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:
This is the dark side of believing in innate talent. It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don’t and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the ‘talented’ ones and discourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy. … The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us — and work to find ways to develop it.
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.”