Talent vs. Deliberate Practice

A few weeks ago when my mind was all abuzz about Peak, one really concrete and hopeful thought danced in my brain: deliberate practice trumps talent every time. In Peak, Anders Ericsson describes how inherent ability can give someone an early advantage because an activity comes a little easier at first, but the advantage goes away in favor of practice. As an example, he points to chess grandmasters. Grandmasters as a group have higher than average IQs, but there is no relationship between IQ and ranking within the class of grandmasters, suggesting IQ may be helpful for sticking with chess initially but the advantage is overwhelmed over time by deliberate practice.

Hambrick and Meinz have done​ some pretty compelling research, though, that in at least one context, inherent ability is a predictor of success even controlling for time spent in deliberate practice. They studied the sight reading abilities of piano players and measured skill as a function both of time spent deliberately practicing and of working memory capacity.

And, indeed, piano players in the high working memory, low deliberate practice group nearly, though not quite, matched the performance of the low working memory, high deliberate practice group. On one level, deliberate practice did win out against ability, but inherent ability made a significant difference, and the advantage never faded, unlike Ericsson’s grandmaster example. Piano players with high working memory capacity were better sight readers than those with low working memory capacity but equivalent deliberate practice.

Clearly, there is more work to do to figure out how to reconcile the differing role of innate ability in chess and piano sight reading, but the good news is that deliberate practice still trumps ability.

But natural abilities matter, too, at least to varying extents. I’m reminded of The Success Equation, where Michael J. Mauboussin describes the role of skill versus luck in professional sports. Most professional sports have achieved over time greater parity among players, increasing the role of luck in winning. Not basketball, though. He theorizes that while most sports have benefited from ever increasing pools of players to choose from as recruiting goes international, in basketball the pool has remained artificially constrained because the average height keeps going up, raising the bar to entry. There just aren’t that many people in the world who are 6’8″. That’s a physical attribute rather than a cognitive one, but the point is there are sometimes elements beyond our control that do matter.

Deliberate practice always matters, though.

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