis to be a childhood love affair. He dreamt it, lived it, daydreamed it. Endless hours of practice are rigorous, and only the passionate tend to endure them.

Earl Woods wrote about consistently affirming that Tiger had developed his own passion for golf. He insisted that the boy finish his homework before practicing, and he noted that Tiger did indeed see golf as a reward. He insisted that Tiger call him at work, presumably an intimidating task for the child, so that he could ask his father if they could practice. Tiger Woods had a passion to improve that outweighed the rigors.

The less passionate? Ericcson writes:

Many individuals seem satisfied in reaching a merely acceptable level of performance, such as amateur tennis players and golfers, and they attempt to reach such a level while minimizing the period of effortful skill acquisition. Once an acceptable level has been reached, they need only to maintain a stable performance, and often do so with minimal effort for years and decades.

I, and likely you, never cared to be an excellent typist. I worked on it until it felt like “riding a bike” and then stopped trying to improve. My speed has not risen since, despite decades of experience.

Live it, breathe it, love it, or you probably will not get there, no matter what you do to prepare or how much experience you collect.

2. Opportunity/Access

Look again at Dr. Bloom’s quote:

As soon as they enjoy the activity and show promise compared to peers in the neighborhood, their parents help them seek out a teacher and initiate regular practice.

Again, this is not a practice habit, but an essential — and obvious — factor in the development of excellence.

Experts have likely received a remarkable amount of support from their parents and teachers. They have been driven back and forth to practice to receive the best available instruction, ferried across the country to enter various competitions, and some families are even relocated to be closer to the best teachers and training facilities. Says Bloom:

[A]ccess to the best training resources is necessary to reach the highest levels.

Why don’t the Olympic water polo players tend to come from New England? It isn’t because the gene pool is better in California.

Not too many top female scientists, athletes … female anythings, really, develop within Islamic countries. We don’t need DNA analysis to understand that isn’t hereditary.

Those two factors assumed, we arrive at …

The Habits of Experts

1. Practice is Work, Not Play

Remember those summer nights when you would shoot hoops, or ride your bike, or play catch until you couldn’t make out the ball in the dark anymore? It was heaven. It was also playtime for you.

Those five hours you spent launching threes, or on the tennis court “hitting” with a friend? You spent most of that time at play. Larry Bird and Pete Sampras spent significantly more of that time trying to improve. You missed a shot, grabbed the rebound, and went back to shoot again.

Bird? He missed a shot, then thought about why he missed it, and concentrated on not making the same mistake on his next attempt.

Two shots, the same ten seconds of exposure to the sport, but Bird got more out of it.

Not true, you say? You were practicing every bit as hard as Bird, but still got cut from your varsity team?

If you aren’t as good as Bird was, the likeliest truth is that you simply were not working as hard or were not as mentally engaged as you thought you were. Experts, across the board — musicians, writers, stock traders — provably and consistently spend the most time practicing in a manner that focuses on improvement. If you aren’t as good as the next guy, the simple truth is that he likely practices better and longer than you.

2. Constant, Consistent Concentration

Practice is a neurological activity. Concentrating on making every single attempt better than the last one is difficult and draining — for everyone. But it is necessary.

That type of awareness is not easy to perform, and the energy it requires is often a limiting factor. How limiting? Ericcson writes:

Expert performers from many domains engage in practice without rest for only around an hour, and they prefer to practice early in the morning when their minds are fresh. Elite musicians and athletes report that the factor that limits their deliberate practice is primarily an inability to sustain the level of concentration that is necessary … the amount of practice never consistently exceeds five hours per day. … In some domains of sports, such as gymnastics, sprinting, and weight lifting, the maximal effort necessary for representative performance is so great that the amount of daily deliberate practice is even further limited by factors constraining the duration of production of maximal power and strength.

3. Find Suitable Training Tasks That Promote Gradual Improvement

Experts do not approach practice by simply saying, “I’m going to go work on my game.” They instead present themselves with specific tasks that they can master in a matter of hours.

Working on your free throws? Don’t just start shooting. Give your self a reachable, relevant goal: “I’m going to work on proper follow through today. I will finish every shot with full extension.”

Ericcson writes:

Deliberate practice presents performers with tasks that are initially outside their current realm of reliable performance, yet can be mastered within hours of practice.

Olympic weightlifter? Don’t just work on your snatch — work on your scoop for a few hours, with a focus on nailing it every time. Work on maintaining back angle during the first pull. Pick something outside your current abilities, but shortly attainable.

4. Accurate, Rapid Feedback

Ericcson notes that, among doctors, surgeons tend to consistently improve throughout their careers. Family doctors? They tend to plateau. Why is this?

So you’re concentrating and setting proper goals? It doesn’t matter if you aren’t made aware — immediately after, when your actions are still fresh — if you’re actually performing them better.

You have to know what proper technique is, and then you have to know if you just did it. Surgeons improve because they know, instantly, if the surgery went well. Either they got the tumor out or they didn’t. They reattached the tendon, or they didn’t. Family doctors? They see a sick child, diagnose and prescribe the illness, and then do not see the child for months. Did the drugs work? Was the diagnosis right? If they do not know precisely what they did correct, and they do not know precisely what they did wrong, they simply have nothing to work with.

Feedback is an area where proper coaching comes into play. Your chances of rapid improvement at a task are greatly improved if a reliable source is telling you what just happened and if you should emulate that action or alter it. On your own, you simply have to be as informed and aware as possible regarding the activity. The introduction of video cameras in the training environment is a great resource, and absolutely recommend as a training tool for clients and coaches.

5. Always Avoid Automation

Getting “in the zone,” being “unconscious” — that’s for competition time. Practice must be the exact opposite, no matter your level of expertise. Never, ever let your practice time start to feel like “riding a bike.” Want to hit a plateau and get stuck? Automation is the culprit.

Let’s look at Ericcson’s quote again:

Many individuals seem satisfied in reaching a merely acceptable level of performance, such as amateur tennis players and golfers, and they attempt to reach such a level while minimizing the period of effortful skill acquisition. Once an acceptable level has been reached, they need only to maintain a stable performance, and often do so with minimal effort for years and decades.

Recall the typist example? I reached an acceptable typing speed, and then stopped thinking about how to improve my speed and accuracy. As a result, the skill has become automated for me. It takes me minimal effort to perform the activity, which is nice, but decades of experience have not and cannot increase my skill.

Experts never allow themselves to reach the automation phase.

This cannot be overstated. Conscious awareness of performing your activity is absolutely required to improve. Ericcson writes:

After individuals [reach a satisfactory level], they can generate their performance virtually automatically with a minimal amount of effort. In contrast, expert performers counteract automaticity by developing increasingly complex mental representations to attain higher levels of control of their performance.

What is Tiger Woods doing when he practices hours a day on skills he’s already mastered? He is avoiding automation, maintaining awareness of the movements and constantly refining them. He is subsequently, and stunningly, still getting better.

Allen Iverson is famous for skipping practice but being able to turn it on at game time. He is also known for putting up the same bad shooting percentage every year, and essentially having the same skills he had as a rookie.

Weakness to Strength

I recently spent an hour on a ball machine at the Roosevelt Island tennis courts, preceded by telling myself “I am going to spend this time improving my backhand.” Aware that this was not a specific enough goal, I first tried to pinpoint what needed work.

My first stroke, I was off balance. Teetered forward on my toes. I didn’t let that happen again.

The machine was capable of changing speeds, and I missed a faster paced ball  because I hadn’t gotten my racquet back and my body turned in time. I concentrated on this skill, and while I may have hit some additional poor shots during the hour, none of them were the result of starting a late swing.

Sixty minutes later, I was mentally exhausted. And invigorated about the sport in a way I hadn’t been in years.

Also, I was noticeably better. And I haven’t turned back.

The possible benefits of the deliberate practice approach stretch far beyond the applications discussed above. The science, just decades old, is still in infancy. Could this extend to improved public education? Fewer traffic accidents? Ericcson concludes:

The emerging insights should be relevant to any motivated individual aspiring to excel in any challenging domain.

Born with it? Forget it. Just get to work.

It turns out we simply have had no idea how capable we are.

David Steinberg is the New York City Editor of PJ Media. Follow his tweets at @DavidSPJM.
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