Tuesday, May 09, 2006


The latest Levitt-Dubner column:
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.
* * *

"I think the most general claim here," Ericsson says of his work, "is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it." This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn't spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

* * *
And it would probably pay to rethink a great deal of medical training. Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That's because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

The same is not true for, say, a mammographer. When a doctor reads a mammogram, she doesn't know for certain if there is breast cancer or not. She will be able to know only weeks later, from a biopsy, or years later, when no cancer develops. Without meaningful feedback, a doctor's ability actually deteriorates over time. Ericsson suggests a new mode of training. "Imagine a situation where a doctor could diagnose mammograms from old cases and immediately get feedback of the correct diagnosis for each case," he says. "Working in such a learning environment, a doctor might see more different cancers in one day than in a couple of years of normal practice."
Interesting observations there, particularly about the abilities of doctors.

I think that the bolded language above may be overstated, however. My personal experience, as always, influences my views of what seems plausible here. And I just don't find it plausible that experts can be "made, not born." It looks like the evidence shows merely that expert performers have spent years practicing their discipline. But that is consistent with the more common-sense theory that experts are "born with talent that they then have to exercise," as opposed to the sweeping claim that experts are "made, not born."

When I was a graduate teaching assistant, it was my great displeasure to teach a beginning guitar class for 20-25 music education majors at the University of Georgia. I taught this class for three quarters a year for two years. (It was a miserable experience, because 1) few of the students wanted to take a guitar class in the first place, it was simply a requirement of their major; and 2) all of the students came to class with a guitar, usually of extremely poor quality, with which they could make noise whenever they were bored, which was often, because I would inevitably have to move around the room examining each student's playing individually.)

Anyway, I must have taught well over a hundred students to play the guitar, at least in a rudimentary fashion. And the thing that most impressed me was the incredibly vast range of ability that the students had. Out of 20 students, none of whom had touched a guitar before in their lives, there would be a few who were just naturals, who could instantly mimic anything that I showed them, and who could make remarkable progress without any sign of having practiced during the week. And there would be a handful of students at the bottom for whom everything was an immense struggle, and who -- despite the ability to play some other instrument such as the saxophone or piano -- simply could not get their fingers to play even the simplest chord on the guitar. In other words, students could have very different levels of ability even as absolute beginners -- which indicates to me that there really is such a thing as talent.

Now, even the best student would obviously never become an expert guitar player without practice. In that sense, practice is essential. But I doubt that the students with zero talent could ever become candidates for playing at Carnegie Hall, even if they practiced diligently for years. Experts are born AND made, in other words.

To be fair, Dubner and Levitt do make this point, when they concede that few of us could hope to play basketball like Michael Jordan, no matter how much we practice. But that undermines their own suggestion that experts are "made, not born." If expertise was something that could be simply "made" through enough practice, then all of us could be a Michael Jordan (or a Yo Yo Ma) given enough practice.



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