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!