Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

By now, many have begun to break their heartfelt New Year’s resolutions. They may believe that, if they are dieting, they are the unfortunate victim of bad genes. If they are trying a new exercise regime, they may attribute their failure to their busy schedule. If they are trying to improve their relationships with their teenage children, they may attribute their failures (sarcastically) to “everyone knows how teenagers are.” If they are trying to learn a new skill, they may claim that they are slow learners. The excuses are endless; the real power behind a resolution is always the same—hard work and a change of heart. Success rarely comes easily.

When you hear the name Mozart what do you think of? Most people think of a great musical genius who had gifts that were apparent at a very early age. They think of a genius who had to do very little to develop his gifts. Many believe that Mozart was a scribe writing down music that was “dictated” to him. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin points out that these are myths. Consider this statement supposedly written by Mozart in a letter.

All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once…. When I proceed to write down my ideas, I take out of the bag of my memory, if I may use that phrase, what has previously been collected into it, in the way I have mentioned. For this reason, the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination.

The only problem is that almost all scholars of music history agree that this letter is a forgery; written by Mozart’s publisher Friedrich Rochlitz and designed to enhance Mozart’s reputation.  As Colvin points out, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” Simply, “he wrote music the way ordinary humans do.” Mozart was no Mozart!

But didn’t Mozart begin to compose at a very young age? Doesn’t that indicate that Mozart was different? Colvin points out that his father Leopold, an accomplished musician himself, corrected his son’s manuscripts, and that Mozart’s early compositions were arrangements of works by others. Mozart went through 18 years of very rigorous training before, at the age of twenty-one, he published his first composition that is generally considered a masterpiece.

Colvin’s book is fascinating because he reports on a provocative thesis developed by psychologist Anders Ericsson—namely, most of our success in life is not the result of an innate talent, but it is a result of what is called deliberate practice.  Once we understand what deliberate practice is we begin to understand why better performance for most individuals does not get better simply by experience. Deliberate practice is not mere experience; and very importantly, it is not practicing what we are already good at.

Ericsson found, for instance, that skaters who had aspirations for the Olympics would deliberately practice those aspects of their skating game where their skills were the weakest. On the other hand, other amateurs would focus on what they were already good at; and they spent a great deal of their time at the rink socializing and not really practicing at all.

Deliberate practice is not easy; that is why it is the road less traveled. It requires focus and concentration—often this work is not fun. According to Colvin “deliberate practice requires that one identifies certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.” Such a practice stretches us beyond our current comfort zone. Many of us don’t place ourselves in this learning zone—we are happy just maintaining the level of performance that brought us to the position we are in.

Choosing deliberate practice takes commitment. In the world of sports, some athletes stand out not because of their talent level, however high it is, but because of their commitment to deliberate practice which in their profession may be grueling. Former National Football League wide receiver Jerry Rice is considered by most to be the greatest of all time at his position. However, it was not his physicals skills that were extraordinary-many others exceeded him in important categories like speed. What was extraordinary about Rice was his training regime which was so demanding that few came close to emulating it.  For example, Rice was not the fastest on the field, but his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.

Back to our New Year’s resolutions. Trouble speaking to your teenage son? You may need to learn new skills, and you may need a change of heart. You’re going to have to practice some things that you haven’t done before.

New diet? Same thing. If you rely upon your taste buds, which have become accustomed to processed foods, to eat natural foods may be a deliberate practice for you.

Exercise?  You may have to cancel your cable television subscription and feel the discomfort of doing so. You may have to suck wind the first time that you jog up a hill.

Lots of things seem impossible from where we stand today. We can make the impossible possible with deliberate practice.

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5 Responses to Keeping New Year’s Resolutions

  1. James D. says:

    Its funny how we are rewarded when we are very young for learning new skills. When we first walk, talk, ride a bike, etc, we get big doses of social reward from our caregivers. But later, it seems we are increasingly rewarded for being better and better at less and less. We lose the social rewards that come with learning new skills, because as an adult, no one sees them, and no one likely cares.
    Deliberate practice requires something more from us, a move beyond our egos and the need for external rewards. It requires us not to work on what we’re already good at (and likely getting attention for), but to actively seek out our flaws and weaknesses and work on those. This becomes even more painful to the ego because it is more fun to work on what you know and succeed at than to work (usually alone and in anonymity) at what you will likely fail at over and over and over again. Those skaters working on the new skills probably fall a lot more that the others. I know my ego doesn’t like that kind of work. Somewhere buried in my basement I’ve got a poster of Michael Jordan with a favorite quote of mine: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I know my ego doesn’t like failing, and I doubt Jordan’s did either, but it seems to me that its the ego’s fear of failing that prevents us from succeeding in any meaningful fashion.

  2. John A Wood says:

    I really appreciate Barry providing this article. Makes sense! Till reading this I was under the impression that Mozart was a gifted being from whom music flowed; as if from God. That he had to study, work and strive to create such amazing music is great comfort to me. I am inspired to continue to study, work and strive as I have for most of my 67 years. That approach pays handsome dividends in so many ways.

  3. Jim and John,

    Thank you for your comments. It is interesting how much our ego values “deliberate practice,” when it can use it for its own benefits in a very distorted way. For instance, one tedious thought at a time, day after day, we allow our thinking to systemically distort what we perceive. Our distorted thinking is debilitating to ourselves and others yet we persist. Our ego has great tolerance for that “hard work”. Yet when it comes to practice that will move us out of our current box our ego vigorously objects.

  4. Bob G says:

    This is a meaningful post that challenges all of us to look at ourselves and our beliefs in an honest and unbiased way. The suspension of judgement can provide us a chance to strip away the lens from which have viewed the world.

    Understanding that the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world are based on illusions that we have created over time will create the awareness we need to challenge those beliefs for a fresh look.

    Once the lenses have been cleaned, we can see the world and ourselves free from long standing ego centric perpspectives that have heretofore provided unchallenged reasons why we can’t lose the pounds, change our diet habits, change our physical routine or generally make a substantial change.

    Most resolutions fail, I think, because most don’t get to the root of the problem and that problem is to see clearly.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    Bob G.

  5. Tesh says:

    I read an article in Scientific American (I think… it may have been in another magazine) that suggested that expertise in any given field is the result of at least a decade of this sort of “deliberate practice”. Innate talent can only carry someone a small fraction of the way; it takes hard work to be proficient at something.

    Hard work, by definition, means doing something that isn’t easy. I’m reminded of a quote from Sarah Caldwell that Heber J. Grant loved to quote:
    “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing itself is changed, but that our power to do is increased.”

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