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 TheAtlantic.com, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.
In providing an overview for this new blog's approach, I've so far touched on genetics and intelligence; now it's onto studies of talent and expertise that provide the third key puzzle piece. Taken together, they suggest -- to me at least -- a whole new way to think about high achievement.
Many of you have already read about some of the key research -- the famous 10,000-hours-to-greatness observation of Anders Ericsson and others, described in several recent smart books, including Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated, Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code.*
These studies are important, not because they put a specific hour-number on what it takes to be a champion, but because of the big idea behind that number. The breathtaking insight that comes through in the work of Ericsson and colleagues is this: talent is not a thing, but a process -- a very slow, largely invisible process that, up till now, has been nearly impossible to document and therefore very easy to misread. As long as this slow accretion of skills went unseen and unarticulated, the mature skills themselves seemed almost magic. For many centuries, greatness appeared to be god-given; later, in the 20th century, it was understood as gene-given. All along, these ideas were reinforced by astounding child prodigy stories that seemed to be explainable only by unusual innate "gifts."**
Now, Ericsson and colleagues -- there are many, with hundreds of studies already published -- are making the invisible visible.*** They are showing how all abilities are based in process. They are exploding the myth of "giftedness."
Their work also dovetails with genetic-environment interaction, and with research showing how extraordinarily plastic the human brain is -- how we constantly change its structure with our moment-to-moment actions.
A new understanding thus emerges: the limits we think we see in ourselves and our kids are really more like obstacles, difficult but not impossible to overcome. What appear to be innate/genetic brick walls are actually just very steep hills to climb. According to this view, the real marvel of genetics is how their dynamic properties allow us to expand and expand and expand our abilities -- if we push hard enough and have the right resources. (These are big ifs.)
Which brings us back to the public fixation with innateness. Given what we've all been told about genes, it's perfectly understandable when we look at a clumsy 8 year-old boy and surmise: "He's got no athletic talent. He just doesn't have the genes for it." But the new science of talent suggests a very different conclusion:
• His clumsiness was developed, not inborn. He became clumsy over time in response to many gene-environment interactions.
• His development continues, and nothing is set in stone. While the odds are of course against him, no can say for certain whether this clumsy boy has professional sports in his future.
We simply don't know his ultimate potential, and neither will he until he marshals all of his resources to get there.
Genes will play a huge role, of course, and will ultimately limit him in some way. But we don't know precisely how.
Discovering our own potential is part of the marvel of being alive.
* I began writing (and blogging) about this stuff in 2007, long before any of these books were published. My book will come late behind these books, and will probably be dismissed by some as Johnny-come-lately. But I think mine has much to add, and hope it will be seen as a complement to them. The reality is, all of these books (including mine) were written concurrently; I, for one, did not read any of them before finishing mine.
** I'll tackle the issue of child prodigies in future posts, and in my book.
*** Here's a tiny sampling of the studies from Ericsson and colleagues:
Salthouse, T. A. EFFECTS OF AGE AND SKILL IN TYPING. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 1984.
Abernethy, B., et al. VISUAL-PERCEPTUAL AND COGNITIVE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN EXPERT, INTERMEDIATE, AND NOVICE SNOOKER PLAYERS. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1994.
Krampe, R. Th., et al. MAINTAINING EXCELLENCE: DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND ELITE PERFORMANCE IN YOUNG AND OLDER PIANISTS. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1996.
Higbee, K. L. NOVICES, APPRENTICES, AND MNEMONISTS: ACQUIRING EXPERTISE WITH THE PHONETIC MNEMONIC. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1997.
Nevett, M. E., et al. THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT-SPECIFIC PLANNING, REHEARSAL, AND UPDATING OF PLANS DURING DEFENSIVE YOUTH BASEBALL GAME PERFORMANCE. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1997.
Gabrielsson, A. THE PERFORMANCE OF MUSIC. In D. Deutsch (Ed.), The psychology of music, 1999.
Helson, W. F., et al. A MULTIDIMENSIONAL APPROACH TO SKILLED PERCEPTION AND PERFORMANCE IN SPORT. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1999.
Helgerud, J., et al. AEROBIC ENDURANCE TRAINING IMPROVES SOCCER PERFORMANCE. Medicine and science in Sports and Exercise, 2001.
Goldspink, G. GENE EXPRESSION IN MUSCLE IN RESPONSE TO EXERCISE. Journal of Muscle Research and Cell Motility, 2003.
McPherson, S., et al. TACTICS, THE NEGLECTED ATTRIBUTE OF EXPERTISE: PROBLEM REPRESENTATIONS AND PERFORMANCE SKILLS IN TENNIS, 2003.
Pantev, C. et al. MUSIC AND LEARNING-INDUCED CORTICAL PLASTICITY. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2003.
Duffy, L. J., et al. DART PERFORMANCE AS A FUNCTION OF FACETS OF PRACTICE AMONGST PROFESSIONAL AND AMATEUR MEN AND WOMEN PLAYERS. Int'l Journal of Sport Psychology, 2004.
Ericsson, K. A. DELIBERATE PRACTICE AND THE ACQUISITION AND MAINTENANCE OF EXPERT PERFORMANCE IN MEDICINE AND RELATED DOMAINS. Academic Medicine, 2004.
(Photo credit for the picture of the brain: http://www.flickr.com/photos/17657816@N05/1971827663)
Conan O'Brien takes the helm of the Tonight Show tonight,
and there's been much
talk about how nervous the NBC suits are about the fragility of NBC's $100
But I can see into the future. Conan is going to do very
How do I know? I've learned one big thing in studying the
science of talent and intelligence over the last few years: Greatness is not a
thing, but a process. And Conan figured out a long time ago how to implement a
very smart process that enables him to take risks, adapt, and continually
improve until he gets something right.
Past is prologue here. In one of the most extraordinary
events in the history of television, Conan was picked out of the blue to
succeed David Letterman in 1993. He had little performance experience and zero
on-air television experience. Lorne
Michaels has done some brave stuff in his time, but selecting Conan has to be
at the top of that list. Clearly, Michaels also understands the paramount
importance of process.
Please don't take this as a blanket prediction that the
Tonight Show will reign forever as TV's number one show. It may
well lose viewers. Leno's prime-time might help or hurt Conan. The
radically-changing technology/media landscape will surely deliver its own list
of winners and losers. But on the question of whether or not Conan can win over
the 11:30 Tonight Show audience, I'm quite bullish. I believe in smart, humble people
who keep working at something until they get it right. Conan is one of those
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.