Ramblings & ephemera

Why are some people really good at some things?

From Stephen J. Dubner & Steven D. Levitt’s “A Star Is Made” (The New York Times):

Anders Ericsson, a 58-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University, … is the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement, a loose coalition of scholars trying to answer an important and seemingly primordial question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? …

In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person “encodes” the information. And the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task – playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. …

Their work, compiled in the “Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance,” a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. …

Ericsson’s research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love – because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don’t like to do things they aren’t “good” at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don’t possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better. …

Ericsson has noted that most doctors actually perform worse the longer they are out of medical school. Surgeons, however, are an exception. That’s because they are constantly exposed to two key elements of deliberate practice: immediate feedback and specific goal-setting.

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