The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

    More info here.

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March 05, 2007



Can myelin be developed at a later age. I am 63 years old. I took up the game of pool after retirement about 2 years ago. I joined the APA and entered as a skill level 4 in 9-ball and 8-ball. I am now a skill level 9 in 9-ball and a skill level 7 in 8 ball. I am convinced that deliberate practice can help you at any age, or am I just kidding myself.


I've been looking for a blog like yours! This entry brings to mind a 'random munching' I dwelt on for a few months. What if I wanted to play the piano like Horowitz, lead an army like Patton, or cook like Julia Child? Would I have been able to, if I were trained to do so from a very early age? Is it too late now for me to become an expert in a field like astrophysics (I'm 46). With intensive training and practice, how far would I progress to be a tennis star? Can an expert tell 'right off the bat' that I wouldn't do well in ballet (even if my general build indicates that I would be?)

In the eons to come after all this research, I envision that every field of endeavor's criteria so well documented that no time is wasted on training that doesn't fit the individual's natural tendencies. Another direction might be capturing all knowledge and information in a tiny chip and installing it in an individual's mind. Schools might only be used for teaching morals and good social behavior. Then I could be that expert in whatever field I choose for today, and then, tomorrow I could choose something else. But would I still be limited physically and mentally?

Ray Cheng


Up to now, I've mostly played the skeptic, but I as I noted elsewhere there are actually many points of agreement. In this thread, for example, I don't take issue with anything said so far. Well, one mild but critical exception: While it's true that "No one has actually found these much-vaunted genetic differences relating to skill and talent," I think that we're absolutely awash with evidence for it in our daily lives, and scientists simply haven't looked very hard at nailing them down. Elsewhere in this blog I've noted three items pointing in that direction: (1) cardiovascular fitness (initial variation and rate of response to training are largely heritable); (2) acquisition of motor skill (ditto) (3) my suggestion of the capacity to play blindfold chess as a predictor for achievement in (sighted) chess. Sure, there are difficulties associated with the interpreting "heritability" data, but we should not dismiss such data either.


When I read that article about myelin on Sunday, my 8.5 year old daughter was tinkering on the piano, trying to figure out how to play, by ear, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "The Best Day Ever"(from Sponge Bob Squarepants). Amazingly (to me), she did it. She started taking lessons at 5 and has pretty much spent every day at the keyboard. At first she only did her lessons, but after a year she started composing her own music (just little pieces, but still). Now she plays by ear. It surprises me not because she is not bright--she's quite intelligent--but because as a young'un she didn't seem to have any particular propensity for music. Thinking of her progress in terms of myelin building, perhaps it makes more sense. I think it helps that she loves it so much that she sits down at the keyboard several times a day.

David Shenk

Great comment, Dave M. I suspect there's probably some element of truth to that last point -- but I suspect it's less consequential than you think. One of the points Ericsson makes in his research is how surprisingly *consistent* the required time investment is to achieve greatness -- i.e., it always takes a long time to be great, and there really aren't any shortcuts. Some people, of course, stick with something for many years and don't get any better, and Ericsson's explanation for that is that those people are merely playing or practicing casually -- not putting themselves through the stricter training regimen that he calls "deliberate practice."

Here's a quote from a recent Ericsson paper:

"Amateurs in sports, such as tennis, golf, and jogging, acquire an acceptable level of performance and then merely maintain that level for decades as is illustrated in the lowest performance trajectory in Figure 4. The single most important differences between these amateurs and the three groups of elite performers is that the future elite performers seek out teachers and coaches and engage in supervised training, whereas the amateurs rarely engage in similar types of practice. According to Bloom (1985) the international-level performers did not show any evidence that would meet our criteria for clearly superior performance before the start of training. Their superior performance emerged as the result of training."

As far as genes making a difference, Ericsson allows that there may be a genetic component to persistence. You are probably right that some people have a better natural instinct for developing smarter practice methods sooner. I'll put this to him.

Dave McDougall

It's clear that Anna Kournikova got lucky in the genetic lottery, though I'm not sure if she has any predisposition toward myelin thickening.

your blog leads me to believe that:
- more practice could make us all achieve at a much higher level
- most people do not reach their achievement level, by practicing you are more likely to rise nearer the top of a given field
- given the limitiations on our time, and the human needs for things beyond practice, genetics does matter insofar as some people can get more out of less practice.

this last bit is the piece you often give short shrift. some people make more efficient use of their practice time. much of this is due to concentration/interest/etc, or training methods, but I suspect that this ability to make efficient use of practice is actually what we refer to as "natural ability."

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