Study Hacks Blog

Is Talent Underrated? Making Sense of a Recent Attack on Practice

December 2nd, 2011 · 48 comments

Bad New for Strivers?

Two psychology professors, David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, recently wrote a New York Times op-ed with a typically snarky title: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters. Many helpful readers were quick to forward me the link.

The authors of this piece start by asking a simple question: “How do people acquire high levels of skill?”

They note that research in recent decades — pioneered by Anders Ericsson, among others — has emphasized the importance of practice, and that these findings have been “enthussiastically championed” by popular writers like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, perhaps due to their “meritocratic appeal.”

They then trip their intellectual trap: “This isn’t quite the story science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters.”

To support this view, they cite their own research, recently summarized in a paper appearing in the journal Psychological Science, which shows that people with larger working memory capacity end up better piano players.

I’m mentioning this article because we’ve been exploring what I call the deliberate practice hypothesis — the idea that applying deliberate practice techniques to a knowledge work environment can lead to huge gains in ability and value. The question at hand is whether this New York Times piece should give us reason to pause.

I read their paper, and my conclusion is that it’s not yet time to abandon deliberate practice to start searching for your innate talent.

Here’s why…

Forget About the Final 7 Percent Until After You Maximize the First 93

What struck me about Hambrick and Meinz’s paper is that it emphasized the necessity of deliberate practice for high achievement.

Consider, for example, the graph at the top of this post, which was pulled from their study. Both lines in the plot show how performance on a piano sight reading task improves with increases in working memory capacity, a trait that the authors argue is innate.

The red line shows this improvement for players with lots of deliberate practice and the blue line shows the improvement for players with less practice.

The key take away is that the  impact of deliberate practice dominates the impact of memory capacity. Practicing more makes you over twice as good. Going from low to high working memory capacity, on the other hand, yields only a minor improvement for an already well-practiced player.

When they finished crunching the numbers, and doing the proper controls for practice quantity, the authors found that this memory capacity accounts for less than 7% of a player’s ability at this task.

From a scientific point of view, this result is important as it clearly identifies a separation between innate and acquired skill.

But from a practical perspective, it’s essentially irrelevant. The fact that these findings are so rare, and that these authors are so excited about such a small effect size, only emphasizes just how small a role innate ability seems to play in achievement.

In other words, unless you are trying to become the world’s top piano sight reader, the 7% advantage of having been born with a vast working memory capacity is not going to play a major role in your achievement.

Now let’s return to the setting that concerns us here at Study Hacks: knowledge work. The deliberate practice hypothesis assumes that almost no one in this setting is working in a way that approximates deliberate practice. In the context of the Hambrick and Meinz study, most of your coworkers are therefore on the blue line from the graph above.

This, of course, only reinforces the idea that embracing deliberate practice can have a profound effect on your ability in this work setting, as this embrace will vault you to the red line. From this lofty perch, minor differences in innate talent won’t matter. Your overwhelming value has already been definitively established.


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Figure from Psychological Science)


Perfectionism as Practice: Steve Jobs and the Art of Getting Good

November 25th, 2011 · 24 comments

The Perfectionism of Steve Jobs

While designing the original Macintosh, Steve Jobs became frustrated with the title bars. As Malcolm Gladwell summarizes in a recent essay on industrial innovation:

“[Jobs] forced the developers to do another version, and then another, about twenty iterations in all, insisting on one tiny tweak after another, and when the developers protested…he shouted, ‘Can you imagine looking at that every day? It’s not just a little thing. It’s something we have to do right.'”

Gladwell told this story to emphasize a truth about Jobs that many found frustrating: “He needed things to be perfect.”

A Different Type of Practice

Like many in the advice community, the death of Steve Jobs drove me to a period of morbid, posthumous anthropology, seeking some insight into what made this icon who he was. In this scavenging, it was the tales of perfectionism — emphasized by many different commentators — that caught my attention.

Jobs’ quest for perfection made him “complicated and exhausting,” but it also made him and his team really good at what they did.

On reflection, this makes sense. When we declare something to be “good enough,” we are declaring that we have reached the limits of our comfort zone. A “good enough” outcome, in this respect, is a snapshot of our current ability level. Pushing something beyond this point crosses a threshold into an ambiguous and uncomfortable territory, where we need skills we don’t yet have and which might be difficult to acquire and apply.

This is a territory most of us avoid.

People in the orbit of Steve Jobs could not.

And they became the best technologists in the world.

Defusing the Dangerous Allure of Perfect

We have now entered a precarious situation. Perfectionism, I’m arguing, can be a powerful technique for injecting deliberate practice into your working life, as the quest for perfection forces you to strain and develop new abilities in a way that you would otherwise naturally avoid. Because of this, it provides a nice case study of our deliberate practice hypothesis in action.

But perfectionism is also dangerous. It’s the source of workaholism and the bane of elite college students. It drove Harvard’s happiness guru, Tal Ben-Shahar, to write a book with the subtitle, How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life.

To harness this technique, therefore, requires nuance.

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Complicate the Formula: John McPhee’s Deliberate Practice Strategy

November 16th, 2011 · 42 comments

The Mathematical Logic of John McPhee

In the nineteen-sixties, a young John McPhee had made a name at The New Yorker as a profile man. As McPhee explained in a recent essay, writing a profile is an exercise in the peripheral. You interview everyone who can “shed light on the life and career of [your subject]” until “you meet yourself coming the other way.” Then you’re ready to write.

McPhee was really good at this process.

He was also really quite bored.

“I was a little desperate to escalate,” he recalls.

In search of escalation, McPhee complicated the formula. If the standard profile focuses on one subject, why not, he thought, try to profile two subjects who shared some peripheral connections? That is, go from A to  A + B.

This challenge lead to “Levels of the Game,” a dual profile, published in The New Yorker, of two American tennis stars who met in the semifinals of the first US Open.

“The double profile worked out,” McPhee recalls, “and my aspirations went into vaulting mode.”

So he complicated things again, pinning onto the bulletin board above his desk a card with a new, more daring formula: ABC/D.

His idea was to profile four people. The first three, A, B, and C, would all be connected through the fourth, D.

For his D, McPhee choose famed environemntalist David Bower, and then went searching for enemies of the environment to fill the roles of A, B, and C.

These efforts led to Encounters with the Archdruid, which was promptly nominated for a National Book Award.

The Deliberate Practice Hypothesis

I’m telling this story because it provides a sample answer to a question many of you have asked.

Recently, I’ve been exploring what we can call the deliberate practice hypothesis. This hypothesis says if you apply deliberate practice (a technique well known to athletes, musicians, and chess players) to the world of knowledge work, you will experience a significant jump in ability.

The natural follow-up question, of course, is how does one apply deliberate practice if you work at a desk?

McPhee’s strategy provides one possible answer out of uncountably many. He reduced his work to a formula so he could then purposefully complicate it. This approach stretched his abilities more — I assume — than if he had simply set out with a goal of “writing better.”

More generally speaking, my guess is that once you start looking closer at the lives of true craftsmen, these types of deliberate strategies will be common.

Perhaps its time to start looking…

(Photo by tnarik)


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:


If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers

November 11th, 2011 · 315 comments

The Berlin Study

In the early 1990s, a trio of psychologists descended on the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in the heart of West Berlin. They came to study the violinists.

As described in their subsequent publication in Psychological Review, the researchers asked the academy’s music professors to help them identify a set of stand out violin players — the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.

We’ll call this group the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

We’ll call this group the average players.

The three researchers subjected their subjects to a series of in-depth interviews. They then gave them diaries which divided each 24-hour period into 50 minute chunks, and sent them home to keep a careful log of how they spent their time.

Flush with data, the researchers went to work trying to answer a fundamental question: Why are the elite players better than the average players?

The obvious guess is that the elite players are more dedicated to their craft. That is, they’re willing to put in the long,Tiger Mom-style hours required to get good, while the average players are off goofing around and enjoying life.

The data, as it turns out, had a different story to tell…


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