Natural Talent? I Think Not.

We’ve probably all heard a reference to someone as having “natural talent” or being “particularly gifted in an area” or even being a prodigy.  Such claims are often made about athletes or musicians but you will hear them about just about any kind of profession.  And they’re complete bunk.

Professor Anders Ericsson at Florida State is the leading researcher into what has now become known as “Genius Research”.  Ericsson and others look at what it takes for someone to become an outstanding performer in their field.  What they’ve found out is that raw talent, even physical ability (like size in football or height in basketball) make very little difference in determining whether or not someone becomes great or not.  Instead, it’s primarily about two different factors:

  • How much you practice
  • How well you practice

Let’s take a look at each of these factors. Ericsson has found that outstanding performers end up putting in approximately 10,000 hours in their given craft before becoming world class.  So what about Tiger Woods or Wolfgang Mozart you say—great “prodigies” who were world class at a very early age?  Both of these performers actually started practicing their craft (golf and music) very early.  In fact, Woods was hitting golf balls before he could even walk.  Simply put, the first factor in becoming exemplary is the amount of time that performer puts into their craft by study and practice.  One world famous musician once said, “When I miss one day of practice—I can tell.  When I miss a second day of practice—my wife can tell.  When I miss a third day of practice—the audience can tell.”

The second factor addresses the way the practice happens.  Ericsson refers to the concept of “deliberate practice.”  Deliberate practice involves three elements:

Setting specific goals (and then narrowing them to provide focus—so practice isn’t just putting in time but seeking to hit a particular objective or build a specific skill).

Obtaining immediate feedback.  Whether it’s a talented coach, use of videotape or a craft that provides quick feedback (like an agility run with dropped bars), quick information that effectively says “yes—you’re doing this right” or “tweak what you just did this way” is powerful stuff for performance.  Don Tosti has demonstrated this with his work on feedback and Joe Harless always argued that the majority of performance issues were due to information problems (of which good, clear, quick feedback is a big part).

Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.  Now, for performance consultants this can be a bit problematic, after all, aren’t we believers in accomplishments?  But Ericsson is not arguing that this is that standard for performance results, only that we build the great results by making sure that technique, when it matters, is perfect.  What’s important to note is that for some jobs, there may be more than “one way to skin a cat” and thus focusing solely on one approach or method or technique may be limiting.  But where a specific sequence is critical or precision matters, than the focus on technique is essential for good performance.  Thus, in deliberative practice, the outstanding performer wouldn’t be satisfied with a good result (such as hitting 50 free throws) if some of it was luck or in-spite of bad technique.

It’s also important to note that practicing by rote or just putting in a certain number of reps or until the egg timer goes off to show practice is over doesn’t cut it.  It’s not practicing, it’s the nature and approach to the practice that matters.

And of course, from a performance perspective, there are tremendous implications from this work.  It means that arguing that some performers are just “natural leaders” or “born salesmen” or “instinctive” at what they do is nonsense.  People can become great at what they do.  They may not chose to do so, but greatness is within reach of everyone.