No limits

Psychologist Anders Ericsson and other researchers in the field of ‘expertise studies’ have, in recent years, introduced a plethora of new information about how people develop advanced skills that is beginning to change our view of human potential and its limits. This is an opportunity to move the public conversation beyond clichés such as innate talent, giftedness and nature versus nurture, instead moving towards a more nuanced discussion of how human skills actually develop, ultimately helping people to maximise their potential.

Truly great accomplishments are inherently mysterious, awe-inspiring and even intimidating to witness. When you watch David Beckham bend that ball into the net or see Michael Jordan fly through the air towards the hoop, you have an exhilarating but also deflating feeling: these extraordinary performers cannot possibly belong to the same species as you or me. Call it the greatness gap: that sensation of an infinite and permanent chasm between ultra-achievers and mere mortals like us. We tend to look for a reassuring explanation: this person must have something I do not have. They were born with something I wasn’t born with. They are gifted.

It is an assumption built right into our culture. ‘Talent’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘mental endowment; natural ability’. The words ‘gifted’ and ‘giftedness’ date back to the 17th century and the term ‘genius’, as it is currently defined, goes back to the end of the 18th century. “Don’t ask, young artist, what genius is,” proclaimed Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1768. “Either you have it – then you feel it yourself, or you don’t – then you will never know it.” In the 20th century, the presumed source of a person’s natural endowment shifted from God-given to gene-given, but the basic notion of giftedness remained substantially the same. Exceptional abilities were things bestowed upon a very lucky person.

No limitsNotably, Friedrich Nietzsche dissented along the way. In his 1878 book Menschliches, Allzumenschliches (Human, All Too Human), he portrayed great artists as tirelessly striving to achieve greatness: “Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration... [shining] down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre and bad things, but his judgement, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects... All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

To illustrate this, Nietzsche cited Beethoven’s sketchbooks, which reveal the composer’s slow, painstaking process of testing and tinkering with melody fragments. Beethoven would sometimes run through as many as 60 or 70 drafts of a phrase before settling on the final one. “I make many changes, and reject and try again until I am satisfied,” he once remarked to a friend. “Only then do I begin the working-out in breadth, length, height and depth in my head.”

Unfortunately, neither Nietzsche’s nor Beethoven’s interpretation of genius caught on with the public. Instead, the simpler and more alluring idea of giftedness prevailed and has since been carelessly reinforced by biologists, psychologists, educators and the media.


A dynamic process

Now, however, science has given us plenty of fertile new material to work with. For a start, we have a better understanding of genes, thanks to a loose-knit group of geneticists, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists who are exploring the dynamic interaction between genes and the environment. “There are no genetic factors that can be studied independently of the environment and there are no environmental factors that function independently of the genome,” explains McGill University’s Michael Meaney. “[A trait] emerges only from the interaction of gene and environment.”

Genes are not like robotic actors who always say the same lines in the same way; rather, they interact with their surroundings and can say different things depending on the context. “Biologists have come to realise that, if one changes either the genes or the environment, the resulting behaviour can be dramatically different,” explains Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary ecologist at City University of New York. This obliterates the long-standing metaphor of genes as blueprints with elaborate, pre-designed instructions for eye colour, thumb size, mathematical quickness or musical sensitivity. Genes are more like volume knobs and switches that, in the giant control board of your body, can be turned up, down, on or off at any time by another gene or by any minuscule environmental input. This flipping and turning takes place constantly. It begins the moment a child is conceived and doesn’t stop until it takes its last breath. Rather than giving us hardwired instructions about how a trait must be expressed, this interaction between genes and environment drives a unique developmental path for every individual.

This means that, although genes powerfully influence the formation of all traits, from eye colour to intelligence, they rarely dictate precisely what those traits will be. From the moment of conception, genes constantly respond to, and interact with, a wide range of internal and external stimuli – including nutrition, hormones, sensory input, physical and intellectual activity and other genes – to produce a specific, tailored human machine depending on each individual’s circumstances. While it is true that genetic differences will inevitably result in differences in character and capabilities, it is also the case that each of us is a dynamic system, a creature of development.

This developmental model fits nicely with the emerging science of expertise studies, which, in recent years, has examined high achievement from every possible angle: memory, cognition, practice, persistence, muscle response, mentorship, innovation, attitude, response to failure and so on. Researchers in this field have studied golfers, nurses, typists, gymnasts, violinists, chess players, basketball players and computer programmers, breaking down athletic, intellectual and artistic achievements into tiny, measurable components in order to determine what separates the mediocre from the good, the good from the very good and the very good from the extraordinary. In watching people hone particular skills – or fail to do so – they have identified several themes:

  1. Practice changes your body: Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs and brains of people who show profound increases in skill level in any domain.
  2. Skills are specific: Individuals who become great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at others. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultra-specific responses to particular skill requirements.
  3. The brain drives the brawn: Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy) and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real time.
  4. Practice style is crucial: Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
  5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment: Many changes take place over long periods. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

Across the board, the last two of these variables – practice style and practice time – emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players and soccer players to violin players, researchers observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that Ericsson calls “deliberate practice”. First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice goes far beyond the simple idea of hard work, instead describing a method of continual skill improvement.

“Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,” says Ericsson. “Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It... does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level, which is associated with frequent failures. Aspiring performers concentrate on improving specific aspects by engaging in practice activities designed to change and refine particular mediating mechanisms, requiring problem solving and successive refinement with feedback.” In other words, deliberate practice will not take no for an answer; it requires constant perseverance and the ambition to raise the bar at every stage.

The adaptable brain

How does deliberate practice actually improve our skills? In a nutshell, our muscles and brain regions adapt to the demands that we make of them. As Ericsson explains: “Frequent intense engagement in certain types of practice activities is shown to induce physiological strain, which causes biochemical changes that stimulate growth and transformation of cells and, in turn, leads to associated improved adaptations of physiological systems and the brain.” This is consistent with Eleanor Maguire’s 1999 brain scans of London cabbies, which reveal greatly enlarged representation in the brain region that controls spatial awareness. The same holds for the honing of any skill; in each case, the relevant brain regions adapt accordingly.

For deliberate practice to work, the demands have to be serious and sustained. Simply playing a lot of chess, soccer or golf is not enough. Simply taking lessons from a wonderful teacher is not enough. Simply wanting it badly enough is not enough. Deliberate practice requires a mindset of never being satisfied with your current ability. It requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim just beyond your capability so that you actually long for daily disappointment and failure. Most importantly, it requires a never-ending resolve to dust yourself off and try again.

It also requires enormous, life-altering amounts of time: a daily commitment to becoming better. In the long term, the results can be highly satisfying. But in the short term, from day to day and month to month, there’s nothing particularly fun about the process or the substantial sacrifices involved. In studies, Ericsson found a clear distinction between leisure players, who tend to enjoy themselves casually much of the time, and dedicated achievers, who become glued to the gritty process of getting better.

What about those who practise regularly and strenuously, taking their pursuits seriously but failing to improve significantly? Are they just missing that magic genetic spark? Not as far as Ericsson and his team can tell. “A careful review of the published evidence on the heritability of acquisition of elite sports achievement failed to reveal reproducible evidence for any genetic constraints for attaining elite levels by healthy individuals (excluding, of course, the evidence on body size),” he writes. Rather, non-achievers seem to be missing something in their process: a particular style or technique of practice; a particular mindset or level of intensity; or a particular response to failure. Like a brilliant soufflé, all of these ingredients must be present in just the right quantity and mixed with just the right timing and flair. Almost anything can go wrong. The process is far from predictable and never in anyone’s complete control.

This does not mean, of course, that every person has the same resources and opportunities or that anyone can be great at anything; biological and circumstantial differences and advantages or disadvantages abound. However, by revealing talent to be a process rather than a thing, we can debunk the simplistic idea of genetic giftedness. It is no longer reasonable to attribute talent or success to a specific gene or to any other mysterious gift. The real gift, it turns out, belongs to virtually all of us: it is the plasticity and the extraordinary responsiveness built into basic human biology.

Who has the potential to achieve true greatness? According to conventional arguments based on nature versus nurture, very few people. The clear lesson from gene expression, brain plasticity, and expertise studies, however, is this: no one knows. We do not – and cannot – know our own limits until we acquire and deploy the right resources and find the necessary motivation to push ourselves to them. That doesn’t mean that parents and teachers should constantly push children to the extremes. But it does mean that we must rid homes and schools of low expectations and the insidious gene-giftedness mindset. We must teach children from their earliest days to regard failure not as a verdict on their potential but as a doorway to an unlearned skill.

David Shenk is a journalist and author. David Shenk’s latest book, The Genius in All of Us, is published by Doubleday.