The world’s top performers prove talent has nothing to do with success

Deliberate practice is what makes the difference.
Deliberate practice is what makes the difference.
Image: Reuters/William Hong
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In the early 1940s, the best middle-distance runner in the world was a man named Gunder Hägg. Hägg had grown up with his father, a lumberjack, in an isolated part of northern Sweden. As a teenager, he loved running in the woods. Eventually, he and his father became curious about how fast he could run. They mapped out a course that was about 1,500 meters long, and Gunder ran the circuit while his father timed him with an alarm clock.

Afterward, Hägg’s father told him that he had completed the course in four minutes and 50 seconds—a remarkably good time for that distance in the woods. As he would later recall in his autobiography, Hägg was inspired by his performance to believe that he had a bright future as a runner. So he started training more seriously. He went on to become one of the world’s premier runners, breaking a total of 15 world records during his career.

Like many of the people who become top performers in their fields, Hägg and his father believed that he had the ability to become very good at a particular skill. It was this belief that convinced him it would be worthwhile to put in the long hours necessary to become a world-class runner. But as we explain in our book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, innate talent has little to do with a person’s ultimate success. What matters is whether we are willing and able to devote ourselves to deliberate practice.

In one classic study, psychologist Benjamin Bloom and his colleagues studied a group of top performers in six different fields: swimming, tennis, piano, sculpting, mathematics, and neuroscience. One thing that stood out about these very accomplished people was that as children, they all had at least one very supportive adult in their lives. This person told them that they were special, and had unique potential.

This is a common theme in the development of so many of the world’s champion athletes, world-class musicians, prize-winning scientists and artists, and others at the top of their fields. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting in the effort necessary to become among the best in the world in some area without believing that all that hard work was going to pay off. What is surprising is just how little basis there is for any of these beliefs of predestined greatness.

When Bloom looked more closely at the childhoods of top performers, he found no evidence that these individuals had been measurably superior to their peers before they began their rigorous training. Yes, their parents believed in them—but that’s what parents do. For every child with highly supportive parents who winds up becoming a chess grandmaster or Nobel Prize-winning physicist, there are many more who turn out to be ordinary.

The truth is that there is very little connection between a person’s early success—the sort that leads parents and others to declare that someone has “natural talent”—and their ultimate success. Children who are better than their peers in the early stages of learning a skill—playing the piano, hitting a baseball, reading, drawing, or working with numbers—are not guaranteed to succeed as an adult.

What of Gunder Hägg? Surely his destiny was clear when he ran that exceptional time on the course through the forest? As it turns out, Hägg was not so exceptional on that day. Many years later, his father confessed that he had lied. Hägg’s actual time was five minutes, 50 seconds—a full minute slower than his father had reported, and a time that was by no means special. His father explained that he had exaggerated Hägg’s speed because he was worried that his son had lost his passion for running and needed encouragement. It obviously worked.

The phenomenon we see at work with Hägg and the other superior performers that Bloom studied is very similar to the placebo effect in medicine. Give someone a sugar pill but pretend it’s a real drug, and that person is more likely to report feeling better than someone who gets nothing. Similarly, convince a young child that he or she has a special talent, and you increase the odds tremendously that the child will actually grow up to be something special.

There is a big difference, however. The placebo effect requires nothing more than a belief in the efficacy of the sugar pill. But getting someone to believe in their own talent requires years of hard work and practice.

Here’s how it generally works: Parents who believe a child is gifted will work to find a suitable teacher to guide the child’s training. The parents themselves also encourage and oversee the child’s practice. The child, feeling special because of the attention, wants to please the parents and the teacher and works hard to improve. Over time, the practice pays off, and the child develops a skill that is itself rewarding because of the positive feedback he or she gets from peers and adults. The child develops a self-image as a violinist or a swimmer or a gymnast or an artist, and the initial observation that the child had a “natural talent” in that area seems to have been borne out.

In fact, it is the years of training that make some people proficient in a given skill—not some sort of innate talent. Typically, that training comes in the form of deliberate practice, a type of practice that is teacher-directed and focused on incremental advances that add up to major improvement. Deliberate practice depends on extensive feedback, and is the most effective form of training that researchers have yet to discover. But it is hard work—and thus not likely to be pursued for long by someone who isn’t convinced the effort is worth it.

This is why a parent’s initial belief in a child’s extraordinary gifts is so important. This belief makes it much more likely that both the child and the parents will make the necessary investment in training for the child to become special.

The problem, of course, is that a relatively small percentage of parents are willing to commit to this level of development. In fact, most children could benefit from this sort of training.

We would like to see many more children taking advantage of deliberate practice to get started on the right path to building a talent—thus opening up a world that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Deliberate practice is such a powerful tool for developing one’s potential that it seems a shame that so few people today actually use it.

But how can we make this happen? The answer is not to convince more parents that their children have some special talent that needs to be developed. Instead, we need to spread the word that with the right sort of practice, pretty much anyone can develop incredible abilities.

We also need to communicate this message on a personal level—to convince individuals that dramatic improvement is possible and to show them how it is done. One of the best ways to do this is to identify particular teachers or coaches who have a special knack for helping others. Most of these mentors know there is nothing magical about helping young people to accomplish big things—the same training techniques can help anyone get better. A good teacher will assess a student’s skill level, identify training goals, and develop a regimen to meet those goals.

Of course, we need to have a good reason if we’re going to devote ourselves to such a rigorous undertaking. In place of the conviction that you or your child have some special talent, it is better to choose to pursue a given skill for the sake of the skill itself. Playing music for yourself or your friends, drawing pictures of the places you visit or taking photos the people you meet, competing with others at tennis or softball, generating ideas and thinking about important topics—these are tangible fruits of deliberate practice that anyone can appreciate. You don’t need to become the best in order for a skill to prove rewarding.

There will always be some people who want to reach the top of their fields. But for most of us, it is enough to have a motivation that is less ambitious and more personal. We want to be able to take control of our own potential and shape ourselves into the people we wish to be. Deliberate practice makes that possible.