This has been a terrific couple of weeks for anyone wanting to better understand talent -- several smart magazine and newspaper pieces have zeroed in on new, critical data. Daniel Coyle has a solid piece in yesterday's NYTimes Sports Magazine that nicely combines Anders Ericsson's work on "deliberate practice" with some very recent findings about myelin, the fatty insulation around nerve fibers that makes electrical nerve signals more efficient (Ishibashi et al, 2006; Fields, 2006).
Here's the connection:
It is now very well established that persons of great skill in any field have spent many years carefully honing their technique (this includes savants, who, by nature of their disability, are able to focus obsessively and persistently on math or music or art, effectively tuning out distractions). Why does high-level skill take so much time and steady effort to develop? It turns out that this slow, patient persistence is exactly what myelin needs to become a thicker and more efficient insulator. You can't rush that process. "In neurology, myelin is being seen as an epiphany," NIH's Douglas Fields told Coyle. "This is a new dimension that
may help us understand a great deal about how the brain works,
especially about how we gain skills."
Coyle also looks at the current epicenters of great sports training -- the Spartak tennis center in Russia, golfers in South Korea, baseball payers in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The common thread, he observes, is an obsessive focus on technique. Each of these places are incubators for deliberate practice. Harnessing the competitive drive comes later (at Spartak, they don't allow students to compete in tournaments for at least three years).
Are some people born with more efficient myelin-boosters than others? Maybe so. Maybe, on top of the years and years of persistent development of technique, Anna Kournikova and Tiger Woods and Nicolo Paganini also got lucky in the genetic lottery. But to anyone following the last few years of research, genetic differences seem less and less relevant. Here's why:
1. No one has actually found these much-vaunted genetic differences relating to skill and talent. Maybe they're connected to intelligence, maybe persistence -- but we haven't actually found them yet. Meanwhile, Ericsson, Fields, Dweck, et al have exhaustively documented various external influences.
2. Regardless of what differences we're born with, evidence suggests that:
-- most people do not come remotely close to achieving their genetic potential (Ericsson, Ceci)
-- high-level achievement is simply impossible without hard work and persistence (Ericsson et al)
3. We know from Carol Dweck's definitive research that no one benefits from a mindset that relyies on their "natural" abilities. Students encouraged to rely on their natural gifts stagnate, as do poor-performing students told that they are limited by some disability. Conversely, students of every caliber perform better when they are encouraged to equate hard work with results.