To say that someone who is displaying extreme skill is a "natural" is going out of vogue.
Recently, we've been flooded with books proclaiming that with the right kind of practice and enough effort, anyone can become great at anything. The most popular of these books is Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which espouses the 10,000 hour rule: the key to mastery in any domain is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or practice that is highly focused, measured, scrutinized, and comes with immediate feedback. Although the scientist whose work inspired Gladwell's book, Anders Ericsson, has refuted parts of the 10,000 hour rule, his own book, Peak, follows the same general plotline: deliberate practice is the key to becoming world-class.
This story -- that anyone can be world-class at anything -- is inspirational and appealing. But it is misleading at best and counterproductive at worst.
- Misleading because there is plenty of evidence that innate talent, or your genetic code, matters a lot. As the saying in basketball goes, "You can't coach height." And it's not just sports. Research shows that IQ is more important than many of us may want to believe when it comes to intellectual achievement.
Now none of this is to say that practice doesn't matter. Practice matters a ton! And we agree with Ericsson that practicing deliberately is the way to go. Our issue is simply with relegating the role of innate talent. That's why we were encouraged when we read psychologist Angela Duckworth's new book, Grit. In it, Duckworth puts forth a model of development that we really like:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
In other words, both nature (talent) and nurture (effort/practice) matter. Duckworth's model is so elegant because it's flexible: for any given pursuit you can assign weights to both the talent and effort variables. In a more physical pursuit like sprinting, perhaps innate talent is worth 0.8 and effort worth only 0.2. For a more intellectual pursuit, like writing, maybe the opposite holds true.
Duckworth's model says that effort always matters. Usain Bolt wouldn't have broken records if he didn't get off the couch and put in hard work. Even in fields where genetics are especially important, once you get to the top, where everyone has massive innate talent, effort is often the separating factor.
It's also important to remember that although being world class at almost anything requires the right DNA, you can still become pretty dang good at most things given the right effort and opportunities. Not everyone can win a Nobel Prize, but most can become professors.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we strongly believe that there is intrinsic value in working to become your best, whatever your best may be. The process of working to get better at anything builds self-confidence and gives our lives meaning.
Apply In Your Life
- Quit thinking nature or nurture. Both matter. Instead, nurture your nature.
- Don't push youth to specialize too soon. For every Tiger Woods, there are countless kids who suffer from physical and psychological burnout. Let kids find their own passions and provide support along the way.
- Practice deliberately, set goals, and methodically work to improve. While only a few can be world-class, in most pursuits, just about anyone can train themselves to be quite good.