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We’ve Been Thinking About Talent The Wrong Way All Along

Practice doesn’t always make perfect, and you many not just be born with it. So where does true talent really come from?

We’ve Been Thinking About Talent The Wrong Way All Along
[Image: Flickr user derriel street photography]

This article is a rebuttal to Benedict Carey’s article in The New York Times, “How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent.”

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Where does true talent come from, anyway? And what’s more important, genes or practice?

This scientific war rumbles on with the new release of a meta-study in Psychological Science (a study that analyzed 88 other studies) concluding that practice time matters less than innate gifts.

Researchers like K. Anders Ericsson, whose findings paved the way for the 10,000-Hour Rule–the basic premise is that it takes around 10,000 hours of practicing a task to become successful–have issued a rebuttal, making an equally compelling case for the transformative power of practice (and questioning the new study’s methodology).

Despite all the effort, or perhaps because of it, it seems as if the two camps in the nature/nurture debate are no longer listening to each other. As University of Pennsylvania psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman told the New York Times, “This is where we are, with people essentially talking past one another.”

Given the apparent impasse, I’d like to suggest another approach to this question, starting with a simple two-step experiment.

Step One: Pick a skill you have always wanted to possess.

Guitar, sales, comedy, golf, public speaking. Don’t pick the whole thing–just one targeted area. If it’s guitar, focus on one particular song. If it’s golf, focus on putting.

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Step Two: Seek out someone who’s really good at that particular skill, and study them.

Really study them. Stare at their performance, and analyze their technique (YouTube is particularly useful for this).

Step Three: Practice that skill intensely for 15 minutes, twice a day, for one month.

The key word here is “intensely.” Place yourself on the edge of your ability–the zone where you make mistakes and fix them, which psychologists refer to as “the sweet spot.” Make sure each practice session follows the same pattern: Pick a target; reach for it; evaluate the gap between your performance and the target. Repeat.

The result of this experiment, I am willing to wager, is that you will pleasantly surprise yourself. In one month, your skills in this area will have been transformed. To your friends and acquaintances you will appear moderately heroic. They will utter complimentary phrases like, “Wow, I had no idea!” and “Where did that come from?”

Good question. Is it because you possess a special twist of DNA or because you logged a few more of those magical 10,000 hours?

It’s neither. Just like the warring scientists, we’ve been thinking about talent the wrong way. Talent is not something that can be measured by the hands of a clock or put in a petri dish–it’s something that grows when a set of specific conditions are present.

To put it in scientific language, it’s an emergent property.

Emergent properties happen when a set of things combine to create something far bigger and more powerful than the things themselves. Emergence is not the world of 2 + 2 = 4. It’s the world of 2 + 2 = 400.

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A good example is the weather. The weather is made up of a lot of different stuff combining in unpredictable ways. Breezes blow, clouds form, air currents collide, and, every so often, if the pattern is just right, a tornado begins to form.

When you look closely at the lives of talented people, you find numerous examples of tiny behavioral/motivational tornadoes. For example, how do you measure the effect of Warren Buffett’s childhood paper route on his steady temperament and business skills? How do you calibrate the motivation Keith Richards got while listening to blues records? How do you measure the power of the bond between Tiger Woods and his father, who coached him during his early years?

The simple answer is, you don’t. Which is why science will always struggle with this nature versus nurture question–because it’s not really nature versus nurture. It’s nature times nurture, in a million tiny and immeasurable ways. (The exception to this rule is the powerful influence of genes on raw athletic skills like speed and endurance; influence chiefly felt at the highest levels of competition.)

Science, however, has given us glimpses of these tornadoes in action. One of the most vivid is a talent-development study that might be called “The Girl Who Did a Month’s Worth of Practice in Five Minutes.” The research, by Dr. Gary McPherson and Dr. James Renwick of the University of New South Wales, Australia, focuses on Clarissa (a pseudonym), an average teenage clarinet player whose development was closely tracked for a dozen years.

During the study, researchers observed Clarissa practicing two songs in a row. The first was “The Blue Danube,” which she played straight through in casual fashion, barely attending to her mistakes, giving minimal effort. Her learning, McPherson calculated, was close to zero.

Then Clarissa played a second song, an old jazz tune called “Golden Wedding.” It’s as if she was transformed into another person. She played with intensity and purpose. She keenly attended to each mistake and fixed it. She pushed herself to the edge of her ability again and again. In the space of that song, McPherson and Renwick calculated, Clarissa increased her learning rate by 10 times. In other words, Clarissa progressed more in five minutes than she would have in an entire month of practicing the previous way.

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As McPherson put it, “This is amazing stuff. Every time I watch this, I see new things, incredibly subtle, powerful things. This is how a professional musician would practice on Wednesday for a Saturday performance.”

What motivated such a perfect storm? It turns out that a few days before, Clarissa had seen her teacher perform this song, and that experience had a huge impact on her.

“I came to see that the act of seeing him play that song lit up something within her,” McPherson said. “Maybe it was the teacher’s body language, or the fact that the song was more appealing. Who knows? But it made a difference. It was like she became a different person when she practiced that song.”

If we think of Clarissa’s moment using the logic of “genetic gifts” or the 10,000-Hour Rule, it doesn’t make sense. But if we think of talent as an emergent process, it makes perfect sense. Clarissa was lit up by a simple idea: “I can be that good.” She struggled in specific and targeted ways that maximized practice effectiveness. Those factors combined, and the result was a storm of improvement.

What’s needed, then, is a language to measure the quality of conditions: the emergent combination of effective strategies and motivation that spark improvement. And with that in mind, I’d like to offer the REPS Gauge, which consists of four elements.

  • R stands for Reaching/Repeating.
  • E stands for Engagement.
  • P stands for Purposefulness
  • S stands for Strong, Immediate Feedback.

The idea behind the REPS Gauge is simple: To develop talent, seek to create environments that contain these conditions, and avoid those that don’t.

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1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating in the sweet spot on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating?
2: Engagement. Does this engage your sense of identity–are you activated by a vision of your future self being skilled at this task? Do you have clear, compelling role models of who you want to become?
3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build? Are you working strategically on the skills that build competence?
4: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. Can you sense when you’re making mistakes and when you’re not? Can you use those mistakes to guide you to better performance?

The larger point is that developing talent is not a science experiment. It’s a growth process that requires an entrepreneurial mind-set and vigilance to the kinds of motivational environments we’re creating for ourselves and for our kids.

The most powerful thing we can do is not to measure genes or practice hours, but to educate people about the principles of the growth process, and let them put those ideas to work at home, schools, and the workplace.

Daniel Coyle is best-selling author of The Talent Code, The Little Book of Talent, Lance Armstrong’s War, and Hardball: A Season in the Projects, and contributing editor for Outside magazine.

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