July 29, 2020 Reading Time: 7 minutes
runner, jumping

Humanity’s underrated superpower—effort—is under attack from many sides.

Some say the idea that we live in a meritocracy—where success is based, in part, on how much effort you make—is a myth. For Yale law professor Daniel Markovits the idea of a meritocracy is “a pretense, constructed to rationalize an unjust distribution of advantage.”

Others allege that teaching the value of effort can be damaging. They claim, “traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during their middle-school years.”

For those concerned about developing the abilities of children, it is hard to imagine a more perverse theory than claiming that effort damages self-esteem. 

Still others attack the efforts parents make in the education of their children. Too much effort by parents in their children’s education, the New York Times scolds, “has the potential to perpetuate racial inequities rooted in white supremacy.”

Some lack persistence, having little idea of how much effort is required to produce something that others value. After investing minimal effort, they wonder why their greatness hasn’t been recognized. They become cynical about the value of effort.

As long as we live in a society where the labor market has some freedom, effort matters and has mattered more than many realize.

10,000 Hours?

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell popularized and misinterpreted the academic work of psychologist Anders Ericsson. Gladwell’s misinterpretation resulted in what is now popularly known as the 10,000-hour rule: the idea that practicing for at least 10,000 hours will help us become an elite performer.

Anders Ericsson passed in June 2020. His book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, exposes the common belief that any practice makes perfect. 

Time spent practicing is not enough. Ericsson gives an example familiar to many tennis players. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of being “good enough.” You take lessons and play. Eventually, you don’t feel embarrassed by your tennis abilities. You have reached “a comfort level,” and you’re having fun. In Ericsson’s words, you’ve “learned tennis” where “everything becomes automatic and acceptable performance is possible with relatively little thought.” 

“You have mastered the easy stuff,” but your game has weaknesses. You can’t, for example, hit a backstroke off a ball “coming in chest-high.” No matter how many hours you play tennis, if you don’t deploy what Ericsson calls purposeful practice, your game will never improve. 

Ericsson explains, “Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call ‘naive practice,’ which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.” 

It is easy to draw the wrong lesson from Ericsson’s work. It would be an error to believe that “heartfelt desire and hard work alone will lead to improved performance—’Just keep working at it, and you’ll get there.’” Ericsson writes, “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” If you want to get better, get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Purposeful practice requires focus. A lack of focus, which plagues many multitaskers, will stagnate your abilities. 

Deliberate practice adds feedback from someone at the next level. A coach or teacher or experienced colleague can “identify where and how you are falling short” towards reaching a “specific goal” for improvement. Those without patience can skip Ericsson’s teaching. Ericsson teaches the cumulative power of small steps and effort. If you want to achieve elite status, deploy purposeful and deliberate practice.

We can all point to individuals who have held leadership or professional positions for many years and have gotten no better at it. Such leaders stay in their comfort zone, not questioning their assumptions, and not working at what needs improvement. 

For example, Ericsson writes, people believe that “a doctor who has been practicing medicine for twenty years must be a better doctor than one who has been practicing for five, that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five.” Ericsson shows this belief is false. 

About physicians, Ericsson reports:

“Research on many specialties shows that doctors who have been in practice for twenty or thirty years do worse on certain objective measures of performance than those who are just two or three years out of medical school. It turns out that most of what doctors do in their day-to-day practice does nothing to improve or even maintain their abilities; little of it challenges them or pushes them out of their comfort zones.”

Time in grade in any profession, even 20,000 or 30,000 hours of practice, does not establish expertise. Dr. Fauci has served six US presidents. Yet, if you are questioning the popular idea that Dr. Fauci’s long leadership role makes his view especially important, Ericsson’s work does give cause for your concern. 

I don’t know if Dr. Fauci or any of the other alleged COVID-19 experts have ever deployed purposeful or deliberate practice. Dr. Fauci shows few signs of a willingness to get outside of his comfort zone. Considering fresh perspectives is an essential means of reducing errors. Yet, Fauci does not find a place at the policy table for other views such as from Stanford’s John Ioannidis, Nobel laureate Michael Levitt or epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta

We All Have the Same Gift

Ericsson writes, meeting “an exceptional person, we naturally tend to conclude that this person was born with something a little extra. ‘He is so gifted,’ we say, or, ‘She has a real gift.’” 

We are wrong, Ericsson writes:

“The main gift that these people have is the same one we all have—the adaptability of the human brain and body, which they have taken advantage of more than the rest of us. If you talk to these extraordinary people, you find that they all understand this at one level or another. They may be unfamiliar with the concept of cognitive adaptability, but they seldom buy into the idea that they have reached the peak of their fields because they were the lucky winners of some genetic lottery. They know what is required to develop the extraordinary skills that they possess because they have experienced it firsthand.”

In their Harvard Business Review article “The Making of an Expert,” Ericsson, along with colleagues Michael Prietula and Edward Cokely, observe, “Popular lore is full of stories about unknown athletes, writers, and artists who become famous overnight, seemingly because of innate talent—they’re ‘naturals,’ people say. However, when examining the developmental histories of experts, we unfailingly discover that they spent a lot of time in training and preparation.”

Ericsson gives many examples, including the commonly held beliefs that Mozart was a rare prodigy from whom music flowed as water flows from a fountain. Consider this excerpt from a letter allegedly written by Mozart: 

“All this fires my soul, and provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once.”  

The letter is a forgery. Mozart’s publisher, Friedrich Rochlitz, wrote the letter to enhance Mozart’s reputation. 

Geoff Colvin wrote his book Talent is Overrated based on the work of Ericsson. Colvin assures us, “Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was continually revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years.” 

Mozart composed at a young age, but his father Leopold corrected his son’s manuscripts. Mozart went through eighteen years of rigorous training before he published his first masterpiece. One thing is sure;even if Mozart had innate gifts, he still needed to develop them.

One of Ericsson’s favorite examples is Ray Allen, “a ten-time All-Star in the National Basketball Association and the greatest three-point shooter in the history of that league.” Allen does not believe he was born with a “shooting touch:” “When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day. Ask anyone who has been on a team with me who shoots the most.” 

Ericsson adds, if you look at Allen’s early career, his “jump shot was not noticeably better than his teammates’ jump shots… with hard work and dedication, he transformed his jump shot into one so graceful and natural that people assumed he was born with it.” (And yes, Ericsson acknowledges it takes height to make the NBA.)

Allen’s “real gift”—the ability to purposely and deliberately practice to improve—is shared by all of us, but many don’t want to hear the wonderful news. They would rather believe they are the innocent victim of a world stacked against them. Thinking they are genetically or racially fated or cursed with bad luck, they don’t push themselves to do something they couldn’t do before. Purposeful practice is not enjoyable work, yet it does show results. Victim narratives fall apart when we experience the results of our efforts.  

Ericsson says it is incorrect to believe in “preset limits” or “predefined ability.” A belief in “preset limits” or “predefined ability” says “each of us is born with a set of fixed potentials—a potential for music, a potential for mathematics, a potential for sports, a potential for business—and we can choose to develop (or not) any of those potentials, but we cannot fill any one of those particular ‘cups’ up past its brim.”  

In Ericsson’s worldview, “We can create our own potential.” He explains, “It no longer makes sense to think of people as born with fixed reserves of potential; instead, potential is an expandable vessel, shaped by the various things we do throughout our lives.” Crucially, “Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential but rather a way of developing it.”

If teachers want to improve the lives of students, instead of gearing up to teach the socialist 1619 curricula, they could consider studying the work of Ericsson and another mindset pioneer, Carol Dweck.  

A regime of purposeful and deliberate practice has a big up-side: It cultivates resilience. Faced with a tough challenge, you know you can work through it; your experience with purposeful practice proves this to you. 

It’s natural to be both inspired and unsettled by Ericsson’s work. Don’t many of us dismiss our average performance with the simple explanation that only some people have God-given gifts? Ericsson’s work undercuts our excuses. In Ericsson’s words, “The solution is not ‘try harder’ but rather ‘try differently.’” Now, get back to work.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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