Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn By Studying Amazing Kids

Jun 1, 2016
Originally published on December 3, 2018 11:14 am

What made Mozart great? Or Bobby Fischer? Or Serena Williams?

The answer sits somewhere on the scales of human achievement. On one side: natural talent. On the other: hard work. Many would argue that success hangs in some delicate balance between them. But not Anders Ericsson.

Ericsson has spent decades studying the power of practice, and in his new book, Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, co-authored with Robert Pool, he argues that "talent" is often a story we tell ourselves to justify our own failure or to protect children from the possibility of failure. He writes:

This is the dark side of believing in innate talent. It can beget a tendency to assume that some people have a talent for something and others don't and that you can tell the difference early on. If you believe that, you encourage and support the 'talented' ones and discourage the rest, creating the self-fulfilling prophecy. ... The best way to avoid this is to recognize the potential in all of us — and work to find ways to develop it.

To underscore his point, Ericsson engages in a systematic takedown of the myths of famous prodigies, including Mozart and Paganini.

Masters of their crafts? To be sure.

Hard workers? Clearly.

Naturally gifted? Not so fast.

"I have made it a hobby to investigate the stories of such prodigies," Ericsson writes, "and I can report with confidence that I have never found a convincing case for anyone developing extraordinary abilities without intense, extended practice."

Because the word "practice" is a big tent capable of hiding habits both good and bad, I spoke with Ericsson, who is on the faculty at Florida State University, about what he considers the path to mastering a craft, whether playing tennis or trombone. He calls it "deliberate practice."

What is the essence of deliberate practice?

The most optimal way to improve your performance is to find a teacher who has been teaching other people to reach the level of performance that you want to attain. This basically means that teacher will be able to tell you the most effective ways to improve. A good teacher will also be able to find suitable units of improvement, so you don't push yourself more than you can do.

Just start out, 15 or 20 minutes [a day]. Especially if you have a mentor and, ideally, a teacher. That teacher will be able to help you set reasonable expectations.

I need to ask the question that everyone asks you: Is talent a myth?

The idea that some people are born with gifts is a very counterproductive view — that your task as a high school student or college student is that you're supposed to go around testing things to find your gift. Because I have yet to find anybody who finds their gift.

What Robert and I are arguing is that it's much better to think of something you want to attain and then get the help of teachers and parents to start you on the path of creating that. On that path, you may decide you want to go in a different direction. That's fine. But you haven't simply been waiting around for something that would allow you to instantaneously become good because that's never happening. And I think the process of really seeing how you can improve is something that will transfer even if you try to improve in some other domain.

You talk about how playing a sport or an instrument doesn't mean the player is improving. What is the difference between playing regularly and deliberate practice that leads to improvement?

My favorite example is: Say you're playing doubles in tennis. And you just miss a backhand volley. Now, the game will just keep on going, and, if the same situation emerges a couple of hours later, you're not likely to do much better.

Now try a thought experiment — practicing with a coach. That coach allows you to stand by the net, ready to do your backhand volley — and then makes it increasingly more difficult. Eventually, he forces you to run up to the net to do it and then embed it in regular rallying. You can improve your performance more in those one or two hours with a coach than in five to 10 years of regular practice with your friends.

This is America, and we are obsessed with the stories of child prodigies. Do you believe they're simply kids who've practiced a lot?

Well, I've been doing research for over 30 years, and I've been looking for cases where somebody discovered that they just had this innate ability to do something really well. And in every example I've studied, once you look closer at what was happening before, you find a series of practice activities, many of them meeting the criteria of deliberate practice.

In Mozart's case, most people aren't aware that Mozart's father was a pioneer at designing training for young children to master musical instruments. He worked intensively with Mozart from age 3. So, when Mozart started to perform, he had been in training for several years and was being trained by someone who was very motivated to help his son reach a high level.

So practice is key to most prodigies' success — but so are parents?

Exactly. And that is one thing I would recommend to parents — that it is a pretty unique opportunity to be able to spend time with a child developing some kind of activity together. Now, there are abuses, where parents really push their children to perform. But, if you take the view that you're really trying to help the child develop this ability and become increasingly more able to monitor their own learning so they will eventually become independent, that is something that I think would be very beneficial for the parent and the child.

In education, there is a lot of attention right now around student "grit" or resilience. When you look at prodigies, what is it that motivates these kids to work so hard and reach the levels that they do?

I think there are some recent biographies — of [Andre] Agassi and others — that really show that, in at least a few of these cases, the parents were putting enormous pressure on these children. And I think that is not appropriate.

I believe, however, that there is a way of helping a child get enjoyment from the mastery and the development of an ability. And I would argue that the young musicians who are most likely to succeed as adult musicians are the ones who acquire the ability to enjoy their own music-making. So they can sit down and play music for their own enjoyment.

So, at some point there is a shift, from "I'm doing this because I am motivated by the approval or disapproval of a parent" to "Wow, I am very good at this, and I enjoy doing it"?

When I've been talking to the parents of prodigies, what's interesting is that the kids really enjoy playing in front of audiences. When they perform well, they get a lot of respect and other social benefits that are key to understanding why they're willing to invest [so much practice time]. It's well known that, before a public performance a child is much more motivated to practice and work on things that will translate into a better performance.

In all sorts of activities, there are these sources of motivation and enjoyment that, the more a parent or teacher can help them access, that will provide them with the motivation to master something that may be difficult. But it's only a temporary difficulty, and then they will be able to enjoy the fruits of that effort.

Let's talk about what this means for those of us who, over the years, have convinced ourselves that we're simply not good at something. My editor told me just the other day, "I'm just not a math person."

Let's look at adult activities that are consequential. Say you're starting a new company; being able to make budgets and other things is going to become important to you. When that becomes important, you'll have the motivation and willingness to do the training that will allow you to reach a high level of proficiency.

I believe one of the problems with traditional education is that, with certain kinds of math activities it's hard to see how they will actually benefit you as an adult. So, I think education can be transformed into being more skills-based, where students will be able to see how, by learning certain skills, they'll be able to do things that they couldn't do before.

One lesson of your research seems to be schools telling students that "Take our word for it, you should know this" isn't good enough. Because motivation is key to student learning.

Yes, and once you're repeating facts and procedures, you're not forced to understand and integrate that knowledge in a way that allows you to use it. And I think helping students to see how they can actually use this knowledge in a useful way motivates them to understand it and learn it in a more meaningful way.

I remember personally when I was in seventh or eighth grade, I decided I didn't want to memorize things. In history class, that presented problems. The way I solved that was to go to the library and read two or three books on the historical period. That allowed me to answer all the questions without memorizing. I could infer and relate things that were related to me in a meaningful way. That was really important to me.

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When it comes to learning how to be really good at something, which matters more, practice or talent? You'll find one answer in the new book "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise." It was written by Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University. He has spent decades exploring the power of practice, starting with one remarkable study. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team has that story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: If I read out a bunch of random digits - five, three, nine, seven, one, six, two - how many can you remember in order? For most people, it's a phone number - about seven. Well, in the summer of 1977, Anders Ericsson left Stockholm for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There he teamed up with the famous psychology professor Bill Chase to see if, with the right practice, someone could remember a lot more than seven digits.

ANDERS ERICSSON: Steve actually started improving in a way that was really mind-boggling even to us.

TURNER: Steve was Steve Faloon, an undergrad who agreed to a few hours a week one summer trying to remember random digits. Ericsson says by summer's end...

ERICSSON: It's probably the one time in my research experience where I really felt that excitement and, in some ways, that mystery feeling that you were having an experience that haven't been had by anybody else.

TURNER: Each session was recorded. This tape is from a very big day. First they quickly read Steve the numbers.


STEVE FALOON: Four, one, three, one, seven, seven...

TURNER: Then Steve would try to recite them back. Ericsson encouraged him to think out loud like this.


ERICSSON: OK, OK, OK, all right. Now, this one is...

TURNER: Faloon was also an animated guy who loved the challenge. So there was a lot of this...


FALOON: OK, all right, all right.

TURNER: Once he'd psyched himself up, he got to work.


FALOON: Four, 13.1, 77, 84...

TURNER: Do you hear what he's doing there? Steve was on the cross-country team, and after struggling early on in the study, he realized he could remember more digits if he grouped them together like running times.


FALOON: Eleven, 46.2!

TURNER: And with that emphatic two, Steve set a new personal best. He'd remembered 22 digits. Now, to appreciate how hard that is, do you remember the seven digits I gave you at the start of this story? I didn't think so.

After two years of deliberate practice, always pushing at the edges of Steve's ability and developing new memory strategies whenever he hit a wall, Steve torched his old record. At his peak, he could remember 82 digits. To prove Steve was no fluke, Ericsson recruited one of his friends from the cross-country team, Dario Donatelli.

DARIO DONATELLI: I mean, I became so intrigued. Boy, I got 15 today, got 16 and 17. And then when Steve would start to egg you on, you know, you wanted to do better than him.

TURNER: Steve Faloon died not long after of a rare disease, but Dario spent more than five years in the study. His peak - 113 random digits. Ericsson says while the study was about short-term memory, the takeaway applies to tennis, too, and chess and violin. Pick your passion. In short, practice makes possible. Today Ericsson is deeply skeptical of the idea that we're all born with some kind of talent or natural gift.

ERICSSON: And I think it's a very counterproductive view that your task as a high school student or college student is that you're supposed to go around testing things to find your gift because I've yet to find anybody who finds a gift.

TURNER: Instead, he says, find something that you want to do. Surround yourself with people who can help you, and get practicing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.