Another important facet of Po Bronson's recent article: it touches on the nature and nurture of persistence. Is an individual's level of persistence hard-wired and immutable or can it be increased/decreased?
This is critical because, as we know anecdotally and as has been demonstrated by researchers (Renzulli, 1978, and many other studies), persistence is an essential component of greatness. Exceptional skill may look effortless -- the spectacular putt or pirouette -- but getting there takes relentless dedication, years of practice and humility. "It's not that I'm so smart," Einstein once said. "It's just that I stay with problems longer."
Where does persistence come from, and can it be acquired?
Psychologist Ellen Winner argues that persistence --
what she calls the "rage to master" -- "must have an inborn, biological
component” (Von Károlyi & Winner, p. 379,),
and that exceptional performers are “intrinsically motivated to acquire skill" in the
areas in which they are innately gifted because they find it easier to learn those skills. (Winner (1996, p. 274).
Anders Ericsson argues against this second notion. Having spent years studying what he calls "deliberate practice" -- the slow, methodical process of getting better -- he points out that there's nothing easy or fun about it. It is, he says, "associated with frequent failures and frustrations and is not the
most inherently enjoyable or 'fun’ activity available." His research shows that "aspiring individuals typically prefer [the harder, slower work] to playful interactions
So what makes some people spend so much energy on the the harder, slower practice instead of spending less energy on easier, more thrilling, but less skill-building play activities? Are such people simply born with that work-hard impulse?
Maybe some are -- Matt Ridley's Nature via Nurture reviews some evidence of how genes help play into personality. But there's also some emerging evidence for persistence being something we can develop. Bronson's piece cites Robert Cloninger, at Washington University in St. Louis, who not only zeroed in on the persistence circuitry in the brain (Gusnard, Cloninger et al, 1993), but also trained mice and rats to develop persistence. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” explains Cloninger. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.” In other words, yes, according to Cloninger, the animal mind can actually be trained to reward itself for slow and steady progress rather than the more thrilling instant gratification.
If we can marry this neurobiology with some psychology and real-world understanding -- such as Carol Dweck's work in motivating students to work harder, we may actually get closer to a real recipe for greatness that could be useful to any parent, teacher or coach.