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Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn By Studying Amazing Kids

LA Johnson

What made Mozart great? Or Bobby Fischer? Or Serena Williams?

The answer sits somewhere on the scales of human achievement. On one side: natural talent. On the other: hard work. Many would argue that success hangs in some delicate balance between them. But not Anders Ericsson.

Ericsson has spent decades studying the power of practice, and in his new book, Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, co-authored with Robert Pool, he argues that "talent" is often a story we tell ourselves to justify our own failure or to protect children from the possibility of failure. He writes:

To underscore his point, Ericsson engages in a systematic takedown of the myths of famous prodigies, including Mozart and Paganini.

Masters of their crafts? To be sure.

Hard workers? Clearly.

Naturally gifted? Not so fast.

"I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies," Ericsson writes, "and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice."

Because the word "practice" is a big tent capable of hiding habits both good and bad, I spoke with Ericsson, who is on the faculty at Florida State University, about what he considers the path to mastering a craft, whether playing tennis or trombone. He calls it "deliberate practice."

What is the essence of deliberate practice?

The most optimal way to improve your performance is to find a teacher who has been teaching other people to reach the level of performance that you want to attain. This basically means that teacher will be able to tell you the most effective ways to improve. A good teacher will also be able to find suitable units of improvement, so you don't push yourself more than you can do.

Just start out, 15 or 20 minutes [a day]. Especially if you have a mentor and, ideally, a teacher. That teacher will be able to help you set reasonable expectations.

I need to ask the question that everyone asks you: Is talent a myth?

The idea that some people are born with gifts is a very counterproductive view — that your task as a high school student or college student is that you're supposed to go around testing things to find your gift. Because I have yet to find anybody who finds their gift.

What Robert and I are arguing is that it's much better to think of something you want to attain and then get the help of teachers and parents to start you on the path of creating that. On that path, you may decide you want to go in a different direction. That's fine. But you haven't simply been waiting around for something that would allow you to instantaneously become good because that's never happening. And I think the process of really seeing how you can improve is something that will transfer even if you try to improve in some other domain.

You talk about how playing a sport or an instrument doesn't mean the player is improving. What is the difference between playing regularly and deliberate practice that leads to improvement?

My favorite example is: Say you're playing doubles in tennis. And you just miss a backhand volley. Now, the game will just keep on going, and, if the same situation emerges a couple of hours later, you're not likely to do much better.

Now try a thought experiment — practicing with a coach. That coach allows you to stand by the net, ready to do your backhand volley — and then makes it increasingly more difficult. Eventually, he forces you to run up to the net to do it and then embed it in regular rallying. You can improve your performance more in those one or two hours with a coach than in five to 10 years of regular practice with your friends.

This is America, and we are obsessed with the stories of child prodigies. Do you believe they're simply kids who've practiced a lot?

Well, I've been doing research for over 30 years, and I've been looking for cases where somebody discovered that they just had this innate ability to do something really well. And in every example I've studied, once you look closer at what was happening before, you find a series of practice activities, many of them meeting the criteria of deliberate practice.

In Mozart's case, most people aren't aware that Mozart's father was a pioneer at designing training for young children to master musical instruments. He worked intensively with Mozart from age 3. So, when Mozart started to perform, he had been in training for several years and was being trained by someone who was very motivated to help his son reach a high level.

So practice is key to most prodigies' success — but so are parents?

Exactly. And that is one thing I would recommend to parents — that it is a pretty unique opportunity to be able to spend time with a child developing some kind of activity together. Now, there are abuses, where parents really push their children to perform. But, if you take the view that you're really trying to help the child develop this ability and become increasingly more able to monitor their own learning so they will eventually become independent, that is something that I think would be very beneficial for the parent and the child.

In education, there is a lot of attention right now around student "grit" or resilience. When you look at prodigies, what is it that motivates these kids to work so hard and reach the levels that they do?

I think there are some recent biographies — of [Andre] Agassiand others — that really show that, in at least a few of these cases, the parents were putting enormous pressure on these children. And I think that is not appropriate.

I believe, however, that there is a way of helping a child get enjoyment from the mastery and the development of an ability. And I would argue that the young musicians who are most likely to succeed as adult musicians are the ones who acquire the ability to enjoy their own music-making. So they can sit down and play music for their own enjoyment.

So, at some point there is a shift, from "I'm doing this because I am motivated by the approval or disapproval of a parent" to "Wow, I am very good at this, and I enjoy doing it"?

When I've been talking to the parents of prodigies, what's interesting is that the kids really enjoy playing in front of audiences. When they perform well, they get a lot of respect and other social benefits that are key to understanding why they're willing to invest [so much practice time]. It's well known that, before a public performance a child is much more motivated to practice and work on things that will translate into a better performance.

In all sorts of activities, there are these sources of motivation and enjoyment that, the more a parent or teacher can help them access, that will provide them with the motivation to master something that may be difficult. But it's only a temporary difficulty, and then they will be able to enjoy the fruits of that effort.

Let's talk about what this means for those of us who, over the years, have convinced ourselves that we're simply not good at something. My editor told me just the other day, "I'm just not a math person."

Let's look at adult activities that are consequential. Say you're starting a new company; being able to make budgets and other things is going to become important to you. When that becomes important, you'll have the motivation and willingness to do the training that will allow you to reach a high level of proficiency.

I believe one of the problems with traditional education is that, with certain kinds of math activities it's hard to see how they will actually benefit you as an adult. So, I think education can be transformed into being more skills-based, where students will be able to see how, by learning certain skills, they'll be able to do things that they couldn't do before.

One lesson of your research seems to be schools telling students that "Take our word for it, you should know this" isn't good enough. Because motivation is key to student learning.

Yes, and once you're repeating facts and procedures, you're not forced to understand and integrate that knowledge in a way that allows you to use it. And I think helping students to see how they can actually use this knowledge in a useful way motivates them to understand it and learn it in a more meaningful way.

I remember personally when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I decided I didn't want to memorize things. In history class, that presented problems. The way I solved that was to go to the library and read two or three books on the historical period. That allowed me to answer all the questions without memorizing. I could infer and relate things that were related to me in a meaningful way. That was really important to me.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.