One of the strongest beliefs that permeate our culture is that there are a special few who are naturally endowed with gifts or talents that propel them to levels of success that the rest of us can only dream of.
Does that belief hold weight under scientific scrutiny?
Perhaps there’s something far more simple going on. Maybe these “natural” talents just work harder than their peers.
In Western culture, it is a common romantic ideal that there are those whose genetics predispose them to athletics, mathematics, music, or art. How often have you found yourself saying: “Susan’s just really good at math.” Or “Michael is a gifted artist.“?
This is how our culture perpetuates feelings of inadequacy. Saying that Michael is a gifted artist excuses you from ever reaching the same level of competency he achieved. Michael must have some unique genes being expressed, combined with the fact that he’s left-handed – that too is artsy, you know. This is your brain’s way of stopping you before you’ve even started.
We’re surrounded by comic book superheroes and Holywood protagonists, all of whom are portrayed to be special. This one in a billion chance occurred and Peter Parker got bit by a radioactive spider and now he has super strength, agility, and spider-like senses. It’s captivating and incredibly alluring to become someone special by chance or even through special genetics. Think back to the last movie you watched – did the protagonist have some sort of special talent or gift(s)?
When you look at the science, it shows that there is no magic spider bites or unique genes that make some people better at athletics and others better at solving math problems. Instead, it’s a significant amount of time investment and a specific type of practice that psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is what makes you good at something. Not your genetics.
What is deliberate practice?
In my previous post, I discuss how you or I will typically go about practicing or learning a new skill. To summarize, let’s use the example of learning how to ski.
The first step is obtaining equipment; so, you go to the rental store and get your first pair of skis, boots, and poles. Next, a series of lessons are purchased. By the end of a couple days, you can comfortably get off the chairlift and go down the green runs at a moderate pace. You continue to practice on your own a few days a month and take a lesson every now and then. By the end of the season, you can comfortably go down blue runs. You have become a skier. Meaning, that you have mastered the basics of skiing – you can comfortably get off a chairlift and parallel ski down the easy and moderate runs.
This is the point where you’ll likely get stuck. Your progression as a skier will dramatically slow. It is commonly assumed that so long as you continue to go out skiing each season, your ability will continue to improve. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The actions you perform when skiing have now become automatic. You don’t have to think about them anymore. This is when improvement stops. This is also how we all practice just about anything. We improve to a level of competence. Then, we assume continued experience leads to greater improvements. In reality, improvement stops and we maintain this basic level of competency.
- Deliberate practice requires that the field in which you’re aiming to improve in has already been developed. Meaning that there are experts who have attained a level of performance well beyond those just entering the field. Activities like music, chess, and athletics will likely have many experts.
- Areas that don’t qualify are those where there is no direct competition. This includes activities like gardening, going for a walk, or cooking.
- Deliberate practice requires a teacher/coach/mentor who can provide practice activities designed to help improve your performance.
With deliberate practice, you try very hard to push yourself to improve. Deliberate practice is based upon an understanding of the steps taken by experts or professionals in order to become a leader in their field. Your job is to then recreate these steps for yourself.
Anders Ericsson describes the following characteristics of deliberate practice: (2)
- Deliberate practice develops skills in areas where others have figured out how to achieve a high level of success and the necessary steps required to get there. Ideally, the practice regime is overseen by a teacher/coach who is familiar with achieving a high level.
- Deliberate practice occurs outside of your comfort zone. It requires you to constantly try things that are just beyond your current abilities. It demands maximal effort. For this reason, deliberate practice is not “fun”.
- Deliberate practice requires well-defined, specific goals. A step-by-step plan should be developed as a roadmap to help guide you towards the achievement of the goal(s).
- Deliberate practice requires your full attention. You must concentrate on the specific goal so that adjustments to the training can be adjusted as necessary.
- Deliberate practice involves feedback. Mistakes must be spotted and corrected. With time, you should be able to make note of and correct your own mistakes.
- Deliberate practice depends on effective mental representations. You must have an accurate mental model of the goal. Actions should then be compared to the mental model.
- Deliberate practice involves building on previously required skills by focusing on them and working to improve them specifically.
Is practice all that is required to become successful?
No. Practice done in the traditional sense will not lead to high levels of skill. Deliberate practice is what is required to continue to improve at a given activity. Continued improvement in a given pursuit will eventually lead to you becoming an expert in your chosen activity.
The only reason someone is better than you in a given activity is that he’s invested more hours of deliberate practice.
Should you invest time with deliberate practice, your abilities will increase. Talent and genetics don’t play a role. The exception, of course, is attributes like height. Height is very much determined by genetics. Outside of that, it is the number of hours invested in deliberate practice that determines your expertise
When I first read the research on this, I was in disbelief. My whole life, I had been conditioned that some were born with natural athletic or intellectual abilities. They were the ones destined for greatness. The rest of us had to settle for average. It’s probably hard to believe those seemingly impossible goals can be achieved simply by practicing correctly.
Success in action
In order to alleviate your likely skepticism, allow me to offer some tangible examples to prove the concept of deliberate practice:
In 2006, Anders Ericsson studied the top spellers in the world. His intent was to see what separated the best spellers from the rest of the pack. He found that the top spellers spent significantly more time than their peers in purposeful practice. These top spellers spent much of their practice time alone focusing on memorizing the spelling of as many words as possible. The best spellers had a superior ability to stick to studying when faced with distractions than their peers. (3)
Motzart is widely believed to be a musical prodigy. He was incredibly accomplished at such a young age that it’s easy to assume that his genius came about through innate talent. Yet, when an investigation into his life is done, it is shown that concentration and dedication lead to his success. Mozart’s father, Leopold, was an accomplished musician himself and had even written a book on teaching music to children. Leopold initially attempted his training regimen on Mozart’s older sister. It is estimated that Mozart began his training before the age of four. Mozart was trained by Leopold on multiple instruments for hours each day. Given the ferocity at which he practiced, it is a reasonable outcome for him to compose music by his teenage years. By that time he had over a decade of intense musical practice. (4)
Another group of people with talents that are widely considered unique or special are those with savant syndrome. Savants generally have a neurodevelopmental disorder such as autism. About 50% of savants are on the autism spectrum. (5) Savants often possess unique skills in a single area. For example, some are able to do massive mathematical equations in their head. Others are able to do calendar calculations, such as stating what day of the week February 10, 1942, will be (Sunday).
In the 1960’s, psychologist Barnett Addis wondered if he could train someone to do calendar calculations as well as savants. Within sixteen practice sessions, Barnett’s student was able to do calendar calculations to the same ability as the savants. A savant’s mental abilities may seem magical at first blush. But when held under investigation, they too have just put in more practice than you or I. You too can train yourself to master complicated mathematical computations or calendar calculations.
What does success look like to you?
If you were to define success from the viewpoint of western culture, success would look like big houses, fast cars, fancy clothes, and all the shiny things. I believe this to be an incredibly shallow point of view. Fast cars and big houses are coveted because that’s what this culture tells you to aim for. But beneath the surface, you’re bound to have a very individualized perspective on success. Your definition will be different than anyone else’s. This is the version of success I encourage you to pursue.
Maybe success to you looks like overcoming a current health challenge. In that respect, there are many “experts” (those who have overcome a similar issue) to look to for guidance. Learn the steps these experts took to reclaim their health. Then, apply deliberate practice in your own life. Follow the expert’s recipe and bring about lasting change in your own health.
Or, maybe success to you has nothing to do life goals. Maybe you just want to be successful in golf. Or, at the piano. Deliberate practice will help you to become more than competent. Deliberate practice will help you to be successful.
Remember, deliberate practice won’t be fun. But it will bring about a great deal of meaning and purpose to your life. You will feel successful while in pursuit of (and after achieving) your goal(s).
Now, I want to hear from you!
What area of your life are you applying the principles of deliberate practice?
How has deliberate practice helped you become successful?
Want to learn more about how a life with purpose brings about greater health? Click here for my other writings!
Also published on Medium.