This past Saturday the great wide receiver Jerry Rice was inducted into the National Football League’s Hall of Fame. Rice’s career credentials are staggering: He caught 1,549 career passes—400 passes more than anyone else. He holds both the career total yard record of 22,895 yards gained as well as the touchdown record of 208.
If you think stellar talent explains the accomplishments of Jerry Rice, you would be wrong. On the contrary, Rice’s career teaches a truth that many find uncomfortable—as important as talent is, the willingness to put in long hours of often grueling practice is an essential element of success. His career helps us to understand another often observed phenomenon—much heralded prospects in a sport underachieve, while athletes that fly under the radar frequently become superstars.
In high school Rice received not one scholarship offer from a Division I-A football school. His only scholarship offer was from Mississippi Valley State University, a Division 1-AA school, which he attended. While Rice clearly had natural athletic talent, important components of ability, such as his speed, were not exceptional. Rice’s world class talent came from his discipline to practice. For example, his daily uphill wind sprints gave him acceleration skills that no one was able to match.
Psychologist Anders Eriksson has found that in every occupation—from the sciences to medicine to music and sports—there are no examples of extraordinary performers who have not put in at least 10,000 hours of what Ericsson calls deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is not mere practice, but involves identifying and working on the weakest parts of your game. For example, if you are a musician, it is not just putting in the time playing a piece over and over again. Instead it involves listening to your playing, identifying the weak points in your music-making, and then working on improving those.
In football, there are many potential superstars having talent. But talent is not enough, and mere practice is not enough—after all, few athletes at the college or pro levels skip required drills. Instead it is the willingness to undergo, over many years, difficult and sustain training at the very edge of one’s abilities. Often, someone who is told very early in his career that he is a gifted natural is unwilling and/or unable to have the discipline needed to succeed at the highest levels.
At his induction to the Hall of Fame Rice observed this:
I was afraid to fail. The fear of failure is the engine that has driven me my entire life. The reason they never caught me from behind is because I ran scared. People always are surprised how insecure I was. The doubts, the struggles, is who I am. I wonder if I would have been as successful without them.
In other words, Rice worked harder than anybody else because he doubted his own abilities. Rice’s own example and the research by both Anders Eriksson and Carol Dweck strongly call into the question the common belief that a child’s self-esteem is boosted by praising a child for their performance even when praise is not warranted. Instead of praising performance, Dweck suggests that regardless of how talented a child is, we should be encouraging and praising effort. Praise of effort allows a child to work on and explore their talents without being crippled by a fear of failure.
Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.“ In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk describes one of the many experiments conducted by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck asked 400 seventh graders to complete an easy set of problems. After completing the easy problems, the students were separated into two groups. One group was told, “You must be smart at this.” The other group was told, “You must have really worked hard.” Then Dweck asked each student to select one of two follow-up sets of puzzles: an easy set of puzzles or a much harder set of puzzles. Over half of the children praised for being smart selected the easy puzzles, but over 90% of the children praised for hard work selected the more difficult puzzles. Dweck explains the results—once we are praised for our ability we often shun challenges that may reveal that our ability is not as great as we or others thought. In contrast, an emphasis on effort encourages us to have the discipline to develop our ability.
In his book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes observing Hans Jensen who some consider the world’s best cello teacher. Coyle observed Jensen teaching several students and then asked Jensen to say which students were more talented and had more potential. The answer, Coyle thought, was clear; but Jensen didn’t see it that way. Jenson replied, “It’s difficult to say. When I teach, I give everyone everything. What happens after that, who can know?”
Indeed, who can know who will be the great achievers of the current generation? Jerry Rice’s great career demonstrates exactly that point. However, there is something we do know about the current fad among parents and educators: Praising outcomes to enhance self-esteem may be nipping many a young talent in the bud.