You want to dominate in your profession, perfect your skill as a performer, or impress the world with your writing, artwork, or athletic achievements. There's just one problem: You're not very good at whatever it is you seek to do. 

Should you change direction and find something you're naturally good at, and seek success there instead? Not necessarily, say researchers and psychologists. Studies have disproved the idea that we all are born with equal abilities and that talent doesn't matter--clearly it does. Physical attributes matter too: If you're five feet tall, your future as an NBA All-Star may not be assured.

But, at least in most disciplines, hard work matters more, and doing the right kind of hard work matters most. 

1. A hard worker with no innate ability beats a talented lazybones.

At least that's the conclusion that industrial-organizational psychologist Piers Steel came to when he reviewed a study that measured cognitive ability (innate talent and intelligence) against "domain knowledge" (i.e. study) in completing a challenging task. If two people work equally hard to perfect their performance at something, then the one with more innate talent will likely prevail, he explains. But when someone with innate talent but no discipline for hard work competes against someone without innate talent who works very hard, the hard worker will usually do better. 

That's good news, he adds, because frankly there just aren't that many hard workers in the world. You're most likely to compete against people who lack talent but have drive, or people who have talent but don't work that hard. If you're willing to put in the work, you are very likely to get very good at whatever you're trying to do, at least as good as most anybody else. That's true even if you have no innate talent. And it's true even if your first efforts are very, very bad. 

2. Not all hard work is equally useful.

A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell made a lot of news with the "10,000 Hour Rule." Based on research by Anders Ericsson on promising violin students, Gladwell claimed that anyone could achieve mastery of anything with 10,000 hours of practice. Soon after, Gladwell's 10,000 Hour Rule was debunked by Ericsson himself, who claimed that Gladwell got a lot of significant details wrong, and that in any case the violin students had not achieved mastery so much as very great promise.

More important, Ericsson said, was how the students practiced, and that's the important lesson here. There's just doing something for 10,000 hours. And then there's actively working to improve, breaking down the skill you want into building blocks that you can master, pushing yourself beyond your current abilities, and getting feedback on what you're doing well and what you could do better. That kind of work is all part of "deliberate practice," and it's the only kind of work that will make you very, very good at anything. It's the work you should do if you want high achievement in your chosen profession or activity.

The difference between simply putting in the hours and deliberate practice became starkly clear to me years ago when I was teaching a college-level creative writing course. One student, obviously very bright and ambitious, asked me what she needed to do to get an A in my class. I told her she needed to write a 20- to 25-page portfolio of work to present at the end of the term, and to attend and participate in class. I had chosen those criteria deliberately because I didn't want to grade people on the quality of their writing (which is partly a matter of individual taste anyhow). I wanted to grade them on their willingness to work and improve. The reason they would be graded on their work at the end of the term was to allow them to learn and revise and improve their work throughout the semester.

Then came the end of the term, and this bright young woman handed in her portfolio. Instead of one or several completed, polished works, she had simply written beginnings. A whole bunch of beginnings. She'd get a few pages in and, just when she would have had to start working at telling a story, or developing a character, or giving the reader a reason to stick with her piece, she would simply trail off and move on to the next beginning. She hadn't worked or revised and she hadn't learned much of anything.

I agonized over that student (decades later, I still feel torn) because she did exactly what I asked her to do. But she had followed the letter and not the spirit of those instructions, and to give her an A would be to disrespect other students who had worked hard to improve their writing. So I gave her a lesser grade.

What that student did compared with what the others who pushed themselves harder did is the exact difference between deliberate practice and just putting in the hours. If you can do both--challenge yourself with deliberate practice and put in the hours it takes to truly improve--then you can attain high achievement at just about anything you choose to do. 

Published on: Jun 20, 2018
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