Saturday, March 5, 2011

Talent = opportunity + deliberate practice and lots of both: a review of 4 books riffing on K. Anders Ericcson's research

Over the past few years there have been an intriguing number of books orbiting around  the concept of practice vs talent for developing excellence in a given practice.  The main ones are Outliers, Bounce, Talent is Overrated, the Talent Code. Each of them touch on K. Anders Ericcson's research around building expertise in thousands of hours of "deliberate practice" as an unassailable ingredient for achieving excellence or at least expertise in one's field of endeavour (pdf overview by Ericcson).

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody ElseIt's the mistakes, Stupid.
Goeff Colvin may have been the first person to popularize what has become known as the "ten thousand hour rule" for developing expertise.

In October 2006, Colvin, an editor-at-large for Fortune magazine, wrote an article called "what it takes to be great." He asked the question - what makes Tiger Woods great? Raw talent? Nope. Starting with Erricson's work from 1993 and working forward, the evidence keeps coming: it's hard work, combined with 'deliberate practice' - that is lots of focused work learning in particular from mistakes. In 2009, Colvin had developed this article into a book focusing on the same themes.

In Talent is Overrated, Colvin develops deliberate practice with multiple examples and case studies to explore not only how this kind of practice can be seen in sports, chess and music - ericcson's main domains of study - but how it might be applied to one's own environment at work. He emphasises that great practice is the focus on the errors, the mistakes, and learning from these by moving into a kind of personal uncomfort zone (i feel that way working through math problems, and yes working and working my uncomfort zone is the only way through. dang). Error work becomes more effective than rote repetition without errors.

Conencting the Spark with the Drive: The Talent Code
The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How.In 2009, another book riffing on Ericcson's work came out. In the Talent Code, Coyle begins by covering much of the same territory as Colvin. He renames deliberate practice deep practice. From here, Coyle's questions take a slightly different spin. Coyle's curiousity is to explore where greats got their reps: where did they find the spaces that let them get all that deep practice? His second focus is to try to zero in on what's happening to us when such repetitions are undertaken. A thrid focus is to look at how one can get fired up to take on deep practice - a concept that he calls "ignition." Related to ignition is "master coaching:" what are the traits of great coaches that can set the spark and direct all those reps.

So while Colvin first brought the ten thousand hour rule to the popular press, Coyle may be most associated with mylenation:
mylenation of an axon: repping
in perfect reps
 where fat is laid down around axons in neural connections of particular pathways to privilege those pathways for particular skills acquisition. The better a path is mylenated, so the research seems to read now, the faster/more efficiently we can access those pathways for that particular skill. Coyle is the hero of mylentation. 

Outliers: Basic Sociology Undercutting the Myth of the Self-Made "MAN"

While the stories of reps, coaching strategies and the grittiness of high-rep environments are in the Talent Code, for the most part, Coyle just looks for the environments that have fostered great performances in sport and music and chess.   Coyle doesn't spend much time considering for instance the economic backgrounds of some of the athletes vs some of the musicians. Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 Outliers is less neutral about these environments.  Gladwell gets right into that space to push on what informs the success of those who seem in some spheres to rise above the rest - the myth of the Talented Sports hero or of the Super Successful Business Leader.

Outliers: The Story of SuccessRight Place at the Right Time. What Gladwell does is pull together basic sociology research on social position in particular, and stats relating to these findings to look at: who gest access to what kind of 10thousand hours of deliberate practice. What one gets, Gladwell concludes, has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time, mapping location, to situation, to moment in time to affluence to birthdays to get the right ten thousand hours or not.

One of the most salutary effects of Gladwell's work is to show, right from page 1, how much of that access is down to luck.  To make this case, Outliers features people we tend to think of as amazing and extra special who must be extraordinary people. Instead Gladwell makes the cast that,  what is extraordinary has been the perfect storms of their opportunities. Bill Gates is a prime example of someone with the nascent smarts and tenacity but also with the right early affluent access to computers at the right time: when they were rare to get the reps in - before anyone else did or could in order to have that special competitive edge.

Gladwell points to clusters of people with similar opportunities for different industries and different times. Bill Gates and Bill Joy are two in computing. The page 1 example in Gladwell? The chance of birth in the hockey/football systems that means boys born in one part of the year have a significantly greater chance of success in their sport than boys born at another - just because of the way the selection system works. And the way it works means that those kids born outside that annual period will have vanishingly smaller chances of getting in those precious reps in the time frame necessary to advance. Outliers for some is not an easy story to here: it doesn't say that anyone can do anything; instead it shows how really often indeed the stars must align to provide the right opportunity at the right time to get in all those reps. Luck, accidents of birth to put us in the right place at the right time - it seems have way more baring than genes.

Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of SuccessBounce: Practice rather than Genetics Makes Exceptional Approachable
In 2010's Bounce Matthew Syed likewise highlights the role of particular factors that just accumulate to create the exact conditions to support championship reps building. This focus is one of the attributes that sets Syed's book apart: he's not one of the creatures in the bell jar of other authors looking on at a phenomena: he is in the bell jar; that has been his world; he is that expert.

He talks about his own career as a national table tennis champ, and how many table tennis champs of various rankings in the UK came from not just his town but his neighborhood and not just his neighborhood but more or less his street. He traces the influence of one teacher in one school that had the effect on one area to develop a nations' champions in a sport. The existance of a given garage with a table tennis table in it didn't hurt either.

Here, an interest in a game plus some cheap equipment combined with excellent guidance for tons of reps in a regular brit neighborhood turned into just the right mix for a sport. With Bill Gates and Bill Joy (of Sun Microsystems), the access to gear and opportunites was a little more rarified, more social class dependent. Or date of birth dependent if we talk about hockey players or football players.

Enough with Racial Superiority Myths. One of the most compelling parts of Bounce is the final section on the supposed "must be genetic" superiority of "African" runners - whether marathoners or sprinters - as what is surely demonstrated by "their" dominance in sprinting and marathon events.

First, the book shows that yes, champion sprinters at the olympics and related events have largely been from West Africa and that the Marathoner champs are largely from Kenya, but, as Steb shows, not just anywhere in Kenya, but  Nandi, a particular area within Kenya. He then shows the research that took apart the claims that This Must Be A Race/Genetic Thing leading to all these wins. Instead, the research looking at the genes of champion runners over decades is that, far from having a special genetic profile, the Nandians for example share more genes in common with other (white) europeans than anything particular within themselves, and second, as for sprinters, a gene that is supposed to assist in sprinting is more often than not found in distance runners -- not sprinters.

Syed goes on to show that what Nadi does have is a need for kids to run sometimes up to 20km a day to get to school and back such that by the time they're 11, they've got the VO2 max capacity of an experienced marathoner.
Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, left, and Teyba Erkesso of Ethiopia,
winners of the 2010 Boston Marathon
And in Jamaica for instance, there is an entire culture around the Sprinter, with a fabulous infrastructure set up for the same effect.

 Usain Bolt on the way to 9.58, 100m

Talent? Well ya maybe whatever that is, but what's unequivocable is the hours - and they're not countless; they're countable: there are thousands - that go into making each champ a champ.  For every population where we might be tempted to say "that person is "gifted"" or it's in their genes, we miss the greater reality that above and beyond anything else, as Colvin shows from Ericcson, and as Syed's reviews of genetic research shows, it's practice - and tons of it - that makes perfect.

To get to that practice, however, as Gladwell's reviews of the sociology literature and interviews with these researchers show, it's also the opportunities to get those reps - right place, time, affluence, birth, connexions  -  that play a substantial role in the making of the exceptional.

We love to believe that we make our own opportunities; we hate to think of them as constrained by something as arbitrary as chance of a birthdate. And while perhaps nothing's impossible the research shows that far more relevant than talent is the complex of luck with the graft of deliberate practice.

Now to go do some of that graft with the math books...blick. And i guess that blick feeling is exactly right for success. Love your blick.


Unknown said...

Excellent overview of each of these works. Saves me from reading them all! Grateful for that.

What I like about the points of Gladwell and Bounce is that it should make us humble and eliminate the self made myth. At the same time, credit needs to be given to those who make the most of their opps. All of us have access to a doorway which can then lead to another doorway which can then lead to a context of mastery. Some are born in that context and squander it. Others look for it and thrive in it. We all have a context and support system and we all have a WILL that plays a critical role.

Jake said...

What Gladwell does not have the insight to see, is that talented people can succeed at many things.

Bill Gates had success with computers not because he is good at technology (and he isn't) he is great at managing technology. Luck got him into computer operating systems, but there are 100 other ways he could have become a billionaire.

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks Yusuf.

i'm not sure i'm following you.

One of the key things about folks who excel is that they connect their hours to stuff they are passionate about. They put the overtime into things they love.

Another thing - and gladwell's text's value is clarifying this: is being in the right place at the right time for that passion to flourish.

Anyway, i guess i'm saying that (a) i don't see gladwell anywhere saying that gates could only have done well at computers - only that the stars aligned to connect his interest and drive with that and (b) to use the term "talented people" seems to erase the argument of all these books which suggests what we take for talent is - well, overrated - in terms of the role it plays in anyone succeeding at anything.

I had a supervisor once who said i'll take a very good, dedicated person over a "talented" flake any day of the week.

too true.

Jake said...

I consider talent to include emotional skills as well as intellectual skills.

Gates only passion was that he wanted to make billions. I made my fortune in the same industry as Gates did. I just caught a different wave. My only passion was that I did not want to fail.

A better book on this subject is "The Black Swan" by Taleb.

dr. m.c. said...

i'm still not sure what your point is. Sorry.

THe point of this post has been to say that there's at least some consensus in the research that the notion of talent may be misconstructed and often misapplied: where many people are often labelled as "talented" when they succeed rather than getting the hours they've put in in the right enviornment.

I'm not sure either where then the discussion of talent as intellectual/emotional fits in?

likewise, i'm also not sure where assertions about Gates' presumed - and surely it can only be presumed - motivations come in?



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