A little while back, I came across an exchange on Twitter discussing the merits of practice to become a “champion” (in the context of Deep Learning). The main argument was that those born without an innate ability would never achieve the same level as their innately-skilled counterparts, no matter the number of practice hours put in.
Whilst I don’t share this opinion, the discussion lead me to thinking of the broader question at play: does mastery truly require an innate ability, or other mystic creative genius, or can anyone reach mastery with hard work and the right state of mind?
There is, after all, a crucial difference between simply being good at a subject and mastering it. While one might become good at something relatively quickly, true mastery cannot be attained without work and practice, since, by definition, it involves mastering every aspect of the subject, which, in turn, requires you to have already encountered them. It is such a definition of mastery we are interested in here.
Of Practice and Men
While it might be true that some people have an edge or ‘head start’ in some fields, I am convinced that any such advantage is a minor one, and that work, deliberate and in sufficient quantity, is the most important factor in any substantial accomplishment, creative or scientific.
Let's start with practice: it has been shown that distributed practice is beneficial for learning regardless of age and abilities , . But is it to say that 10,000 hours will make you a master? The "rule of the 10,000 hours", though commonly attributed to a researcher called Ericson, is actually a loose reading of his research, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell . As such it is to be taken with caution. Ericson warns against such a simplistic interpretation and reminds us that practice is only effective if it is deliberate and done right . However, a large part of Ericsson's research is dedicated in demonstrating that "Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years" . So practice, though it does not guarantee you a Nobel Prize, will lead you to mastery if done correctly. And, whilst you might become good, without repeated, deliberate practice, you will never reach mastery. In fact, Aristotle states "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit". What is habit but an established repetition of practice? And if this cultivates excellence, then Aristotle supports the thesis that practice leads to mastery.
The Legend of the Born Genius
We get it: practice is important. Unless you are a born genius, or gifted with the talent of creativity, that is, right?
The myth of the innate genius is a pervasive and dangerous one. It is tempting, when looking at the achievements of some very successful people, to attribute this success to some innate ability (e.g. the genius programmer back from his time in a basement, revealing revolutionary code to the world). However this air of mystery can fade quickly once you look more closely. Most "geniuses" have been practising consistently across many years, sometimes with little success , until one day things might click, or work out, and the result seems to have miraculously appeared. For instance, a piano player may practice relentlessly during their entire childhood without producing high quality work before reaching the status of an apparently effortless genius composer. This preliminary work is not always obvious and could come from childhood study, related work or even a long time hobby. There are plenty other examples: Monet had to go through disillusion, rejection and hard work before arriving to Impressionism. Steve Jobs was a notoriously hard worker and had a rocky career before being acclaimed as a modern genius.
Similarly, creative people do not necessarily have higher IQs, better grades at school, or cognitive abilities distinguishing them from non-creative people, they mostly work hard to hone their skill-set . And even then, it takes them years of practice before producing high quality work. To paraphrase one of the most creative scientists to have ever lived, genius is still 99% work and one lonely percent of talent. And that is not to say talent cannot be cultivated. Whatever form it comes in, and however hidden, hard work is always behind true mastery, not some mysterious genius or inherent creative trait. This may even make us question whether genius is born at all...
The Fun Factor
We’ve established that the majority of people commonly considered champions of a subject have arrived there through years of hard work and deliberate practice. What this focus on deliberate work ignores is the importance of the state of mind: practice doesn’t have to come in the form of painful, boring, tedious work. In fact, the best way to consistently accomplish a lot of work, and keep motivated long enough to approach mastery is to do whatever your skill or craft is for fun.
Essentially, don't forget to enjoy what you are doing. It is the key to having the motivation to go the extra mile and get all the practice you need without even realising it. For example, when I started programming, I did it for for my own pleasure: I would spend nights coding for fun. Even now that programming is part of my daily life, it is still a pleasure for me. My practice comes regularly in the form of fun side projects involving programming. As Jonathan Osborne, a Professor of Science Education at Stanford puts it, "the real challenge is that practice is hard work, and the challenge for contemporary culture is that it is too dependent on immediate gratification.” Therefore, if you have fun practicing, you just took care of that. Perhaps the easiest route to mastery is through pursuing something that interests you, therefore making deliberate practice sustainable over time.
In short, practice consistently, don't get discouraged, and have fun! In the words of Feynman: "Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible".
What I believe is that:
True mastery, sometimes confused with genius, is cultivated for years through passion, hard work and deliberate practice.
No matter your background, gender, birthplace, etc, with enough motivation, proper practice and time, I believe you can master anything. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise. What's more, if you have around you people who already have gone through this and can give you useful feedback, take it, you will only learn faster.
If after reading this article, you still must be a genius, then let genius be a lot of hard work, motivation and fun, with the right state of mind and some well-cultivated curiosity.
To end this article, a brief disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on the subject and, though researched, most of the thoughts here are my opinion or based on my observations and experiences. If you have a different view, I would be glad to hear it, so be sure to leave a comment.
A few references
|||Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning, Susan T. FiskeSean H. K. Kang Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences Vol 3, Issue 1, 2016|
|||Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques, John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T. Willingham, Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol 14, 2013.|
|||(1, 2) The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, K. Anders Ericsson , Ralf Th. Krampe , Clemens Tesch-romer, Psychological Review, 1993|
|||The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists, K. Anders Ericsson, K. Anders Ericsson, 2012|
|||Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, Penguin, 2008|
|||Cognitive Processes in Creativity, John R. Hayes, Occasional Paper No. 18, 1990|