Friday, April 17, 2009

Is Talent Overrated? Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post on talent vs. "deliberate practice". In the book by Geoff Colvin, the author argues that world-class performers get that way not because of innate talent, but because of the way they develop their skills.

At this point, people typically bring up the names Mozart and Tiger Woods. What about them? Weren’t they child prodigies? Yes, but according to Colvin, what made them such was not innate talent, but deliberate practice. Both had mentors (fathers) who were highly skilled themselves at music (Mozart) and golf (Woods) and devoted themselves to teaching their sons. The other key aspect was that both Mozart and Woods began their deliberate practice at extraordinarily young ages (under age three). Woods was given a miniature golf club at the age of seven months, for example. Both were started on a rigorous training program that was focused and consistent--by a parent who was highly skilled themselves.

Colvin quotes a number of studies that show a person must invest at least ten years (about 20,000 hours) to developing a skill before they become “accomplished”. If someone starts at the age of 2 or 3 (as Mozart and Woods did), then by the time they are 12 or 13, they are experts. So they are way ahead of competitors who take up music or golf at the old age of 16—such people will never catch up with these “child prodigies”.

I did not realize it at the time, but when I was in high school band (I played the flute), I applied a form of deliberate practice. Not that I was ever destined to be a music prodigy—I simply did not have the desire--nor did I put in the practice time or have any of the other characteristics listed above. But I discovered a way to improve one aspect of my performance that allowed me to outperform most of the other flute players. The flute section had about 15 chairs, and we were ranked at the beginning of each year during tryouts. During the school year, however, anyone could be challenged by a lower chair. This challenge involved having the two members play an assigned piece (anonymously-behind a curtain), and the band director judged their performance. Typically, one of the lower chairs would challenge the next chair (nothing to lose), and a domino effect would ensue until the entire section was involved in the challenge.

This ongoing stress (of having to be constantly preparing for weekly challenges and the potential embarrassment of losing one’s chair to an underclassman) was not fun. I was second or third chair, so was challenged almost every week. In many cases, adjacent chairs were pretty well matched in skill, so could play the assigned piece equally well. When that happened, the band director would break the tie by having us sight-read (play a piece of music we had never seen before). The though of sight-reading struck terror into every band member. Except me. I deliberately practiced sight-reading, which built up my confidence to the point that I did not get nervous when faced with it during a challenge. Other flute players avoided even thinking about sight-reading. I consistently beat my opponents during the sight-reading tie-breaker. (By the way, I rarely challenged the chair ahead of me because I did not want the responsibility (and the extra practice) involved in being first chair.)

Can we apply “deliberate practice” to the field of science and in particular help women get ahead in a male-dominated field? Absolutely. In fact, I would suggest that women think very carefully about what scientific skills they need to improve and develop a focused plan for improvement. Don't just leave it to chance. Seek out mentors who excel in those areas and ask for advice or specific help in devising a plan for improvement. You can also do a lot on your own. For example: Pick apart scientific articles that are considered to be classics and figure out what made them so. Another example: attend presentations by scientists who are known to be excellent speakers and analyze how they do it. Then deliberately practice until you can do what they did.

No matter what your particular job is in science (researcher, manager, consultant), you can figure out what sets apart the highly successful from the run-of-the-mill and focus your strategy accordingly.

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