Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.
Their work, compiled in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.
Ericsson’s research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don’t like to do things they aren’t “good” at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don’t possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.
When we first moved to Florida in 2004, our good friend Barbara Wall, who runs the local Prudential office, invited us to lunch at the Eau Gallie Yacht Club. While there, she introduced our daughters (then 6 and 9) to a wonderful young girl just ten years old. Bre was friendly, charming, beautiful and made it really easy for our daughters to make the transition to their new home. It turns out, Bre Morgan is also a very talented young artist. In 2006 she won a national singing contest, and has recorded her first album at age 13.
The same year we first met Bre, my cousin Wilfred and Juliet welcomed their first grandchild. Kaitlyn is a lovely young girl born to wonderful parents, Allison and Reuben Maher. It’s 2008, now just four years later, and this last week, Kaitlyn was selected to be among the top 10 of the popular show America’s got Talent.
Ten years, four years, charming, beautiful and loaded with talent. But, where did the talent come from? Was their talent born, or made? I suspect these two young ladies were born talented, but the good news for the rest of us can be found in the work of Dr. Anders Ericsson. He attributes most expert performance to something he describes as “deliberate practice”. In other words, “practice does make perfect”. Turns out, you are more likely to practice something if you enjoy doing it. In case you are wondering, these two young ladies, they love what they do, and they practice a lot.
Want talented performance at work? Then your teams must love what they do, and they must practice at getting better!