Some people are dramatically better at activities like sports, music and chess than other people. Take the basketball great Stephen Curry. This past season, breaking the record he set last year by over 40 percent, Curry made an astonishing 402 three-point shots – 126 more than his closest challenger.
What explains this sort of exceptional performance? Are experts “born,“ endowed with a genetic advantage? Are they entirely “made” through training? Or is there some of both?
What earlier studies show
This question is the subject of a long-running debate in psychology, and is the focus of the new book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Florida State University psychologist Anders Ericsson and science writer Robert Pool.
In a 1993 study, Ericsson and his colleagues recruited violinists from an elite Berlin music academy and asked them to estimate the amount of time they had spent engaging in “deliberate practice” across their musical careers.
Deliberate practice, as Ericsson and his colleagues have defined it, includes training activities that are specifically designed to improve a person’s performance in an endeavor like playing an instrument. These activities require a high level of concentration and aren’t inherently enjoyable. Consequently, the amount of deliberate practice even experts can engage in is limited to a few hours a day.
Ericsson and his colleagues’ major discovery was that there was a positive correlation between the skill level of the violinists and the amount of deliberate practice they had accumulated. As deliberate practice increased, skill level increased.
For example, by age 20, the most accomplished group of violinists had accumulated an average of about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice – or about 5,000 hours more than the average for the least accomplished group. In a second study, Ericsson and colleagues replicated the finding in pianists.
On the basis of the studies, these researchers concluded that deliberate practice, rather than talent, is the determining factor for expert performance. They wrote,
We reject any important role for innate ability.
In a recent interview, Ericsson further explained that
we can’t find any sort of limiting factors that people really can’t surpass with the right kind of training. With the exception of body size: You can’t train to be taller.
Is it all about training?