Talent < Training

Last week I mentioned Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics. Their latest article in the New York Times is apparently causing a stir, and it’s not hard to see why. In it they describe the work of psychology professor Anders Ericsson:

Ericsson and his colleagues have thus taken to studying expert performers in a wide range of pursuits, including soccer, golf, surgery, piano playing, Scrabble, writing, chess, software design, stock picking and darts. They gather all the data they can, not just performance statistics and biographical details but also the results of their own laboratory experiments with high achievers.

Their work, compiled in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

The full article describes the most effective methods of learning, which appear to be goal-setting and immediate feedback. Given the enormous amount of research that has apparently resulted in the conclusions, I think this should be spread as far and wide as possible.