What it takes to be great
Research now shows that the lack of natural talent is irrelevant to great success. The secret? Painful and demanding practice and hard work
By Geoffrey Colvin, senior editor-at-large
October 19 2006: 3:14 PM EDT
(Fortune Magazine) -- What makes Tiger Woods great? What made Berkshire Hathaway (Charts) Chairman Warren Buffett the world's premier investor? We think we know: Each was a natural who came into the world with a gift for doing exactly what he ended up doing. As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was "wired at birth to allocate capital." It's a one-in-a-million thing. You've got it - or you don't.
Well, folks, it's not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don't exist. (Sorry, Warren.) You are not a born CEO or investor or chess grandmaster. You will achieve greatness only through an enormous amount of hard work over many years. And not just any hard work, but work of a particular type that's demanding and painful.
Buffett, for instance, is famed for his discipline and the hours he spends studying financial statements of potential investment targets. The good news is that your lack of a natural gift is irrelevant - talent has little or nothing to do with greatness. You can make yourself into any number of things, and you can even make yourself great.
Scientific experts are producing remarkably consistent findings across a wide array of fields. Understand that talent doesn't mean intelligence, motivation or personality traits. It's an innate ability to do some specific activity especially well. British-based researchers Michael J. Howe, Jane W. Davidson and John A. Sluboda conclude in an extensive study, "The evidence we have surveyed ... does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts."
To see how the researchers could reach such a conclusion, consider the problem they were trying to solve. In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.
The irresistible question - the "fundamental challenge" for researchers in this field, says the most prominent of them, professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University - is, Why? How are certain people able to go on improving? The answers begin with consistent observations about great performers in many fields.
Scientists worldwide have conducted scores of studies since the 1993 publication of a landmark paper by Ericsson and two colleagues, many focusing on sports, music and chess, in which performance is relatively easy to measure and plot over time. But plenty of additional studies have also examined other fields, including business.
No substitute for hard work
The first major conclusion is that nobody is great without work. It's nice to believe that if you find the field where you're naturally gifted, you'll be great from day one, but it doesn't happen. There's no evidence of high-level performance without experience or practice.
Reinforcing that no-free-lunch finding is vast evidence that even the most accomplished people need around ten years of hard work before becoming world-class, a pattern so well established researchers call it the ten-year rule.
What about Bobby Fischer, who became a chess grandmaster at 16? Turns out the rule holds: He'd had nine years of intensive study. And as John Horn of the University of Southern California and Hiromi Masunaga of California State University observe, "The ten-year rule represents a very rough estimate, and most researchers regard it as a minimum, not an average." In many fields (music, literature) elite performers need 20 or 30 years' experience before hitting their zenith.
So greatness isn't handed to anyone; it requires a lot of hard work. Yet that isn't enough, since many people work hard for decades without approaching greatness or even getting significantly better. What's missing?
Practice makes perfect
The best people in any field are those who devote the most hours to what the researchers call "deliberate practice." It's activity that's explicitly intended to improve performance, that reaches for objectives just beyond one's level of competence, provides feedback on results and involves high levels of repetition.
For example: Simply hitting a bucket of balls is not deliberate practice, which is why most golfers don't get better. Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day - that's deliberate practice.
Consistency is crucial. As Ericsson notes, "Elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends."
Evidence crosses a remarkable range of fields. In a study of 20-year-old violinists by Ericsson and colleagues, the best group (judged by conservatory teachers) averaged 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over their lives; the next-best averaged 7,500 hours; and the next, 5,000. It's the same story in surgery, insurance sales, and virtually every sport. More deliberate practice equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.
Not all researchers are totally onboard with the myth-of-talent hypothesis, though their objections go to its edges rather than its center. For one thing, there are the intangibles. Two athletes might work equally hard, but what explains the ability of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to perform at a higher level in the last two minutes of a game?
Researchers also note, for example, child prodigies who could speak, read or play music at an unusually early age. But on investigation those cases generally include highly involved parents. And many prodigies do not go on to greatness in their early field, while great performers include many who showed no special early aptitude.
Certainly some important traits are partly inherited, such as physical size and particular measures of intelligence, but those influence what a person doesn't do more than what he does; a five-footer will never be an NFL lineman, and a seven-footer will never be an Olympic gymnast. Even those restrictions are less severe than you'd expect: Ericsson notes, "Some international chess masters have IQs in the 90s." The more research that's done, the more solid the deliberate-practice model becomes.
All this scholarly research is simply evidence for what great performers have been showing us for years. To take a handful of examples: Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century's greatest orators, practiced his speeches compulsively. Vladimir Horowitz supposedly said, "If I don't practice for a day, I know it. If I don't practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don't practice for three days, the world knows it." He was certainly a demon practicer, but the same quote has been attributed to world-class musicians like Ignace Paderewski and Luciano Pavarotti.
Many great athletes are legendary for the brutal discipline of their practice routines. In basketball, Michael Jordan practiced intensely beyond the already punishing team practices. (Had Jordan possessed some mammoth natural gift specifically for basketball, it seems unlikely he'd have been cut from his high school team.)
In football, all-time-great receiver Jerry Rice - passed up by 15 teams because they considered him too slow - practiced so hard that other players would get sick trying to keep up.
Tiger Woods is a textbook example of what the research shows. Because his father introduced him to golf at an extremely early age - 18 months - and encouraged him to practice intensively, Woods had racked up at least 15 years of practice by the time he became the youngest-ever winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship, at age 18. Also in line with the findings, he has never stopped trying to improve, devoting many hours a day to conditioning and practice, even remaking his swing twice because that's what it took to get even better.
The business side
The evidence, scientific as well as anecdotal, seems overwhelmingly in favor of deliberate practice as the source of great performance. Just one problem: How do you practice business? Many elements of business, in fact, are directly practicable. Presenting, negotiating, delivering evaluations, deciphering financial statements - you can practice them all.
Still, they aren't the essence of great managerial performance. That requires making judgments and decisions with imperfect information in an uncertain environment, interacting with people, seeking information - can you practice those things too? You can, though not in the way you would practice a Chopin etude.
Instead, it's all about how you do what you're already doing - you create the practice in your work, which requires a few critical changes. The first is going at any task with a new goal: Instead of merely trying to get it done, you aim to get better at it.
Report writing involves finding information, analyzing it and presenting it - each an improvable skill. Chairing a board meeting requires understanding the company's strategy in the deepest way, forming a coherent view of coming market changes and setting a tone for the discussion. Anything that anyone does at work, from the most basic task to the most exalted, is an improvable skill.
Adopting a new mindset
Armed with that mindset, people go at a job in a new way. Research shows they process information more deeply and retain it longer. They want more information on what they're doing and seek other perspectives. They adopt a longer-term point of view. In the activity itself, the mindset persists. You aren't just doing the job, you're explicitly trying to get better at it in the larger sense.
Again, research shows that this difference in mental approach is vital. For example, when amateur singers take a singing lesson, they experience it as fun, a release of tension. But for professional singers, it's the opposite: They increase their concentration and focus on improving their performance during the lesson. Same activity, different mindset.
Feedback is crucial, and getting it should be no problem in business. Yet most people don't seek it; they just wait for it, half hoping it won't come. Without it, as Goldman Sachs leadership-development chief Steve Kerr says, "it's as if you're bowling through a curtain that comes down to knee level. If you don't know how successful you are, two things happen: One, you don't get any better, and two, you stop caring." In some companies, like General Electric, frequent feedback is part of the culture. If you aren't lucky enough to get that, seek it out.
Be the ball
Through the whole process, one of your goals is to build what the researchers call "mental models of your business" - pictures of how the elements fit together and influence one another. The more you work on it, the larger your mental models will become and the better your performance will grow.
Andy Grove could keep a model of a whole world-changing technology industry in his head and adapt Intel (Charts) as needed. Bill Gates, Microsoft's (Charts) founder, had the same knack: He could see at the dawn of the PC that his goal of a computer on every desk was realistic and would create an unimaginably large market. John D. Rockefeller, too, saw ahead when the world-changing new industry was oil. Napoleon was perhaps the greatest ever. He could not only hold all the elements of a vast battle in his mind but, more important, could also respond quickly when they shifted in unexpected ways.
That's a lot to focus on for the benefits of deliberate practice - and worthless without one more requirement: Do it regularly, not sporadically.
For most people, work is hard enough without pushing even harder. Those extra steps are so difficult and painful they almost never get done. That's the way it must be. If great performance were easy, it wouldn't be rare. Which leads to possibly the deepest question about greatness. While experts understand an enormous amount about the behavior that produces great performance, they understand very little about where that behavior comes from.
The authors of one study conclude, "We still do not know which factors encourage individuals to engage in deliberate practice." Or as University of Michigan business school professor Noel Tichy puts it after 30 years of working with managers, "Some people are much more motivated than others, and that's the existential question I cannot answer - why."
The critical reality is that we are not hostage to some naturally granted level of talent. We can make ourselves what we will. Strangely, that idea is not popular. People hate abandoning the notion that they would coast to fame and riches if they found their talent. But that view is tragically constraining, because when they hit life's inevitable bumps in the road, they conclude that they just aren't gifted and give up.
Maybe we can't expect most people to achieve greatness. It's just too demanding. But the striking, liberating news is that greatness isn't reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone.
In spite of a common belief that genius is innate, research shows that even Einstein, Mozart and Tiger Woods had to put in years of toil to achieve brilliance, writes David Dobbs.
MY MOTHER, rest her merry, brainy soul, convinced me early on that I was - as she liked to put it, quoting the cartoon character Yogi Bear - "SMARRR-ter than the average bear!" I happily assumed that my Yogi-like intelligence would ensure great things.
My sense of entitlement grew when I easily won good marks in school, then grew some more when three different college professors told me I had a talent for writing. Rising to the top, I gathered, was a matter of natural buoyancy.
The reality check came in my 20s, when nearly a decade of middling effort failed to cast the glow of my writing genius much beyond my study walls. By my early 30s I saw the obvious: my smarts and "talent" - above average or not - would count for little unless I outworked most of the other writers. Only when I started putting in some extra hours did I get anywhere.
About the time I had my epiphany, a growing field of scholarship was more rigorously reaching the same conclusion. It seems the ability we're so fond of calling talent or even genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of fair (but not extraordinary) natural ability, quality instruction and a mountain of work. This new discipline - a mix of psychology and cognitive science - has now produced its first large collection of expert reviews, the massive Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance.
The book essentially tells us to forget the notion that "genius", "talent" or any other innate qualities create the greats we call geniuses. Instead, as the American inventor Thomas Edison said, genius is 99 per cent perspiration - or, to be truer to the data, perhaps 1 per cent inspiration, 29 per cent good instruction and encouragement, and 70 per cent perspiration. Examine closely even the most extreme examples - Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky - and you find more hard-won mastery than gift. Geniuses are made, not born.
"It's complicated explaining how genius or expertise is created and why it's so rare," says Anders Ericsson, the professor of psychology at Florida State University who edited the handbook. "But it isn't magic, and it isn't born. It happens because some critical things line up so that a person of good intelligence can put in the sustained, focused effort it takes to achieve extraordinary mastery.
"These people don't necessarily have an especially high IQ, but they almost always have very supportive environments, and they almost always have important mentors. And the one thing they always have is this incredible investment of effort."
This is mixed news, Ericsson says. "It's funny, really. On one hand it's encouraging: it makes me think that even the most ordinary among us should be careful about saying we can't do great things, because people have proven again and again that most people can do something extraordinary if they're willing to put in the exercise. On the other hand, it's a bit overwhelming to look at what these people have to do. They generally invest about five times as much time and effort to become great as an accomplished amateur does to become competent. It's not something everyone's up for."
Studies of extraordinary performance run the gamut, employing memory tests, IQ comparisons, brain scans, retrospective interviews of high achievers and longitudinal studies of people who were identified in their youth as highly gifted. None bears out the myth of inherent genius.
Take intelligence. No accepted measure of innate or basic intelligence, whether IQ or other metrics, reliably predicts that a person will develop extraordinary ability. In other words, the IQs of the great would not predict their level of accomplishments, nor would their accomplishments predict their IQs. Studies of chess masters and highly successful artists, scientists and musicians usually find their IQs to be above average, typically in the 115 to 130 range, where some 14 per cent of the population reside - impressive enough, but hardly as rarefied as their achievements and abilities.
The converse - that high IQ does not ensure greatness - holds as well. This was shown in a study of adult graduates of New York City's Hunter College Elementary School, where an admission criterion was an IQ of at least 130 (achieved by a little over 1 per cent of the general population) and the mean IQ was 157 - "genius" territory by any scaling of IQ scores, and a level reached by perhaps one in 5000 people. Though the Hunter graduates were successful and reasonably content with their lives, they had not reached the heights of accomplishment, either individually or as a group, that their IQs might have suggested.
In the words of study leader Rena Subotnik, a research psychologist formerly at the City University of New York and now with the American Psychological Association: "There were no superstars, no Pulitzer Prize or MacArthur Award winners, and only one or two familiar names."
The genius these elite students showed in their IQs remained on paper.
So what does create genius or extreme talent? Musicians have an old joke about this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall from here? Practise. A sober look at any field shows that the top performers are rarely more gifted than the also-rans, but they almost invariably outwork them. This doesn't mean that some people aren't more athletic or smarter than others. The elite are elite partly because they have some genetic gifts - for learning and hand-eye coordination, for instance - but the very best rise because they take great pains to maximise that gift.
Take Stephen Hawking, who likes to dismiss questions about his IQ by saying, "People who boast about their IQ are losers". He was a middling student and achiever until his mid-20s. Only then did he catch fire - and begin working obsessively - while collaborating with fellow physicist Roger Penrose on black-hole theory.
Pete Sampras didn't possess more talent than Andre Agassi, but he won 14 grand slams to Agassi's eight because he worked harder and more steadily. And as cellist Yo-Yo Ma once said, the most proficient and renowned musicians are not necessarily those who outshone everyone as youths, but rather those who had "fire in the belly".
DECADE OF DEDICATION
This has led scholars of elite performance to speak of a 10-year rule: it seems you have to put in at least a decade of focused work to master something and bring greatness within reach. This shows starkly in a 1985 study of 120 elite athletes, performers, artists, biochemists and mathematicians led by University of Chicago psychologist Benjamin Bloom, a giant of the field who died in 1999. Every single person in the study took at least a decade of hard study or practice to achieve international recognition. Olympic swimmers trained for an average of 15 years before making the team; the best concert pianists took 15 years to earn international recognition. Top researchers, sculptors and mathematicians put in similar amounts of time.
The same goes even for those few who seem born with supreme talent. Mozart was playing the violin at three years of age and received expert, focused instruction from the start. He was precocious, writing symphonies at seven, but he didn't produce the work that made him a giant until his teens. The same is true for Tiger Woods. He seems magical on the golf course, but he was swinging a golf club before he could walk, got great instruction and practised constantly from boyhood. Even today he outworks all his rivals. His genius has been laboriously constructed.
Study so intense requires resources - time and space to work, teachers to mentor - and the subjects of Bloom's study, like most elite performers, almost invariably enjoyed plentiful support in their formative years. Bloom, in fact, came to see great talent as less an individual trait than a creation of environment and encouragement.
"We were looking for exceptional kids," he said, "and what we found were exceptional conditions."
He was intrigued to find that few of the study's subjects had shown special promise when they first took up the fields they later excelled in, and most harboured no early ambition for stellar achievement. Rather, they were encouraged as children in a general way to explore and learn, then supported in more focused ways as they began to develop an area they particularly liked. Another retrospective study, of leading scientists, similarly found that most came from homes where learning was revered for its own sake.
Finally, most retrospective studies, including Bloom's, have found that almost all high achievers were blessed with at least one crucial mentor as they neared maturity. When Subotnik looked at music students at New York's elite Juilliard School and winners of the high-school-level Westinghouse Science Talent Search, he found that the Juilliard students generally realised their potential more fully because they had one-on-one relationships with mentors who prepared them for the challenges they would face after their studies ended. Most of the Westinghouse winners, on the other hand, went on to colleges where they failed to find mentors to nurture their talent and guide them through rough spots. Only half ended up pursuing science, and few of them with distinction.
So what do elite performers attain through all that deliberate practice and sensitive mentoring? What makes a genius? The creme de la creme appear to develop several important cognitive skills. The first, called "chunking", is the ability to group details and concepts into easily remembered patterns.
Chess provides the classic illustration. Show a chess master a game in progress for just five seconds and they will memorise the board so well that they can re-create most of it - 20 pieces or more - an hour later. A novice will be able to place just four or five pieces.
Yet chess masters don't necessarily have a better memory than novices. Their clustering skills begin and end at the chessboard. Show a master and a novice a random list of 20 digits, and a few minutes later neither will be able to recall more than seven or eight of them in sequence. In a chess game, by contrast, the master sees not the 20 pieces that confront the novice but clusters of pieces, each of which is familiar from experience. Interestingly, the chess master will remember about as many clusters - four or five - as a novice will individual pieces. The better the master, the larger the clusters he'll remember.
We all exercise such clustering skills when we read. Learning to read means coming to recognise chunks of letters as words, then chunks of words as phrases and sentences and - at a deeper level - sentences and paragraphs as components of a work's larger meaning. This chunking puts individual words into logical, recallable contexts. As a result, we'll remember almost all of a logical 20-word sentence and only four to seven words from the same 20 words ordered randomly.
Apart from chunking, the elite also learn to identify quickly which bits of information in a changing situation to store in working memory. This lets them create a continually updated mental model far more complex than that used by someone less practised, allowing them to see subtler dynamics and deeper relationships. Again, this is something skilled readers do with good novels. However, it appears more striking - more suggestive of "genius" - when we see these skills used by Garry Kasparov to simultaneously beat 30 grandmasters or French footballer Zinedine Zidane to spot a killer through-ball that no one else saw.
Such masters seem to operate on another plane, yet the rest of us can take solace in knowing that their mastery rarely extends beyond their discipline. It is a fair bet that Roger Federer would beat you at both tennis and ping-pong, but not as soundly in the latter. The gap will shrink as you move further away from his field of expertise.
Michael Jordan, widely considered to be one of the world's greatest athletes, struggled horribly when he moved from basketball to baseball, where he was routinely flummoxed by minor league pitchers. Likewise, if you ever met Kasparov over a poker table, you might well hold your own.
While the study of elite performance has been based mainly on observational and interview techniques, its models agree nicely with what neuroscience has discovered about how we learn. Eric Kandel of Columbia University in New York, who won a Nobel prize in 2000 for discovering much of the neural basis of memory and learning, has shown that both the number and strength of the nerve connections associated with a memory or skill increase in proportion to how often and how emphatically the lesson is repeated. So focused study and practice literally build the neural networks of expertise. Genetics may allow one person to build synapses faster than another, but either way the lesson must still be learnt. Genius must be built.
Studies of elite performance also chime with another recurrent theme in modern neuroscience and genetics. These disciplines all but insist that the traditional distinction between nature and nurture is obsolete. What we call talent or genius illustrates vividly what the past 25 years have taught us about gene expression - that our genetic potentials are activated and realised only through environment and experience. Natural buoyancy merely gets you off the bottom. You rise to the top by pumping yourself up.
So is the ideal of innate genius dead? If not, should we kill it? Certainly a clear-eyed analysis shows that "genius" is really a set of exceptional skills cultivated through disciplined study. We should probably shelve the notion of genius as an innate, almost irrepressible gift and speak instead of expertise, talent or even greatness - terms that hint at the work underlying supreme accomplishment.
Granted, this isn't as much fun, and recognising the work factor is sobering. It is disappointing to realise all your mum's blather about how smart you are doesn't mean anything, and that you have to work demonically regardless. But as something to believe in, genius is not looking so smart. You want to play the big stage, you got to put in the time.
- New Scientist
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, by Anders K Ericsson, Neil Charness, Paul J Feltovich, Robert R Hoffman, Cambridge University Press, $104.