If you asked people what factor most contributed to Mozart’s success you’d probably get this answer: he was born with a gift for music.
Ask them the same question, this time about Tiger Woods and you’d get a similar answer: he was born with a gift for golf.
This is a generally held belief: that those who achieve great success in a field do so because they are more naturally talented than less successful people in the same field.
Ask the same question. This time about American Football.
Who is the greatest American Football player?
The answer that you’ll get is probably Jerry Rice. And Jerry Rice was an outstanding player – his total touchdown receptions and total receiving yards are greater than the next player in the all time tables by the astonishing factor of around 50% (Touchdown Receptions for Rice are 197, whilst the 2nd placed player only achieved 130. Receiving yards for Rice are 22,458 and for the 2nd placed player are only 14,934).
And with Jerry Rice’s example things start to get interesting. For example, if the reason Rice was so good was because he was naturally talented why then did FIFTEEN teams pass over him in the 1985 draft before the San Francisco 49ers finally signed him?
Rice is also well known for his practice routines. Rice did a lot of training on his own. Other players (so take note, other PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES) would sometimes join Rice to see what his sessions were like. Some of them got sick before the day was out. And if a fan wrote to the 49ers and asked for details of how Rice trained, those details were never released because of concerns that if people tried to copy Rice they might hurt themselves.
OK. Maybe in sport you can make a difference by sheer, bloody hard work. But there are fields where the most important factor in someone’s success is the talent they were born with. Like Music.
Well. Maybe not.
In the early 90s a team of researchers went to the Music Academy of West Berlin to conduct a study to try and figure out what factors determine why a violinist is so good. (this is a school that turns out musicians who go onto careers with major symphony orchestras, or even as soloists).
The professors were asked to divide their students into 3 groups according to ability level – let’s say Group 1, Group 2 and Group 3. All of the students in the groups were asked detailed questions ranging from biographical to more specific questions relating to the violen and how much they practiced it.
Now if we believe the ‘natural talent’ theory there should be people in all 3 groups that practiced far less than their contemporaries (but compensated for putting in less work by being more talented).
The results however speak for themselves.
The Violinists in Group 1 had accumulated 7,410 hours of practice on average by the age of 18. By contrast those in Group 2 had achieved 5,300 and those in Group 3 around 3,420.
This is a highly important section – so let me emphasize it. We have a highly respected Music Academy. Where Professors then divided a class of Violinists into 3 different groups according to their ability. And all the Violinists in the top group had practiced nearly 50% more in their lifetime by the age of 18 when compared to those in the next ability group.
If you pay attention you’ll find examples of this phenomenon everywhere.
In football (the round ball type, not Jerry Rice’s type) you’ll have heard of David Beckham. And his trademark is how he delivers a dead ball (either free kicks, or corners). Well he was renowned for staying behind to train when his team mates had left for the day. To practice his corner kicks. And his free kicks. Over and over.
As did Johny Wilkinson in rugby – one of the greatest pressure kickers there has ever been in this sport. Who also was renowned for staying behind when his team mates had left for the day. To practice his kicking.
Or look at the field of law. The top lawyers in the US worked hard at high school so they could go to Harvard Law School. Where they worked hard so they could get internships to the most prestigious Washington law firms. Where they put in brutal 80 to 90 hours weeks before they were made associates or partners.
Or take fiction writer. One of the most ‘talented’ writers out there based on sales and number of books is Stephen King, the horror writer. Who writes (and has done since he was a teenager) 1000 words every day of the year, except his birthday and Christmas Day. (Just for your information I calculated that King has written around 15 Million words, give or take a few hundred thousand).
Talent equals hard work over time.
So scratch the skin of anyone who’s considered ‘talented’ at their chosen field and I believe you’ll find someone who has put in more hours than their less successful contemporaries for a longer period of time.
If this is true then it means that a lot of things we all thought were unobtainable because we ‘lacked the talent’ are in fact things that we can learn.
There’s a caveat though. It’s not just putting the hours in. It’s making sure that you put a system in place so that those hours are spent in a calculated way to maximize your progress. That system is called Deliberate Practice.
(The study of Violinists at the Academy of West Berlin were summarized in a paper entitled DELIBERATE PRACTICE IN THE ACQUISTION OF EXPERT PERFORMANCE by K.Anders Ericcson, Ralf Th.Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer)