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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Lesson 4. The Talent Myth

If you have bought into the prevailing idea that being a writer is something you “are,” a function of your “self,”then the concept of “talent” probably lurks in your mind, threatening to overwhelm your fragile self-confidence. Most people believe that great writers are born, not made; that they are special individuals gifted at birth with a magical ability for putting words on paper.

In general, when we ask the question, “What makes certain people really great at what they do?” we are all likely to give the same answer: talent. When we think of a world-class athlete like Ted Williams, or a major composer, like Mozart, we assume that their greatness is the result of talent they were born with. It’s an easy assumption to make, for it has deep roots in our culture and our educational system.

There’s just one problem: it’s not true.

There’s a scientific field of studies known as “expertise research.” Scientists in this field are preoccupied with the question, “What makes certain people really great at what they do?” After decades of studying experts in a number of fields—nursing, business, art, writing, music—they’ve come to the conclusion that expertise is not the result of innate talent. Three British researchers in the field have concluded: “The evidence we have surveyed…does not support the [notion that] excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts.”

To put this another way: Talent, that innate natural gift, that ability to achieve great results without effort, is a myth.

So if it isn’t innate talent that makes certain people great, what is it?

The factor that seems to explain the most about great performance is something the researchers call deliberate practice.

When I first encountered that sentence, I had been teaching practice-based writing workshops for several years. The sentence jumped out at me from a book I’d picked up while browsing in a Cambridge bookstore: Talent is Overrated: What REALLY Separates Great Performers from Everyone Else, by Geoff Colvin, a senior editor at Fortune magazine. I stared at that sentence; I read it again.

"Deliberate practice?" I thought. "Why that's exactly what my book is about!"

So, I took Colvin's book home and began to read. There I learned about a man named K. Anders Ericsson, the pre-eminent researcher in the field of expertise development. Ericsson, now a professor in Florida, has spent three decades studying great performers in many fields. In one study, he and some colleagues studied violin students at a prominent music school in Berlin. The students had been divided by their teachers into three groups, according to their present abilities: in the top group were the students who would go on to careers as top solo performers; in the bottom group were the ones who would not be performers but would teach music in schools. Ericsson wanted to find out what it was that landed each student into one of these groups rather than the others. What, in other words, made some of these students into great performers while the others were not?

The answer, it turned out, was quite simple: what differentiated the best violinists from those not so good was how much time they spent practicing. The students had all begun their study of the violin at around the same age—six or seven. But by the age of twelve, those students who would end up in the top group were practicing an average of two hours a day. The students who ended up in the bottom group practiced only about fifteen minutes a day. And those disparities only increased as the students got older: by the time they were in their early twenties, the students in the bottom group had spent 4,000 hours in practicing; the students in the top group had spent almost three times that much.

Ericsson has done many other studies of this kind, and in every case, he and his colleagues found that what distinguishes people who are great at what they do is their dedication to deliberate practice.

I was fascinated by these findings, and I went on to read other books, and to learn more about Professor Ericsson and his work. If you want to understand the practice approach to learning any skill, I highly recommend Geoff Colvin's book. If you'd like to learn more, I've listed below some of the other resources I've found useful.

With all this information in support of my intuitions, I was now sure that I needed to further develop my practice-based approach to teaching writing. It took me many years to refine this approach, which now informs all my teaching, as well as my books and articles. Because I think this approach is so helpful to writers, I decided to produce this series of lessons, so that anyone who wants to can begin a journey on the Mastery Path.

The Talent Myth: Resources
Geoff Colvin. Talent is Overrated: what REALLY separates world-class performers from everyone else.
Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code.
Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers.
George Leonard. Mastery: the keys to success and long-term fulfillment.
David Shenk. The Genius in All of Us.
Twyla Tharp. The Creative Habit.

The Talent Myth: Online articles
Geoff Colvin, "What It Takes to Be Great," Fortune, October 19, 2006. This article provided Colvin with the seeds of his book.

David Dobbs, "E=mc2 (and a lot of hard work)," The Age, October 16, 2006. Article about Ericsson's research.

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt, "A Star is Made," New York Times Magazine, May 7, 2006. Article about Ericsson and his work.

Shelley Gare, "Success is All in the Mind," The Australian, January 24, 2009. Profile of Ericsson.

Dwyer Gunn, "The Science of Genius: interview with David Shenk." Freakonomics blog, April 26, 2010.

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