Anders Ericsson, a psychology researcher, studied many internationally acclaimed musicians, chess players, athletes, and experts in other domains; he postulates that innate talent doesn’t exist, and that we need at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class expert in a field. This is called the 10,000-hour rule, a.k.a. the 10-year rule, assuming that the person can practice for around 3 hours a day. But for folks who don’t have a day job in their domain of interest, how many have the luxury of spending three hours a day in their dream field, all the while being a full-time worker or student?
Deliberate practice is not just any kind of practice and experience, however; instead, this experience and training involves challenging yourself, stretching your limits, constantly improving and learning new things. You should keep looking for feedback as well, whether from teachers, colleagues, audience members, or yourself, so you can monitor your progress and identify areas that need more work. Ericsson thinks that deliberate practice is likely to be repetitive and boring; for example, practicing the same difficult part in a song over and over until you can master it with your flute, or practicing a move in basketball hundreds of times.
Yet, I say that deliberate practice doesn’t have to be boring. Some fields, like fiction-writing, are so complex that there is always something new to see. In fact, from personal experience, it is very hard, if not impossible, to not improve continually even if you are just sitting on your bum and writing. When you write your story, you persistently practice a number of skills, like characterization, dialogue, and the art of verbalizing your thoughts in a clear, musical manner, among other elements of the writing craft.
I think the reason why some people feel like they’re “not improving,” is because they’re only looking for big, obvious changes. If you pay attention to the smaller, subtler things too, you will see an endless stream of progress. I myself am delighted in my writing when I see my sentences become more varied, my word choices more exquisite, and my metaphors more apt and evocative than before. They say that the devil is in the details. But in this case, the angel is in the details!
Nevertheless, you might desire more deliberate training to augment your weak points or to bolster your strengths. So, to work on your strong or weak points in fiction-writing, you could read good writing craft books on character development and do the exercises in the book. You could also copy down setting descriptions from novels, so that you can pay close attention to how authors describe scenery.
Innate, Learned, or Both?
As you may expect, many folks disagree with Ericsson’s assertion that there is no such thing as talent. Ellen Winner, another psychology researcher, studied many child prodigies and posits that talent and giftedness do exist. Interestingly, another researcher, Carol Dweck, discusses the consequences of having different beliefs about our abilities.
In Dweck’s theory, there is the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. People with the fixed mindset believe that you’re born with a certain level of ability, which can never increase no matter what you do. People who have a natural ability in this area will do it with ease, while people who don’t have this natural knack will struggle.
In contrast, those with the growth mindset believe that ability can increase via learning and practice. When the task is difficult, this is not because you don’t have the genes or talent for it; rather, it’s because everyone will encounter tough trials, and challenges will only help you improve.
NB: Some people use the word “talent” to mean current ability, not an inborn ability. Similarly, some people use the word “instinct” to mean a current skill, rather than a natural genetic advantage. In this post, I use the word “talent” to refer to inborn abilities, natural gifts.
My psychology professor thought that it would be better to believe in deliberate practice and training, than in some mystical innate talent that you must have to excel in your area. If you believe that it’s all about hard work and experience, then you will be more likely to keep practicing even when the going gets rough. If you believe that you have to have a natural gift to become exceptional, you might give up when you hit a block, since you think that those with a natural ability would never fail or perform poorly at this skill.
For example, a student gets a C on a physics midterm and concludes that there must be no hope for them in this subject. But maybe they got a C because it was an unusually hard test, the professor didn’t teach very well, the student didn’t put in as much time to study for the midterm as they should, they didn’t use an effective study method, or any other reason that had nothing to do with their natural aptitude for physics.
I also think it’s better to believe that you can increase your ability by practice and experience, so that you don’t abandon a pursuit as soon as you feel that you are struggling too much. However, what if you believe that you need a sprinkle of natural talent plus tons of hard work? This seems to be the most common belief held by those around me. If you think that you have natural gifts because you had many past successes, a lot of compliments from other people, or some other supporting evidence, then you might be extra persevering when you bump into something difficult, because you believe that you have the innate potential to succeed, so you just need to keep working at it to conquer this hurdle.
On the topic of innate potential, what about the notion that talent is a matter of degree rather than a simple “you either have it or you don’t?”
If we use the example of IQ tests, any score higher than 100 is considered above-average intelligence, whilst 130 or higher is seen as “gifted.” Would you need to have 130+ to do fabulously in your field, or is over 100 enough? Yet, there are people who score below 100 who still become distinguished in their area of expertise.
One example I particularly remember, is a sci-fi author (I will keep him anonymous in this post) who scored way below average IQ; nevertheless, his novels are best-sellers and he makes enough money to live as a full-time writer. So, you may not need an above-average IQ to attain commercial success.
I understand if you don’t think IQ tests measure anything real, so let’s use another example. In my high school psychology class, we did a test for working memory by seeing how many numbers we can recall at any one time. I turned out to have the poorest working memory in the whole class; yet, I always got the top mark in the class! Even in the final exam, I attained a 7, which is the highest possible grade on the International Baccalaureate scale. Thus, having a below-average capacity for an important function (working memory, in my case), doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to failure!
That said, do you need talent to become extremely distinguished in a field? If so, is a little bit of talent enough, or do you need a ton of natural aptitude for it? If talent is not absolutely necessary, perhaps you can become a world-class performer as long as you are exceptionally tenacious and diligent. Demosthenes comes to mind as someone who had a natural speech impediment who still became a famous orator through his astonishing hard work. Some would even argue that people with “natural disadvantages” are more determined to succeed than their peers are.
In fact, there is a saying in Chinese that means: short folks are smart folks. I don’t know the actual correlation between height and intelligence, but common sayings usually don’t come out of nowhere. It would make sense that many short people are driven to be more persistent than anyone else, to compensate for their height by being outstanding in one or some areas—I am such an example. This is not to say that taller people can’t be highly-achieving too, of course, as the motivation to accomplish great things is dependent on many factors.
Beliefs and Attitudes About Distinguished Performance
Is it necessary to become a world-class expert in something, though? Isn’t it enough to be “better than average” in a skill to make a positive change in the world?
Maybe what matters even more than having great ability, is being at the right place at the right time. For emergency situations, a decent doctor who works near you would be more likely to save your life than a spectacular doctor who lives on the other side of the planet.
Also, what if being outstanding in an area leads you to become conceited and careless later on? You might lose in a competition to less experienced performers, because you let your over-confidence blind you to your flaws.
And if one believes that natural talent is a requirement for outstanding performance, how much evidence would you need to believe that you are gifted? How many compliments, awards, positive reviews, or other indicators of achievement do you need to feel like you have talents in that area? Or what kinds of compliments, awards, reviews, etc. do you have to see? (E.g. Short, generic 4-star reviews may be enough to reassure you, or perhaps you need a profusion of 5-star, very in-depth reviews. Praise from a few friends might be adequate, or you may require glowing evaluations from many professionals in your field to prove that you have some inborn ability.) In other words, how can you tell for sure that you have natural endowments in this domain? Is it wise to believe that you have to be gifted to be great?
If you do think that you have to have natural talent to excel in something, how many failures and setbacks can you endure before you start to believe that you’re not cut out for this field? Or maybe you do feel that you have the innate capacity, but you also think that, due to many unfortunate obstacles, you were probably not meant to succeed in this discipline.
As you can see, I am less concerned about which belief is the truth, and more concerned about how different beliefs can influence our attitudes and behaviors.
It seems like the best belief would be whichever one helps you persevere through the rough times, even if you have to keep changing beliefs throughout the years. At first glance, thinking that there is no such thing as talent would help you to push on no matter what. However, you could also feel that because you didn’t start training when you were little, or because your life circumstances don’t permit you to practice three hours a day, that there is no chance for you to grow into an amazing performer. As a result, you might think that you are confined to the areas you’ve spent most of your life in, or feel that you’ve wasted your childhood because you never stuck to anything that is socially valued; or you could become resentful and believe that your life conditions are making your dream impossible to realize.
Believing in the 10,000-hour rule may also make you feel that you shouldn’t “waste time” doing anything unrelated to your passion, which would be a shame because skills and knowledge from other domains can often enhance your skills in your chosen domain. In some fields, the person will benefit greatly from gaining more life experience too; for instance, an author could write more insightful and thought-provoking stories if they can see and experience more of life. Being overly focused on an area may also lead to burnout and health problems if one is not careful.
As well, being too focused on deliberate practice may make you forget that, in some circumstances, a less skilled and experienced person may outperform a more experienced and skilled person. The more experienced performer might be tired, distracted, or not in the mood that day, and the less experienced performer might be more passionate about this particular competition, e.g. because they’re playing their favorite song. Alternatively, the more experienced person could be working with material that they are less familiar with (like a famous chef with unfamiliar food ingredients), while the less experienced person might have used this material many times before.
In a similar vein, if you fix your mind too much on the idea of hard work leading to incredible accomplishments, you might forget that though people can differ in overall skill, one person may surpass the other in specific skill areas. For instance, an author who is less skilled at writing on the whole, could be more adept than a more skilled writer at making fight scenes come to life.
Another example is that a less skilled musician could be accomplished in playing the harp, while a more skilled musician might have never played the harp before. This is why I believe that you can always learn something from others, even if they are less experienced than you are. Different individuals have different specialties, so even if someone is a “worldwide champion,” it doesn’t mean that they are stronger than everyone at everything.
The bottom line is that whether you believe distinguished performance requires a little talent, loads of talent, no talent, or that natural talent doesn’t even exist, there are potential drawbacks to each belief. Another important point is that not all goals or ambitions are worthy of pursuit or should be pursued. For instance, some “areas of achievement” can be harmful or dangerous, such as someone wanting to become a master gambler, who gets into deep debt and trouble as a consequence.
Some goals are too unrealistic, like the goal to become someone who can solve all problems, including world poverty and environmental crises. Not that it’s bad to have lofty ambitions, but believing that you can one day solve all problems in life, including global issues that are extremely hard to solve, could result in vast disappointment and disillusionment.
Moreover, you may not be able to pursue a goal; for instance, if you want to become a top-notch ice skater, but can’t afford to pay for ice-skating lessons or even to go to the ice-skating rink regularly—skating on a frozen lake is dangerous and inadvisable. An area of expertise could be incompatible with your personality or lifestyle too; for example, wanting to become an amazing doctor but not wanting to be sleep deprived. A goal may be unfeasible for a person due to health reasons, such as desiring to be a great sprinter but having asthma.
There is no shame in abandoning a goal or a dream due to practical or other concerns. You can still pick up a new goal and do meaningful work in it. In a memorable story that I enjoyed, there was a boy who was a star athlete at his school. One day, he sustains a permanent injury that forces him to give up his passion in running. Initially, he felt great despair and anger, but later on, he realized that he was quite fond of drawing, and eventually, he adopted a new passion in the visual arts.
Enjoyment and Different Definitions of Success
When I asked my psychology professor about deliberate practice for my writing, he responded that it would be better to focus on enjoying oneself rather than on achieving success. I agree! In fact, you may derive satisfaction and joy from watching yourself progress in your skills. I feel excited when I learn new things in the realm of fiction-writing, and am exhilarated by every little improvement I make in my writing and storytelling abilities. You could say that I care more about the journey than about the destination. In fact, let me never reach that golden shore, so I can enjoy the ride forever!
This brings me to my final topic. How do you define success? Does success have to come from our accomplishments and abilities? There are many other possible definitions of success, though. You could aim to live a happy and purposeful life. You might desire to form and deepen great relationships. You may value doing good things to help people. You may strive to make a positive impact on your community or the world. Or you may aspire to contribute to a cause you care deeply about. These are just a few examples of what life goals, ambitions, and success can look like. Achieving greatness in a skill is fun, but it’s not the only worthwhile and wonderful pursuit in life.