Excellence is a Path Everyone Can Walk

It’s been a year of surprises. The biggest educational surprise for me is the book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, which offers compelling evidence that any student can achieve at high levels in any subject or endeavor, so long as they learn in the right way.

Ericsson is famous for his work on how people become experts, which Malcolm Gladwell summarized in his book “Outliers” with the “10,000-hour rule;” that is, the time it takes to become an expert in any field. While Ericsson feels Gladwell did not fairly represent the nuances of his research, Gladwell did capture the most important lesson: Experts become experts only by working really hard for a long time. While Ericsson does not challenge the observation that by adolescence some students perform better than others—some are more academically advanced by high school, for example—he wants us to re-examine how they turned out that way. He wants us to stop thinking in terms of native talent.

In decades of research on expert performance, Ericsson has found no evidence that world-class violinists, chess players, or athletes start out with any genetic or other innate advantage. He notes only two exceptions: height and body size, which are genetic and do confer a clear advantage in certain sports. Beyond these, he says the only “gift” anyone has when they are born is the one everyone has: an adaptive and flexible brain you can train through “deliberate practice,” which is Ericsson’s term for a very demanding form of practice completed with individualized guidance from a teacher or coach. Since Ericsson has found no empirical basis for talent, he concludes there is no upper limit on how much a student can improve with deliberate practice.

One example from his research involves teenage violinists entering an elite German music school. Ericsson found that the “best” violin students had practiced almost 40 percent more than the “better” students by the time they entered the school (7,410 hours total on average compared to 5,301 hours), who had, in turn, practiced over 50 percent more than the “good” students (3,420 hours). There were no students rated “best” or “better” who were able to get by doing less work because of some innate gift. Separately, for parents who worry about homework load, the results of this study were particularly surprising. The best and better violin students practiced much longer than the good students, but they also had the same amount of leisure time and even slept more than the less accomplished students. The more accomplished violinists simply used their time more efficiently because they were better planners. Findings like these directly challenge the intuition so many teachers and coaches have, that some students are better at learning the violin, for example, because they are more talented. Ericsson offers abundant evidence across fields to show that innate talent cannot explain extraordinary achievement.

While Ericsson’s evidence is persuasive, he readily admits that much is not known, due in no small part to the difficulty studying learning. This leaves open the possibility there are some innate, and certainly some very early, differences among learners that shape their long-term achievement. For example, IQ scores are thought to measure general (innate) intelligence. Since IQ scores actually do predict students’ academic performance, a higher IQ usually means better grades, a greater probability of completing a Ph.D., and a greater probability of becoming a Nobel prize-winning scientist. So, if IQ scores measured a general intelligence, it would mean there was an innate potential or talent to become a scientist. Ericsson wants us to rethink our conclusions about cognitive testing, however. He explains that a high IQ score only means that you are good at what the test measures, which could be the product of early educational experiences rather than a genetic advantage. During early childhood, the attitudes of those around you towards learning and what you are doing can have enormous consequences for your long-term learning outcomes.

Even if there is no general intelligence, it is still possible there are other innate dispositions or preferences to explain why some students are more likely to invest the years of deliberate practice required to become an expert. For example, a young child may be more motivated to work tirelessly on math problems because she finds solving math problems enjoyable and because she has the capacity to work in a focused and sustained way. The origins of these preferences and capacities is unclear. They could be the product of very early experiences that shape preferences and motivation, like Mozart’s early and intense practice on multiple instruments, or of an increased capacity as a result of how her brain was wired in utero, presumably like Mozart’s perfect pitch (even though Ericsson argues Mozart’s perfect pitch was likely learned).

Though much is not known, what Ericsson’s research reveals about gifted learners, musicians, and athletes is that their achievement cannot be explained on the basis of innate advantages or giftedness. We can, however, show that they succeeded by doing focused, sustained work with teachers who pushed them out of their comfort zone and to their limits, all of which enabled them to take full advantage of their gift (i.e. the flexible, adaptive mind we all have). This is not an easy path, but everyone can walk it.

Deliberate practice is how you become exceptional at anything, and it is the only way. This is an important and reassuring lesson for students, teachers, coaches and parents. Excellence is a choice, not a gift.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on December 30, 2016.