Practice Trumps Talent

Do you know who this man is?

He is perhaps the world’s foremost and highest-paid expert on finding fun in everyday minutia. Every week, he performs in front of as many as 20,000 people in order to test his material. These performances are not his full-time job. He still calls former high school teachers and classmates to test his material on them. He arrives at the job an hour before anyone else and often works up to 18 hours a day. He spends at least 6 hours a day writing material that will take 10 minutes to perform. At age 59, he still runs 4 miles a day. When he was a younger man, to perfect his craft, he performed 300 or more days a year, on the road, and often in obscure venues.

The man is Jay Leno. When you read the article about Jay Leno and his new prime-time show in the Wall Street Journal it is hard not to see the connection between practice and success. Although Jay Leno is talented, if he was not willing to practice his craft, few of us would have heard of him. In the universe of funny men and women, only a few are willing to make the sacrifices that Leno has made, and still makes, to be successful. Yes, Jay Leno is talented; but talent is mere potential until it is developed through effort; few are willing to make the effort.

A regime of what researchers call deliberate practice (see here) has a big side benefit: it cultivates resiliency. Faced with a difficult challenge, you know you can work through it; your experience with deliberate practice proves this to you. The resilience you cultivate feeds back to help sustain a rigorous practice regime. The natural human resiliency Leno has cultivated is available to everyone; a person with a fixed mindset (see here) would give up when the work is hard. Audiences can be tough; Leno has surely been on the receiving end of nervous laughter, blank stares, and heckling. Yet, he gets up, dusts himself off, and goes back for more the next day.

You should be at least slightly unsettled by the Jay Leno story. Don’t many of us dismiss our own average performance with the simple explanation that only some people have God-given gifts? Now, it is true that you need a certain level of talent, not to mention interest, to reach the success of a Jay Leno. It is also true that the universe is populated with many more potential Jay Lenos than we care to admit.

Most of us will never achieve success equivalent to that of Jay Leno. There is nothing wrong with that; 18 hour days would not lead to a balanced life for me. (Of course, I would never assume to judge what is right for Jay Leno.) But, the Leno story helps you ask this question: What would careful cultivation of my own craft, according to the principles of deliberate practice, mean for me? You may find success you never dreamed of; you may accomplish goals you thought were beyond you.

Yet, most people do not employ deliberate practice. In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin writes:

Extensive research in a wide range of field shows that many people not only failed to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud… surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were… in field after field… people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience…Managers with experience did not produce high-caliber outcomes.

Indeed, if you don’t practice, you might be left behind. Rapidly rising standards are the norm in every field. Did you know, for example, that many high school athletes running the 200-meter can easily beat the 1908 Olympic gold medal winning time?

I have no personal knowledge of what motivates Jay Leno. Perhaps it is the huge financial rewards he receives (about $30 million a year), perhaps he loves perfecting his craft, or perhaps he hears the footsteps of young comics gaining on him. If he is like most individuals, he is motivated by a combination of factors such as these.

Put these two ideas together: Practice trumps talent. And, competition motivates us to perform at a higher level. Together these ideas shed light on why some people behave as they do in response to the market’s demand for continual improvement. Some people seek a way out; they seek to prevent competition. For example, in education, teacher unions prevent the unmotivated and incompetent from being fired. These same unions lobby against charter schools which would introduce competitive pressure.

Those teachers who are unmotivated to practice do tremendous damage to themselves and to our children! Yes, they hurt themselves too. In their desire to be slackers, they destroy their chance for happiness. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his classic essay “Self-Reliance” taught the truth: “…No kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.”

As we rush to socialize more of the American economy there will be tremendous costs; not the least of those costs will be an increase in the number of slackers. Society will lose the benefit of precious human energy that goes untapped. For the slackers of the world, more government is their best hope. They lie to themselves: They pretend they are deserving of the special privileges and subsidies bestowed by government. They tell themselves they have much talent but the unfair world doesn’t recognize or reward them for it. The world may not recognize or reward their talent for a variety of reasons; often it is simply because they don’t practice it.  Without practice, talent is mere potential.  Practice trumps talent.

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7 Responses to Practice Trumps Talent

  1. ReddyEye says:

    I was right with you up until your comments about socialism which I assume relates to the current debate about health care in America. Methinks you may have bought into the Republican spin/propaganda machine before the debate has even reached its conclusion. As someone who works in the health care field, I can tell you the system is broken, with rising costs and declining health outcomes. It remains to be seen what if anything will come out of the current debate but it is a problem that needs to be fixed and urgently. Whatever the outcome of the debate I am more interested in seeing an affordable health care system that delivers sound care at reasonable cost than I am in in afixing a label to something.

  2. ReddyEye,

    Actually my comments were not specifically about health care but are certainly applicable.

    I agree with you that the current system has severe problems. Where we differ is how to reach your goals. I see a system that has already far too much interference. This interference has created all sorts of distortions. Thus my answers include removing these current distortions rather than adding on new ones.

    Actually this can bring us back full circle to the central point of my post—the power of deliberate practice. How many adults do you know who complain that they can’t clean up their diet because it is too hard (they don’t like vegetables etc.) and/or inconvenient? What does this do to health care costs? The principles of deliberate practice offer pointers to such individuals.

  3. Tesh says:

    My favorite art teacher (high school) had a sign on her board that I’ve taken to heart. It stated simply: “Talent is the will to work hard at something”

    I do think that people have natural aptitudes with things, and that those aptitudes come in varied strengths, but true excellence in anything requires hard work. Inborn “talent” just puts someone ahead on the curve a little initially, but hard work is the only way to *advance* on the curve, no matter where you start.

    Running the tangent on socialism, yes, people thinking that Big Brother is the solution to everything is dangerous. For one, he’s not altruistic. Second, it strips us of the will to make ourselves better people and work. Work is vital to mental, physical and spiritual health.

    With health care specifically, costs are the problem, not who foots the bill. Fixing that starts with education (my wife is trying to get a nursing degree, and the system is still deeply broken, despite the reports of demand for health care professionals), tort reform and people taking care of themselves, rather than trying to find ways make someone else take care of it, whether it’s an insurance company or The Government. (What’s the quip? Beware of people who come to you saying “we’re from the Government, and we’re here to help”?)

  4. Tesh,

    Great quote! And yes collectively we have lost the ability to take care of ourselves. Earlier today I was working on a future post on that topic.

  5. Bob G says:

    Many don’t discern the difference between equal opportunity and equal results. The former results from a fundamental respect for property rights and is self-perpetuating. Endeavoring to engineer the latter as a proxy for equal opportunity results in less freedom, less innovation and lower living standards.

    Self-reliance is a personal model that allows the nautral charity within each of us and our communities to make more signifcant and impactful differences in the places where we live, work and raise our families than a socialistic, costly and by nature unaccountable bueracratic government “solution” that seeks its own perpetual existence above all else.

    History is full of well intentioned social goals whose unintended consequences created worse problems than the original problem that was intended to be solved. I offer the facts that surround decades of the failed LBJ “great society” model as a notable example.

    The point I am making is that Keyensian and socialistic approaches to big problems such as ones that exist with our current health care system will never be solved by more of the same which produced many of these problems in the first place.

    We need to change our muscle memory thru more critical thinking about what is really happening and practice (ala Jay Leno or Tiger Woods)new material for show time or game day.

  6. I have been a doctor for 50 years. Diabesity is a new problem afflicting even children. They will need dialysis in their teens or 20s. There are not enough kidney docs to handle the load. The average teen has pre-hypertension. 90% of us get hypertension before we die. The reason that health insurance is so expensive is the same reason that flood insurance in New Orleans and hurricane insurance in the Florida Keys are too expensive. Why are so many getting sick? We live in the most “obesogenic” society in history. 20% of 4 year old kids are obese! All of our holidays are celebrated by eating too much and then rolling on the floor groaning with smiles on our faces. Until we solve the problem of TOO MUCH FOOD, our health will decline and our healthcare costs will rise. And the docs and Big Pharma will be smiling all the way to the bank.

  7. Dr. Bennett,

    Thank you. Another reason for the high price of insurance is that health insurers can’t classify on the basis of risk. Thus if someone chooses to eat over 200 lbs of sugar and corn syrup a year (national average) they pay the same as someone who chooses to eat over 200 lbs of broccoli a year (the national average is only about 8 lbs a year).

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