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From Study Hacks: Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 9, 2011 5 comments

This is from Study Hacks, a blog that’s so popular, chances are you’ve already read the article. I’m a huge enthusiast in the whole talent vs effort debate, and so this was immediately interesting to me:

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

Here’s the gist:

Many popular authors have recently cited correlations between elite success in a field, and the amount of time, effort and skilled mentoring that contributed to that success. The most famous example is Malcolm Gladwell‘s observation that many preeminent successes have applied over 10,000 hours to their field. This has tilted the current talent vs effort debate in favor of effort, suggesting that disciplined practice and a supportive environment are better predictors of future success than inherent aptitude.

This belief has become very fashionable because it’s such an empowering thought, and appeals to our sense of just rewards. If you follow the logic to the end of the rainbow, then your first-grade teacher was being straight with you when she said you can do anything you want.

Not so fast, say David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, the psychology professors who wrote a recent New York Times op-ed called, “Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters.” The article is based on their research, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, which found that among sight-reading pianists, those with higher memory capacity (their proxy for “talent”) performed better on average than those with low memory capacity.

The blog Study Hacks, which posted and commented on the article, is authored by a vocal proponent of the Deliberate Practice Hypothesis (a phrase he coined). Here’s author Cal Newport, in his own words:

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

Being an expert in the field of performance improvement, Mr. Newport took a close interest in this op-ed and supporting research.

I’ll let you read Mr. Newport’s comments for yourselves, since they are well written and I would not be doing them justice to paraphrase them here. Suffice it to say that despite the conclusions of this particular paper, there are many reasons not to give up hope on effort and practice just yet.

It turns out, for example, that this same study found that those musicians who practiced for more hours performed significantly better than those who practiced for fewer hours, and that performance gap was much more dramatic than the gap based on working memory capacity.

In other words, the research does not conclude that talent is the most important performance factor; it merely concludes that effort is not the sole predictive factor.

None of this is going to come to any surprise to the rest of us. We all instinctively know that, while it’d be nice to be able to achieve elite status based on strife alone, there is also such thing as natural aptitude and it does have an influence on our performance. As long as research in this area attempts to prove absolutes (e.g. “There is no such thing as talent.” or “Knowledge and practice are not the sole predictors of success.”), it will not be useful to us.

What we would like to know is what improvements can be achieved through application? Could almost anyone be an athlete if they ate, breathed and slept it? How about a performer? How about a research professor?

While it seems logical that there are limits to everything, I also like Cal Newport’s philosophy. One of the most interesting points he makes about the Deliberate Practice Hypothesis is that few people really try it (especially in knowledge work). Few people really eat, breathe and sleep anything, so it’s hard to tell if such a person could have theoretically overcome a deficit of natural aptitude.

When I was in theatre school, I knew people with a great amount of natural gifts, whether it be height, charisma, vocal power, attractiveness, excellent singing voices, or a gift for compelling, believable line readings. I also met a lot of people who didn’t have these gifts…I was one myself.

What I did not see was anyone who was so intent on overcoming these shortcomings that he/she consciously racked up stage time any way possible, poured over new plays, practiced line readings from shows they were not in, took full advantage of professors available for monologue work, etc. I saw many actors who were dedicated, but none who were really relentless, even though the profession demands it by definition. So I can’t point to an example of someone who became an actor from nothing but sheer will.

For my own part, I was too busy being worried that I wasn’t naturally gifted enough for the profession. What would have happened if I had taken all that worry and applied the hell out of myself? I haven’t the foggiest idea. But it would have been helpful to have had some insight one how much that might have mattered. I’m sure many other people feel the same way.

Is it possible to will an aspiration into reality, no matter the natural aptitude? I have no idea. But after reading Cal Newport’s work, I believe that when we fall short, one of the last things we should blame is a lack of talent.