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Can we all really be the best?

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 09:01
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The word talent gets used an awful lot. Perhaps the best modern example of the words ingraining into our everyday lives and culture is demonstrated on so called ‘talent shows’, where the judges are looking to find the next big talent. Every now and again a person walks on stage in one of these shows completely bewildering the audience with their ability. We then conclude that this person has a mystical gift only some people are lucky enough to be born with or inherit. Never has the iceberg illusion been so apparent; it’s easy to see the ice above the water and not the colossal foundation it’s built upon.

The idea that success and failure are determined by natural talent is so powerful today that it is accepted without objection. When we watch Roger Federer effortlessly hit a backhand winner or a chess grandmaster playing twenty games simultaneously, we are drawn to the seductive conclusion that they possess special gifts. Gifts so alien, so detached from our lives, that the very idea that we could achieve similar results with the same opportunities seems nothing less than absurdity.

Britain's got talent

(Photo: Tom Dymond/Thames/REX/Shutterstock)

Defining talent

The Oxford English Dictionary defines talent as: Natural aptitude or skill. If that’s the case, it’s plain to see that whatever we do, we can’t compete against the God-given power certain individuals have been granted. As Matthew Syed, an award-winning Times columnist and three-time Commonwealth table-tennis champion, reveals in his book Bounce, that premise is flawed.

Bounce book cover


Image source: Bounce By Matthew Syed | Waterstones", Waterstones.Com, 2018 <https://www.waterstones.com/book/bounce/matthew-syed/9780007350544> [Accessed 10 April 2018].

Unusual circumstances

One of the first points Syed tackles is the idea of circumstance. As he states: ‘Practically every man or woman, who triumphs against the odds, is, on closer inspection, a beneficiary of unusual circumstances. The delusion lies in focusing on the individuality of their triumph.’ This, he argues, is one of the fundamental points made by Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers. Gladwell demonstrates how the likes of Bill Gates, the Beatles and other outstanding people achieved success. As Gladwell states, it is to do with ‘where they come from’ rather than ‘what they are like’. In Syed’s own story of becoming the British number one table tennis player, he states that he was given a unique set of opportunities:

  • His parents bought a tournament specification table which was housed in his garage

  • He had an older brother with whom he spent hours practising from a young age

  • One of the best table tennis coaches in the nation, Peter Charters, was teaching at his school and scouted any player who showed interest in the sport

  • Charters gave him access to Omega, a club open 24 hours a day for its members to access and play in.

Seen in context, his achievements suddenly don’t seem as unachievable. You realize that he had been given opportunities that set him apart from an early age.

Practice: 10000 hours

But are these circumstances enough to grant one the keys to greatness? No. That’s where hours of painstaking practice comes in.

In 1991 Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University conducted an extensive investigation into what drove outstanding performance. The subjects that Ericsson and his colleagues looked at were violinists at the renowned music academy of West Berlin. The violinists were split into three groups as follows:

  • Group one consisted of outstanding students - expected to become international soloists

  • Group two extremely good students - expected to end up playing in the world’s top orchestras, but not as star soloists

  • The third group comprised of the least able students - expected to become teachers.

After many interviews Ericsson found that the histories of the groups were astonishingly similar, showing no systematic differences:

  • The age when the students began practising was around 8, the same age they began taking formal lessons.

  • The average age when they first decided to become musicians was just before they turned 15

  • The average number of teachers who had taught them was 4.1

  • The average number of instruments they had studied before the violin was 1.8.

There was one difference between the groups that was unexpected. The number of hours devoted to serious practice. By the age of 20 the best violinists had practised an average of ten thousand hours, more than two thousand hours more than the good violinists and more than six thousand hours more than the violinists hoping to become music teachers.

In other words, top performers had spent thousands of additional hours to become masters. But that is not all; Ericsson also found that there were no exceptions to this pattern. Nobody had reached the elite group without numerous hours of practice and nobody had worked incredibly hard but failed to excel. Here is Ericsson’s conclusion: ‘we deny that these differences in skill level are immutable; that it is due to innate talent... Instead we argue that the difference between expert performers and normal adults reflects a lifelong persistence of deliberate effort to improve performance.’



Image source:"How Important Is Practice? - Prepsmarter", Prepsmarter, 2018 <https://prepsmarter.com/blog/how-important-is-practice/> [Accessed 10 April 2018].

Purposeful practice

So, can we all achieve greatness with ten thousand hours of doing something? Well, as Syed points out in Bounce, not exactly. Many of us drive cars and indeed many have done so for thousands of hours, but are we all elite level drivers like Lewis Hamilton? No, because after learning how to drive we don’t focus on improving that skill. Once a person is proficient enough they simply cruise along on what Syed describes as a sort of ‘autopilot’. Whilst driving, we are often thinking about what to eat for dinner, listening to music or talking to passenger. As Syed notes, practice must be purposeful.

"Excellence demands effort and planned, deliberate practice of increasing difficulty"

K. Anders Ericsson


Now some people will of course dispute these ideas as utterly nonsensical. The talent paradigm is so ingrained in our society that many find it difficult to abstain from its belief. So, I’ll leave you here with a taster of the book and the message that if you truly want to achieve something and think you can’t, see what Syed has to say. Maybe your perceptions, like mine, will change.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pearson


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