Developing control

Human beings have a natural tendency to control. You see it on many levels. We try to arrange and decorate our homes in a way that satisfies us. It may be an image we are trying to project, and the process of control would manifest itself in decorating our homes to reflect this. If you want to project a glamorous lifestyle, you fill your home with glamorous things, perhaps such as expensive art, or pictures or artifacts from far-flung places. If you want to have a functional home, or if perhaps your lifestyle demands so, then you would fill it with multifunctional furniture.

But it is not just physical surroundings that people try to order. We control our relationships with others this way too. For example, we join groups or clubs that we have an affinity with. We go out with people whose company we enjoy. At the root level there is still a level of control at play. After all, being surrounded by people who have little in common with you, or those you are not familiar with is hard work.

In our work, too, there is a need to develop mastery of tasks instead of being controlled by our circumstances. For instance, developing knowledge and experience to deal with situations is what people get paid for! If a firm wants to hire a banker to make money, they go for someone who has sound financial knowledge and the experience to deal with emerging situations.

It is a good idea to involve ourselves in situations that demand control over a multiplicity of tasks. Learning driving? You have to manipulate controls while instinctively looking out the window instead of blindly adhering to the steering wheel. You can even start people younger with music lessons, where individuals have to adapt to read music, manipulate the instrument, while receiving aural feedback and attuning to it. The Finsbury Park piano teachers website estimates that it is learning to manage six or seven different tasks at the same time!

Control is an essential aspect. Developing control is the way we remain positive about our ability and our skills, and ultimately our place in the world. It may be worthwhile, hence, to involve youngsters in areas such as sport or music to develop control and refinement.

Talent and practice

In 1991 Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, and two colleagues conducted the most extensive investigation ever undertaken into the causes of outstanding performance. Their subjects – violinists at the renowned Music Academy of West Berlin in Germany – were divided into three groups.

The first group comprised the outstanding students: the boys and girls expected to become international soloists, the pinnacle of musical performance. These were the kids who would normally be described as supertalented, the youngsters supposedly lucky enough to have been born with special musical genes. The second group of students were extremely good, but not as accomplished as the top performers. These were expected to end up playing in the world’s top orchestras, but not as star soloists.

In the final group were the least able students: teenagers studying to become music teachers, a course with far less stringent admissions standards. The ability levels of the three groups were based on the assessment of the professors and corroborated by objective measures such as success in open competitions.

After a painstaking set of interviews, Ericsson found that the biographical histories of the three groups were remarkably similar and showed no systematic differences. The age when the students began practice was around eight years of age, which was the same time they began formal lessons. The average age when they first decided to become musicians was just before they turned fifteen. The average number of music teachers who had taught them was 4.1, and the average number of musical instruments that they had studied beyond the violin was 1.8.

But there was one difference between the groups that was both dramatic and unexpected; indeed, it was so stark that it almost jumped out at Ericsson and his colleagues – the number of hours devoted to serious practice. By the age of twenty, the best violinists had practised an average of ten thousand hours – more than two thousand hours more than the good violinists and more than six thousand hours more than the violinists hoping to become music teachers.

These differences are not just statistically significant; they are extraordinary. Top performers had devoted thousands of additional hours to the task of becoming master performers. But that’s not all. Ericsson also found that there were no exceptions to this pattern: nobody who had reached the elite group without copious practice, and nobody who had worked their socks off but failed to excel. Purposeful practice was the only factor distinguishing the best from the rest. Ericsson and his colleagues were astounded by these findings, sensing that they heralded a paradigm shift in the way excellence is understood – that it is practice, not talent, that ultimately matters.

‘We deny that these differences [in skill level] are immutable; that is, due to innate talent,’ they wrote. ‘Instead we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.’

What is talent? Many people feel sure they know it when they see it; that they can look at a group of kids and discern from the way they move, the way they interact, the way they adapt, which of them contain the hidden genes necessary for success. As the managing director of a prestigious violin school put it: ‘Talent is something a top violin coach can spot in young musicians that marks them out as destined for greatness.’ But how does the teacher know that this accomplished young performer, who looks so gifted, has not had many hours of special training behind the scenes? How does he know that the initial differences in ability between this youngster and the rest will persist over many years of practice? In fact, he doesn’t, as a number of studies have demonstrated. An investigation of British musicians, for example, found that the top performers had learned no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment: hour for hour, the various groups had improved at almost identical rates. The difference was simply that top performers had practised for more hours. Further research has shown that when top performers seem to possess an early gift for music, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents. But what about child prodigies – kids who reach world class while still in adolescence? Have they not learned at a super-fast rate? Well, no. As we shall see in the next chapter, child prodigies may look as if they have reached the top in double-quick time, but the reality is that they have compressed astronomical quantities of practice into the short period between birth and adolescence. As John Sloboda, professor of psychology at Keele University, put it: ‘There is absolutely no evidence of a “fast track” for high achievers.’ Jack Nicklaus, the most successful golfer of all time, has made the same point: ‘Nobody – but nobody – has ever become really proficient at golf without practice, without doing a lot of thinking and then hitting a lot of shots. It isn’t so much a lack of talent; it’s a lack of being able to repeat good shots consistently that frustrates most players. And the only answer to that is practice.’

The same conclusion – about the primacy of practice – is reached by widening the perspective, as Ericsson has shown. Just consider the way in which standards have risen dramatically in just about every area of human endeavour. Take music: when Franz Liszt composed Feux Follets in 1826, it was said to be virtually unplayable; today, it is performed by every top pianist. The same is true in sport. When the winner of the men’s 100 metres in the 1900 Olympics clocked 11.0 seconds, it was considered a miracle; today that time would not be sufficient to qualify for the final of the secondary school national trials. In diving, the double somersault was almost prohibited in the 1924 Olympics because it was considered dangerous; now it is routine. The fastest time for the marathon in the 1896 Olympics was just a few minutes faster than the entry time for today’s Boston Marathon, which is achieved by thousands of amateurs. In academia, too, standards are spiralling ever upwards. The thirteenth-century English scholar Roger Bacon argued that it was impossible to master mathematics in less than thirty to forty years; today calculus is taught to almost every college student.

And so it goes on. But the key point is that these improvements have not occurred because people are getting more talented: Darwinian evolution operates over a much longer time span. They must have occurred, therefore, because people are practising longer, harder (due to professionalism), and smarter. It is the quality and quantity of practice, not genes, that is driving progress. And if that is true of society, why not accept that it is also true of individuals? So the question is: How long do you need to practise in order to achieve excellence? Extensive research, it turns out, has come up with a very specific answer to that question: from art to science and from board games to tennis, it has been found that a minimum of ten years is required to reach world-class status in any complex task. In chess, for example, Herbert Simon and William Chase, two American psychologists, found that nobody had attained the level of an international grandmaster ‘with less than a decade’s intense preparation with the game’. In music composition, John Hayes also found that ten years of dedication is required to achieve excellence, a verdict that features centrally in his book The Complete Problem Solver. An analysis of the top nine golfers of the twentieth century showed that they won their first international competition at around twenty-five years of age, which was, on average, more than ten years after they started golfing. The same finding has been discovered in fields as diverse as mathematics, tennis, swimming, and long-distance running. The same is even true in academia. In a study of the 120 most important scientists and 123 most famous poets and authors of the nineteenth century, it was found that ten years elapsed between their first work and their best work. Ten years, then, is the magic number for the attainment of excellence.

The composer William Walton did not write as many works as his contemporaries but he did try to perfect his art and career over many years. His work spans several decades and it is arguable that his later works, when he had chances to practice his craft, are better than his earlier ones. (You can learn more about Walton from the Piano Teacher Crouch End blog.) Like many composers, musicians and writers, when they have written lots and perfected their craft, the word is great!

Need a break? A holiday … or a music skill?

When the term relaxing is put to you, what is the first thing that comes naturally to mind? For some it may involve a weekend away to somewhere different, away from the stresses of daily life. A change in surroundings is good. It allows you to recharge your batteries so that you return back to work ready to take on the tasks ahead. That’s the theory anyway. For other individuals relaxing is a longer term project, which may involve a week away in the more exotic climates of Europe, such as traditional cities such as Spanish ones like Barcelona or Madrid.

If you are on of these lucky people then good for you! Some people actually go so long away for a holiday that in the middle of it they may sit up and decide that they have had enough time away and are ready to go back to work. They may just declare that the time away, while beneficial, has been too long and bordering on disruptive, that they are starting to disassociate with the essence of themselves. In other words, they are starting to lose links with work and family, and the routine is so drastically different that if they carried on with the holiday they would have to think of setting up a new life!

Which is what some people actually do. Some decide to put life on hold, traveling to different cities in a caravan or motorhome, paying their way by teaching, or more recently, blogging. Blogging is a digital job that has sprung up in recent years, but don’t be deluded – the majority of us can’t blog our way travelling through expensive cities like New York or London, so don’t get caught up in the hype, thinking you can make a living in the big city, traveling and enjoying life, while money for a mortgage plonks itself into your bank account!

But relaxing does not involve going on away – it may just mean taking up another pursuit as a sort of mental deflection from daily activities. Taking up a new skill such as computer programming, web design, a sport like football or a musical instrument like the piano can provide equal mental distraction and make you feel refreshed when you go back to routine. It gives you a jolt from stability. And developing the patience to improve one’s craft can also lead to the development of learning skills. For example, piano skills are not hereditary, but if you take it up, you will learn about how you yourself learn new things, strategies and techniques which you can apply to other situations.

So the next time you feel you need a break, and can’t go away – try a new hobby instead!

The Education Game

Every job is perceived differently in different societies. If you were a banker, you might be saluted in Switzerland, or bashed in Britain, although the latter really depends on the state of the economy and how much people think it is down to you! If you were a teacher, it is really also the same. Where you choose to practice your career may be heavily influenced by the viewer’s perception of your job. In other words, you are probably going to work in a country where you are respected for the job you do.

Studies have shown that the Far East is the area where teachers are respected most. In places such as Malaysia and China, the teaching profession is held in high regard. Why is this so? It may be because in these countries, education is seen as a highly prized route out of traditional labour jobs such as agricultural farming, or retail. Education gives people a chance away from menial work which not only does not pay well, but demands long hours under harsh conditions. Those that teach are those who hold knowledge and can disseminate it to others who will pounce on every nugget of information, studiously copying it down and making voluminous notes.

The composer Irving Berlin was – according to his teachers – a bit of a day dreamer, singing in class. Perhaps Berlin did not see how all this education would help him in his musical pursuits, but there’s a lesson to be learnt for teachers: a key skill to impart to your students would be to show them the relevance of what they are learning to their future vocation. Even if it may be knowledge that does not directly have influence in one’s chosen vocation, teachers need to be able to show students how something might be useful or have some bearing in their future life, or simply even as common knowledge. You may not be able to change the perception of the job in your country, but you are able to shape the perception of yourself in the eyes of your students!