Do you really need to go to Carnegie Hall?

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?

6 thoughts on “Do you really need to go to Carnegie Hall?

  1. Exceptional natural physical talent/ability comes from our genes.

    The irony is that I think this is also the case for a strong will. You are born with it and, without it, you won’t be able to do what it takes to excel at something or to use other natural talent in a meaningful way. I don’t think you can train to become ambitious. You kind of have it or not. It’s like leadership. I don’t think you can train to become a great leader. You either have it in your blood or not.

    Most people are born without a strong will. The result is palpable around us: mediocrity. The world belongs to the mediocre. Amen 🙂

    • Hi Manuel!

      Thank you for your comment, which rings a bit of Amadeus (the movie). “Mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you”. 🙂

      I think it prudent to refrain from certainty when it comes to inheritance and grooming. I am sure you are aware of that even the brain changes shape as you practice something. Practice changes how the brain works! So how can we be certain as to the limits of practice?

      To the question of will, I think you can observe that people have different will when it comes to different things. It seems to me to be contextual. There is not one will – there are many. For example, a person who couldn’t care less about how they perform their daily work may feel very passionately about parking fines and refuse to them, even if it means going to jail. I tend to give up easily in games, but I fight til the end playing squash. So are you certain that “will” is all genes? Which one, in that case?

      Finally, please define “a great leader”. What specific talents are you referring to? And for each of those, how much is given and how much is learned? For example, being an inspiring speaker may be one of them. I can tell you, every great speaker the world has ever known spoke pretty badly as babies. 😉 But seriously, the world’s best speakers, like Winston Churchill, rewrite and practice their speeches incessantly. Surely, you must count him to the great leaders? Why did he need to practice then?

  2. Joakim – I agree with alot of the points however I think that the 10,000 hours idea has been overplayed a fair bit. The people in the original 10,000 hour studies had some level of talent already. The time spent (in deliberate practice) was what it took to develop that talent.

    If you lack any skill in a given area 10,000 hours isn’t going to make you great, you might even be good. To my mind is 10,000 hours is what it takes to develop the talents you already have. So both talent and **deliberate** practice are necessary.

    • Hi Mark, and thanks a lot for commenting!

      I agree, it shouldn’t be taken literally. And yes, talent and lots of deliberate practice is needed to become truly great.

      But the point of my post is this: To reach your personal maximum in some discipline, you “just” need the will to want it, which you need to endure all that practicing and training. Your maximum may not be to reach world’s no. 1 ranking, if you start with little talent, but you will probably be very very good. Perhaps enough to earn a living, getting to do what you love.

      I think we, as humans, tend to overestimate the importance of starting with great talent, and underestimate the importance of practice. Perhaps we’re just lazy. 🙂

  3. Joakim – there is still a small difference, if you have little native talent for tackling logic problems then no matter how hard you practice programming will likely always be very hard for you. You might learn the rudiments and you might struggle to make a living.

    The good news I think most people have many talents which they can develop, if they have the will.


    • Good point, Mark. Loved the part on “many talents”. There is a difference.

      But… it is still based on the assumption that there is such a thing like “talent for tackling logic problems”; that we are born with it and that it can’t be trained. That is probably the majority view, and perhaps it is so, but can we be really really sure?

      Maybe, somewhere, a father tells his wife that “our daughter can’t seem to reason logically”, which she overhears, thinking for the rest of her life that she has no talent for logic, shying away from everything that needs logic, which in turn leads to less use and actual shrinkage of that part of the brain, actually making her less good with logical problems, which wasn’t true to start with, but a misunderstanding.

      Nah, that could never happen, could it? 😉

      Keep on practicing!


      PS Not saying everybody’s the same. Only that the importance of talent is vastly exaggerated.

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