Penelope Trunk points to an article in the Harvard Business Review that describes why time is more important than talent for aspiring experts.
Back in 1985, Benjamin Bloom, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, published a landmark book, Developing Talent in Young People, which examined the critical factors that contribute to talent. He took a deep retrospective look at the childhoods of 120 elite performers who had won international competitions or awards in fields ranging from music and the arts to mathematics and neurology. Surprisingly, Bloom’s work found no early indicators that could have predicted the virtuosos’ success. Subsequent research indicating that there is no correlation between IQ and expert performance in fields such as chess, music, sports, and medicine has borne out his findings. The only innate differences that turn out to be significant—and they matter primarily in sports—are height and body size.
So what does correlate with success? One thing emerges very clearly from Bloom’s work: All the superb performers he investigated had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years. Later research building on Bloom’s pioneering study revealed that the amount and quality of practice were key factors in the level of expertise people achieved. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born. These conclusions are based on rigorous research that looked at exceptional performance using scientific methods that are verifiable and reproducible. Most of these studies were compiled in The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, published last year by Cambridge University Press and edited by K. Anders Ericsson, one of the authors of this article. The 900-page-plus handbook includes contributions from more than 100 leading scientists who have studied expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains: surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting, and many others.
So let's look at the three things required for mastery of a domain.
1. Intense practice. Frequent, focused practice in the domain you are mastering. In "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell proposed a "10,000-hour rule" and claimed that the key to proficiency in any field is to spend 10,000 hours practicing it. Additional hours of practice no doubt lead to diminishing returns, but if you want to be a world-class expert you'll need every bit of incremental improvement.
2. Devoted teachers. Finding someone better than you who is willing to coach you can be difficult, but is critical for success. Research and and practice are great, but a coach can provide immediate constructive feedback that will multiply the value of your R&P. In addition to finding a good coach, you must cultivate yourself as a good student and be open to honest criticism. A good coach can tell you when you just don't have what it takes to make forward progress and that you should adjust your focus.
3. Enthusiastic support from family. If your family doesn't support you, then you need to choose between them and your quest for mastery. It's as simple as that. Intense practice takes time and energy, and if your family is not supportive then no one will be happy, and you will not be effective. No matter how supportive your family is, you will sometimes need to make a trade-off between your family and your quest -- and every time you choose your family you will fall one step behind the people who didn't. It's harsh but true. For myself, I'm fine with sacrificing incremental mastery for my family, but my eyes are open and I recognize the cost.
What I crave most are teachers and mentors... not just one, but as many as I can get my hands on. Most of the people who can teach me are on their own quest for mastery, so I have to position myself as a student who can be taught without distracting them from their own ambitions.
Do these keys to mastery ring true in your life? Have you found the perfect teacher for your domain? How do you balance your quest and your family?