I am sure you know the old joke:
“- Excuse me, Sir! How do I get to Carnegie Hall?
– Practice, my boy. Practice.”
How very true. But my observation is this: When someone performs difficult moves with ease and elegance, most spectators assume that the performer has a natural talent. Like they have a god-given gift for their craft that most of us don’t. Think, for example, of footballer Lionel Messi, passing two defenders and scoring almost before the mind has registered what has happend. It looks so easy for him, but hey, he’s just a natural, right?
Even worse, most of us are secretly envious of the talented ones. They were lucky enough to find their hidden talent early, letting them use it to their advantage in life. Meanwhile we, poor souls, are still struggling, looking for our gift. We are certain it must exist, we just haven’t found it yet.
Well, I think we’re wrong. And patently so.
I think it’s like this: Lightness, elegance, agility, and flow under demanding conditions are always the result of massive amounts of deliberate practice. Let me give you another example: Listen to Krystian Zimerman playing a Chopin ballade. Years of practice are not optional for natural flow – they are a pre-requisite. Elegance comes from your body knowing the moves without conscious thinking, thereby leaving the conscious mind free to focus on the artistic expression.
Or think of great ballet dancers, so light and elegant. It is like they float on air, without care for gravity and such nonsense for mere mortals. Let me ask you, do you know how much ballet dancers practice? I don’t exactly, but ballet dancing is considered so hard on the body that they retire around the age of 40. Do you really believe ballet dancers are elegant because they have a talent for dancing!?
Another sighting: A common theme that appears throughout the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell is the “10,000-Hour Rule”, based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Dr. Anders Ericsson is a Swedish psychologist who is recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers on expertise. Gladwell describes how greatness seems to require enormous amounts of hard work, typically somewhere around 10 000 hours of deliberate practice (the actual number is not important, but the general size of it is).
So the next time you see a great pianist, or ballet dancer, or manager, or programmer, or speaker, or writer, don’t assume they have it easy. Understand they’re not great because of their gift, but because of their will. Assume they practice like hell. And if it’s a hobby, it’s even more amazing. Assume that this person must practice for a couple of hours every night. After work, every night! Don’t be envious – admire their grit.
I admit, there are things like talent, or even genius. But that’s just the raw material. Talent must be honed for years, even decades, until true greatness can be achieved. I once met a music teacher and she told me that almost all kids she taught were one of three kinds: Gifted, ambitious or neither. She almost never met children with both high talent and high ambitions.
Here’s what she told me: The gifted kids were often good at several things. In fact, they were so good that they could pick and choose what to do. They were not worried about the future. They felt they could handle anything and excel compared to the other kids. This made them two things: Complacent and very busy. Most did fine the first years, when they could make do without much practice. When things got harder, they typically “prioritised other endeavors”. The ambitious kids, on the other hand, were hard working, but lacked a certain something. Things took longer for them. If they continued they could become decent amateur musicians, in some cases perhaps even professional musicians or music teachers, but they would never become world-class musicians. They would never stun the audience at Carnegie Hall by a breathtaking performance. To do that, you need both extreme talent and extreme ambition.
But do you really need that? Do you really need to go to Carnegie Hall? Because even without that extreme talent, you can get very far on pure will. If you haven’t already, I invite you to read Derek Sivers’ wonderful post on his singing career. In the post he describes all the things he needed to do to become a great singer. Despite of people telling him “he was really no singer”, he kept on going with incredible determination. Finally, after 15 years of practice, he reached his goal. Everybody agreed, he was a great singer, only to be told “It’s so easy for you, you have it naturally”.
That’s ironical, but it’s also a great thing, because this means you can do that too. Even without super talent, you can still become really good in your area of choice. Believing that you simply don’t have the talent is just self-deception. Maybe you can’t become an astronaut (very few seats) and maybe you can’t become the Highlander (there can be only one), but most other things are actually within your reach.
One final thought on your way: Maybe it doesn’t matter how far you can go by deliberate practice as long as you know you have given yourself the chance to be the best you can be at something you love?