Anders Ericsson is well known from his research on the development of expertise. At the core of his thinking is the idea of Deliberate Practice: to develop a (new) skill you need to deliberately practice for countless hours. The thesis is that this allows anyone to eventually become an expert in any topic. In his latest book, Peak, Ericsson and his colleague Robert Pool write about these ideas, and more.
In chapter 8, titled “But what about natural talent?” they focus on the question if and to what extent some kind of innate talent is an important factor for high performance. The basic message is that “Expert performers develop their extraordinary abilities through years and years of dedicated practice, improving step by step in a long, laborious process. There are no shortcuts” (p. 207). This is contrasted with an opposing view that “natural talent plays a major role in determining ability” (p. 208). It is argued that high performing individuals perform so well precisely because they have practiced intensively and for great amounts of time. It is further argued innate talents (if they exists at all) do not smooth the way and lead people to excel – if people excel it is because of deliberate and extensive practice.
Putting it into perspective
The overall claim that people do not magically excel but need to practice is true. However, it is necessary to put this claim into perspective, and to avoid making similar but slightly different claims which are false or misleading. For example, there is a large body of high quality research which shows how strongly genetic factors predict all aspects of life, including ability and performance. This research has resulted in three widely accepted laws of behavioral genetics (Turkheimer, 2000) and more recently added fourth law (Chabris, Lee, Cesarini, Benjamin, & Laibson, 2015):
- All human traits are heritable
- The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes
- A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or family
- A typical human behavioral trait is associated with very many genetic variants, each of which accounts for a very small percentage of the behavioral variability
The manner in which genetic influences are discussed Peak can be rather misleading. For example, it is stated that “No one has ever found a gene variant that predicts superior performance in one area or another, and no one has ever come up with a way to, say, test young children and identify which among them will become the best athletes or the best mathematicians or the best doctors or the best musicians.” (p. 236). While this might be true, it entirely mischaracterizes how genetics determines and influences behavior. There are no “specific gene variants” for any single particular kind of job, because jobs are a very recent cultural invention which we did not affect our evolution. However, all human behavioral traits are to some extent based on genetic influences. For example, intelligence is highly heritability, from about 20% during infancy to around 80% in later adulthood (Plomin & Deary, 2015). Personality, on the other hand, is more heritable earlier in life but less so in later life (Briley & Tucker‐Drob, 2015). This includes things like grit and willpower, which are of course very important to be able to maintain deliberately practices for great amounts of time. Intelligence and it subcomponents predict many things later in life. For example, mathematics performance and reading achievement at age 7 is a strong predictor of socioeconomic status at age 42 (Ritchie & Bates, 2013). Working memory functioning is also extremely strongly predicted by and correlated with measures of intelligence (Colom, Rebollo, Palacios, Juan-Espinosa, & Kyllonen, 2004).
Another possibly misleading line of reasoning is to take homogenous groups and use such as sample to generalize to a much more heterogeneous population. For example, from page 233 onwards it is claimed that intelligence or IQ has no predictive value amongst experts. While this is indeed often found, the same is true for deliberate practice. For example, while intelligence does not predict a lot of variance in the performance of university students, it does predict who will go to university at all. Likewise, when selecting study participants based on their performance or ability, many highly important factors will appear not to be predictive simply because of a lack of variance in this homogenous group of high performance. A simple analogy: if you select only people who have two legs, then having legs does not predict their speed or ability to run, but running is of course fully dependent on having legs. Likewise, by looking at experts who already excel at something, you will misleadingly conclude that many important factors are not relevant.
Deliberate practice theories of human performance argue that what matters is extensive schooling and training. While this is true statement, it is not a complete statement. To summarize, what we can say is that:
- Most (or almost all) people will be able to attain very high levels of performance in a certain ability, given that they have sufficient time, energy, support and other resources required
- The best (or rather only) thing you can do to achieve a high level of performance is to spend a lot of time and energy on it
- If you practice something, you will generally speaking get better at it
- Nobody is ‘born’ with a high skill in something like chess, skiing, or math
This is essentially the core message of Peak. However, it is also important to state the:
- The actual performance of the general population (i.e. not just experts) is in fact strongly hereditary and predicted by early-childhood factors.
- Being able to spend large amounts of time into training assumes a wide range of other resources such as time, finances, and having access to high quality training/education. Not everyone has this. In addition, it also assumes certain behavioral traits (which are hereditary), such as that you have the willpower to do it.
- When people do not reach a very high level of performance you cannot assume that they simply did not practice sufficiently, as there are many predictors of high performance and the criteria which are needed to reach it
- As behavioral traits are predicted by the interaction of very many genetic variants, some individuals will have a certain combination of these genes which will make them naturally more able, given all requirements are met to be able to practice the respective ability. For example, all humans differ in their intelligence, with most having an average intelligence and some having extremely high intelligence. Intelligence is not fully fixed by genes, but it is strongly hereditary.
Briley, D. A., & Tucker‐Drob, E. M. (2015). Comparing the developmental genetics of cognition and personality over the life span. Journal of personality. DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12186
Chabris, C. F., Lee, J. J., Cesarini, D., Benjamin, D. J., & Laibson, D. I. (2015). The fourth law of behavior genetics. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(4), 304-312.
Colom, R., Rebollo, I., Palacios, A., Juan-Espinosa, M., & Kyllonen, P. C. (2004). Working memory is (almost) perfectly predicted by g. Intelligence, 32(3), 277-296.
Plomin, R., & Deary, I. J. (2015). Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings. Molecular psychiatry, 20(1), 98-108.
Ritchie, S. J., & Bates, T. C. (2013). Enduring links from childhood mathematics and reading achievement to adult socioeconomic status. Psychological Science, 0956797612466268.
Turkheimer, E. (2000). Three laws of behavior genetics and what they mean. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(5), 160-164.