If you’re a student who wants to crack the toughest exams out there, you would’ve marveled the effortless ease with which the brightest consistently finish in top 0.1 percentile.
If you’re a wannabe tennis player, you would be in awe of the games of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
“Their brain, their body is wired differently.”
“They’ve natural talent.”
“They’ve innate ability.”
These thoughts cross your mind, and you convince yourself to live a ‘normal’ life because you can’t change your wiring, because you can’t create talent out of nowhere, and because blessings are divine.
What if I tell you that these things matter much, much less – if at all they do – than you think? (As we’ll learn later in the post, wiring, for example, depends only on our experiences.) What if I tell you that there is a path accessible to everyone that can take you too to the dizzying levels of some of these greats?
(Well, to be honest, you may not reach those levels because your path to become the only one of a kind may be sometimes influenced by external factors such as lucky break and socio-economic ecosystem, especially in the beginning. But you can reach 99.9+ percent of those levels, which I’m sure would satisfy almost everyone of you.)
In this post, I’ll debunk the popular myth that few who achieve exceptional success are more blessed than the rest of humanity. This myth is so firmly engraved in our ethos that even experts, including teachers, propagate it. In reality, such phenomenal success is almost entirely a result of how you practice your craft. Nothing else. Toward the end of the post, I’ll talk about how the best practice to achieve what they do and why even Roger Federer can suddenly become an utterly average player. And I’ll cap the post by encapsulating 3,000 + words in this post into a simple math formula that will make the topic intuitive.
Let me start with few examples of how average persons became geniuses.
Nature vs. nurture examples: are genius born or made?
Are people born intelligent or they become?
Are people born smart or they become?
Nature vs. nurture debate has raged on for millenniums. Here are few examples, followed by the science behind, which will provide you food for thought.
Mozart, the greatest composer
Mozart, arguably the greatest composer of all time, gave public performances on piano at the age of six.
Child prodigy. Genius. Destined for greatness. Right?
In Genius Explained, Dr. Michael Howe uncovers the mystery behind Mozart’s incredible success at such a young age. Dr. Howe writes that Mozart put in an incredible 3,500 hours of practice before he turned six. Six! You read it right. One of the main reasons why he could pull off such heavy-duty practice was that he was home-taught by his father.
And according to several accounts, Mozart’s early music was patchy, even copied, and nowhere close to his best work.
Mozart wasn’t genius by birth. Incredible hours of practice made him one. And despite those hours, he took time to bloom.
Takeru Kobayashi, the master speed-eater
Takeru Kobayashi, an impoverished Japanese student, put in some serious practice to win a nondescript speed-eating competition. After tasting initial success, albeit at local level, it dawned on him that speed-eating (being a globally competitive, remunerative sport) could be his path to make a decent livelihood.
Once he set eyes on the sport, he decided to participate in the biggest of them all – Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every July 4 in Coney Island, New York.
In the days leading up to the competition, he practiced and, more importantly, experimented like a maniac. For example, instead of eating the hot dog as a whole – which was the common practice – he broke it in half. He experimented eating the hot dog and the bread separately rather than together. While hot dogs were easy to gulp down, the doughy, chewy bread posed challenge. So he tried multiple methods to make ingesting the bread easier: he tried eating it after dipping in water, he varied the temperature of water, and he even sprinkled vegetable oil on the wet bread. In nutshell, in the buildup, he ruthlessly focused on improving the tiniest part of the eating process.
4 July 2001.
In a competition dominated by hulky, bulky guys, the lean, mean, short Kobayashi came in as a rank outsider. At 25.125 hot dogs in 12 minutes, the world record was believed to have already touched the upper limits of human speed-eating capacity.
When Kobayashi finished his 12 minutes, he had gulped down an eye-watering 50 hot dogs, almost doubling the world record. Well, world records are improved – that too incrementally – not demolished.
[Reference: Marginal Gains, Black Box Thinking]
You may watch him here competing in a similar speed-eating competition (duration: 2:51 minutes).
If you saw Kobayashi the first time on 4 July 2001 – which many did – you would unfailingly assume that this guy is blessed with rare gift of speed and capacity. Wouldn’t you?
But he wasn’t a world-beater speed-eater by birth. He worked hard and ruthlessly improved his craft through zillions of experiments.
SF, the guy with incredible memory
In a memory test conducted in psychology lab at Carnegie Mellon University on 11 July 1978, researchers read out a list of random numbers to SF, the participant, one per second. He was then asked to repeat back as many digits as he could remember in the order he heard them. He recalled 22 digits.
Researchers selected SF on only one criteria: that he had an average memory. Before training for this test, he could remember just 6 or 7 digits, like you or I would do. And after training, he reached 22.
Later on, he managed 40 digits. Then, 50. Eventually, after 230 hours of training over a period of almost two years, he managed 82 digits. Researchers thought this was the limit.
Later, SF’s friend broke his record with 102 digits.
If we look only at his results and compare with ours, most of us will think that he possesses special genes or innate talent for remembering digits. But the real story, as you know, is that he possessed an ordinary memory before the training he underwent. And then another person with average memory came and broke his record.
David Beckham, one of the greatest soccer players
David Beckham could do 2,003 keep-me-ups (this is how most soccer players develop ball control: keeping the ball in the air by kicking, kneeing, and heading) in one go when he was just nine. Anyone will marvel at the incredible number of non-stop keep-me-ups he could pull off. But not his mother, who watched him begin from just 5-6 keep-me-ups in their tiny back-garden in East London. It took him three years, countless failures, and several adjustments to reach there.
She says, “I was amazed at how devoted he was. He would start when he got back from school and then continue until his dad got back from work. Then they would go down to the park to practice some more. He was such an amazing kid when it came to his appetite for hard work.”
After mastering keep-me-ups, he turned his attention to free kicks.
“He must have taken more than 50,000 free kicks at that park. He had an incredible appetite,” says his father, often the stand-in between Beckham and the target.
[Reference: The Beckham Effect, Black Box Thinking]
Now we know that his famous free-kick equalizer in that critical World cup qualifier against Greece in 2001 had the weight of those 50,000 free kicks in the park.
A tale of three sisters
Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian, embarked on one of the most famous nature vs. nurture experiments when he started training his oldest daughter, Susan, in chess when she was not even six. In the years to follow, his other two daughters too joined her.
In August 1981, at the age of twelve, Susan won world under-sixteen title for girls. And in 1991, she became the first woman player to become a grandmaster.
Sofia, the middle sister, too earned several accolades in chess, but the most extraordinary came in 1989 in Rome, where she won eight straight games against many of the greatest male players. Kevin O’Connell, an Irish chess player, rated the performance as the fifth greatest (behind Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov, and Alekhine in that order), by man or woman, in history.
Judit, the youngest, surpassed her sisters. She was world number-one player among women for more than ten years, and is widely regarded as the best ever woman chess player.
[Reference: Miraculous Children, Bounce]
The three sisters were not gifted in chess in any way. They achieved what they did purely by the dint of Mozart-like training at a very young age.
Another tale of three sisters
Brontës sisters, who lived in England nearly two hundred years back, produced some of the greatest works of English literature, and are often regarded as geniuses in the field. However, few know that when they were young they practiced incredibly hard on their writing: in one 15-month period, they wrote 22 eighty-page books. And according to Juliet Barker, the historian who spent six years as curator of the Brontës Parsonage Museum in Haworth, their early work was full of ‘slap-dash writing, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation’.
Mozart-like training when young and ordinary work initially, isn’t it?
China’s rise in Olympics since 1992 and Great Britain’s, since 2000
China wasn’t the Olympic force as it is now few decades back. Its ascendancy in Olympic Games began in 1992 (1984 was an aberration because of boycott from Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries) when they ranked fourth at Barcelona Games.
It has been well documented over the years how a relentless, world-class training regime changed it all for them.
It wasn’t that China suddenly started producing more gifted sportspersons. Talent and genes hardly changed.… Performance did.
Great Britain (GB) too has witnessed an upward trend in their Olympic fortunes since year 2000. GB won one gold medal in Atlanta Games (1996) and finished at 36 in the medal table. In subsequent Olympic Games, their position improved to 10 (Sydney), 10 (Athens), 4 (Beijing), 3 (London), and 2 (Rio). Rio is their best ever finish since 1908.
Experts widely believe that increase in funding over successive Olympics since 1996 had a major role to play in this upward trend.
Talent and genes hardly changed…. Money did, which meant better training.
Why do children of gifted people often turn out to be a patch of their parents?
They inherit solid genes, at least in the field in which their parents excelled, but only few make a name in the absolute sense (it won’t be a fair comparison in relative sense because it’ll be hard to outperform their parents).
The underlying reason for their underachievement often is their unwillingness to stretch to the level that world class performance demands, because their comfortable lives make it difficult to.
Ashlee Vance in his biography of Elon Musk writes about what bothers him about his five sons:
It bothers Musk a bit that his kids won’t suffer like he did. He feels that the suffering helped to make him who he is and gave him extra reserves of strength and will.
Star kids are born with perfect genes – at least in that one field – but they’re more often than not found wanting despite the best support and launch, because they rarely stretch to the extent their parents did.
Even shyness is not inherited
Daniel Coyle, in his book The Talent Code, refers to The Shyness Clinic in Palo Alto, California. To quote Nicole Shiloff, the therapist at the clinic, from the book:
We believe that people are shy not because they lack social skills but because they haven’t practiced them sufficiently. Talking on the phone or asking someone on a date is a learnable skill, exactly like a tennis forehand. The key is that people have to linger in that uncomfortable area, learn to tolerate the anxiety. If you practice, you can get to the level you want [emphasis mine].
Even shyness, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with curse-since-birth or specific genes. It’s a result of failure to put in the hours.
Why do we propagate the myth, then?
Because we see only the finished, polished product. And not the work-in-progress, which took several years of hard work and scores of little improvements and adjustments. We see only the tip, and not the massive iceberg underneath on which the tip is resting. (That’s mainly because media popularizes the stars only when they become one.)
And because we see only the finished product, the tip, the super star, the gulf between their and our level seems unbridgeable. But if we could magically see the massive iceberg underneath, all those years that took them to reach where they have, we’ll see a crevice and not a gulf – something within realm of possibility.
If we’ve to schematically represent how an expert’s talent/ skill grows over time, it’ll look similar to curve A (zero skill in the beginning). But most people perceive this growth to be similar to curve B (gifted in the beginning)?
But if his mother is asked the same question, she’ll pick curve A, because she has watched him since the days he managed just 5-6 keep-me-ups.
What research and experts say on nature vs. nurture?
There is so much empirical evidence – some of which we saw earlier in the post in the form of how some went on to become greats in their fields – that supports nurture over nature. Here are few conclusions (from research and experts) on the issue.
Anders Ericsson, who has studied world class performers for more than 30 years and whose work led to 10,000-hour rule to greatness, says:
There is no cell type that geniuses have that the rest of us don’t.
The team – Anders Ericsson et al – that studied expert performances came to the conclusion that difference between expert and normal performances is a result of ‘deliberate effort to improve performance’(the word coined for this is Deliberate Practice or Deep Practice):
However, we deny that these differences [between experts and others] are immutable [means can’t be bridged], that is, due to innate talent. Only a few exceptions, most notably height, are genetically prescribed. Instead, we argue that the differences between expert performers and normal adults reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain.
Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher, studied 120 outstanding achievers from different fields – pianists, sculptors, Olympic swimmers, tennis players, mathematicians, and research neurologists. He found that most of them were not remarkable (in their future fields) as children. Even by early adolescence, it was difficult to predict their future accomplishment from their current ability. It was their continued motivation and commitment, and network of support, which made them world class. He says:
After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.
Practice, but of the right kind, makes a person perfect. That’s how the best reach where they do.
In order to understand how the best practice, let’s first understand how we perform our myriad daily tasks.
Lifting a book, for example, is triggered by firing of electrical and chemical signals by several neurons (could run into millions, but still a tiny fraction of nearly 100 billion in your brain) in your brain. This set of neurons is specific to the task of lifting. Similarly, other tasks, from the most mundane to the most complex, too have their own sets of neurons.
As you practice a particular task more and more, a layer of myelin, a fatty white substance, starts depositing around the firing neurons. The more you practice (as we’ll learn later, it’s actually practice that stretches our current limits), the thicker the myelin sheath becomes. The myelin sheath acts as an insulation, preventing signals from leaking through the neuron walls and, hence, strengthening them. And the stronger the signal becomes, the better you get at a particular task. (To give an analogy, your neuron is like a naked electric wire and myelin, the plastic insulation around it.)
Here is an illustrative image of a neuron wrapped in myelin:
Activities such as walking and lifting have become so automated (implying that myelin sheath on the concerning neurons is thick) for us through years of practice that we don’t realize that once, as a toddler, we struggled to walk and lift.
But when you practice a new activity, you barely have any myelin sheath on the concerning neurons, implying weak signals and, hence, poor performance. So if you’ve recently taken to tennis, the ball will frequently sail over the baseline and first serve will land in the square may be once in ten attempts.
Even experts struggle if the rules of the craft are tweaked, because their neurons are not well insulated for few of the things they face.
In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed, himself a former British number-one table tennis player, describes a promotional tennis match he played with Roger Federer at Hampton Court Palace in the summer of 2005. It wasn’t regular tennis, though. It was an ancient form of tennis played indoors with sloping roofs, hard balls, and very different technique. To quote Matthew Syed on this match:
I found that, for all his grace and elegance, Federer could scarcely make contact with the ball when it was played at any serious speed (neither, for that matter, could I)
Why did Roger Federer play ordinary?
Because of the changed format, Federer had to play the game differently than he normally does, which means he had to rely on few (which may run into millions) novice neurons, which weren’t as insulated as his regular-tennis neurons.
Researchers have observed similar patterns of underperformance in other sports, most notably chess, and crafts when regular patterns were tweaked.
What’s the fastest way to insulate your neurons?
Mozart wasn’t endowed with thick myelin on neurons responsible for playing piano. So did others whom we discussed earlier in the post. They all developed it. And the fastest way to develop it, as experts such as Anders Ericsson who have studied elite performers say, is through Deep Practice.
Deep Practice is the way elite performers practice. As part of Deep Practice, you keep raising the difficulty level of your practice a little bit every time you get comfortable at certain level. (Note that if you raise the bar too high in one fell swoop, the activity will be too difficult for you to perform.) At the elevated level, you’ll likely struggle to accomplish the task with the earlier ease. However, you continue at this new level, seeking feedback, say, from a coach and trying to perfect every move.
To give an example of Deep Practice, if you want to become better in math quicker, raise the difficulty level of your practice problems once you hit cruise mode with the current set. If you keep practicing at the same level, you stop thickening myelin.
Deep Practice, however, is not easy. Practicing at the edge of your ability is hard. It’s difficult to put in more than 3-4 hours of such practice a day. But if you can get comfortable with discomfort and pull off those few hours consistently, you’ll reap serious rewards.
Because it’s hard and you need to stick with the task for long, you need to show grit, the biggest indicator of success, in order to make it. You may learn how grit makes the difference here:
Why aren’t most people intelligent or smart or…?
The answer lies in not practicing the right way, not seeking improvements.
Let me explain this through a simple math formula, which will make the whole concept of becoming better at anything very intuitive.
Most of you would be aware of the following formula for compounding:
What happens if ‘i’ is zero, which implies zero growth? The amount doesn’t grow (or stays at ‘P’) no matter how many years you keep it for. Right?
What is ‘i’ when you’re trying to excel at something?
It represents those tiny improvements you need to become better at that thing. If you don’t make improvements, you stay at the same level, no matter how many years you put in.
Let me give an example to explain this.
Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, gives example of how his mother didn’t improve her typing speed despite several years of practice:
Think of how most of us go about our lives. My mother was a secretary for many years and, before embarking on her career, went on a course to learn how to type. After a few months of training she reached seventy words a minute, but then hit a plateau that lasted for the rest of her career. The reason is simple: this was the level required to gain employment, and once she had started work, it hardly seemed important to get any better. When she typed, she had her mind on other things.
She worked several hours every day for several years, and yet she didn’t improve.
Sounds, familiar? Déjà vu.
She worked hard, but didn’t improve. Why? Because ‘i’ was zero. She worked without seeking improvements.
A vast, vast majority falls into this pattern, and they wonder why they’re not becoming world class despite hard work. They aren’t because they aren’t seeking improvements. And the primary reason for that is falling into a routine where they enjoy the effortlessness of the current state. Improvements, in contrast, entail some pain (remember, Deep Practice!).
(However, you don’t need to practice like the best in the world do. Most of us will be satisfied with, say, a finish in top 1 percent, won’t we? The key is to keep making improvements, howsoever small they are.)
When we hear of feats such as those pulled off by Mozart or see Federer guiding that down-the-line backhand winner, we consider only the finished product, which is so well-designed and perfected that it seems impossible for us to ever attain that level. We think, “They’re blessed. They’re wired differently. And no amount of work can take me there.”
However, contrary to popular belief, they aren’t bestowed with special gifts. They develop – which you or me too can – those gifts, those talents on the way. And it takes time.
We learnt in the post that hard work coupled with improvements over a period of time – and not talent or genes or innate ability – makes you the best.
However, the myth of nature over nurture and innate ability continues. And the saddest part about this myth is that an overwhelming majority of people, of all age and experience, don’t even attempt to improve because they think that the best in their fields are gifted and hence no amount of work can take them to that level.