Wax On, Wax Off

This is part three in a four-part blog series about the psychology of self-directed learning that underpins the ZTC strategy.

Self-Doubt #2: Talent

Problem: “I’m not smart/talented enough.”

Solution: Recognize that talent is grown—not born—and “deliberate practice” can grow it very quickly. And at the base of deliberate practice is the growth mindset.

Go-to book: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.

“Even if I could motivate myself,” you protest, “skipping college is only for geniuses! Mere mortals like myself had better toe the line. I’m not smart enough to make it happen.”

How many of us tell ourselves this story, and how many wild opportunities has it foreclosed—not only in the realm of education?

Is talent, genius, and giftedness granted to you by the evolutionary lottery? Is it foolish to imagine that you could build deep skills without college? How do people get good at something, after all?

To find the answer, let’s begin with the story of Anders Ericsson. In 1978 Ericsson was a young psychology researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh conducting an experiment with a college student called (for the purpose of the experiment) “SF.” Ericsson’s goal: train SF to remember and recall as many random digits as possible. It was a pure memory workout. A giant breakthrough moment happened when SF succeeded in reciting a list of 22 random numbers.

22 digits was no simple feat. Other students had dropped out of the experiment after struggling to recall many fewer digits. (Most people can only easily memorize seven numbers.) But SF had tenaciously put up with Ericsson’s training for multiple weeks, slowly progressing from 11 to 15 to 22 digits. But SF’s achievement wasn’t only remarkable for its difficulty.

Firstly, SF was no natural-born genius. Before the training began, SF’s memory tested as average, as did his standardized test grades. This implied that you and I could also remember 22 random numbers (e.g. 5 8 3 5 7 1 0 7 6 8 4 5 3 3 0 1 2 5 8 2 4 6) if we underwent Ericsson’s training.

Secondly, 22 digits turned out to only be a stepping stone. With further practice, SF kept setting new memory records. After two years and roughly 250 hours of memory training, SF could recall 82 digits.

Thirdly and most significantly, nothing in SF’s progress indicated that 82 digits was his limit. Ericsson and his research partner concluded that “There is apparently no limit to improvements in memory skill with practice.”

Of course, remembering random numbers doesn’t make you a better human being. Instead, Ericsson’s experiment was important because it showed that a regular person could achieve world-class performance with a special type of training that Ericsson would later call “deliberate practice” (or “DP” for short). Memorizing random numbers was just the beginning.

Fifteen years later, Ericsson conducted his landmark study that introduced DP to the world. This time he studied a field that people actually care about: music. Ericsson’s team went to the Music Academy of West Berlin—famous for producing world-class violinists—and asked the academy’s professors to separate their students into three categories:

  • top violinists (potential international soloists),
  • very good violinists (potential symphony orchestra members), and
  • just-okay violinists (probably music teachers).

Ericsson’s team then interviewed the elected students about every aspect of their musical careers: when they started playing and competing, how many hours a week they practiced, how many music-related activities they did in a typical week, and more. The students filled out extensive time-diaries and commented on how they felt during various activities at the music academy.

Analyzing the data, Ericsson’s team discovered surprising similarities between the three categories of violinists. Despite their differences in performance, students from every group had studied the violin for at least a decade, and they also spent the same total amount of time academy activities like lessons, practice, classes, etc.—roughly 51 hours per week. From these numbers alone—total career time and weekly activity time—it was impossible to predict who would become a top violinist.

The big difference among the groups turned out to be the amount of solitary practice. The top two groups clocked in at 24 hours per week of solitary practice, while the third group did only 9 hours per week. This finding suggested that more solitary practice produced better violinists. But it also presented a problem: What differentiated the top violinists from the very good violinists, who did equal amounts of solitary practice?

One answer appeared in the students’ extended histories: specifically, the total number of hours that a student had spent practicing over his entire life.

By age 18, the top violinists had spent 7,410  hours in practice, while the very good ones had spent 5,301. (The third group spent 3,420.) The top violinists, the team discovered, had indeed practiced more—just earlier in their lives.

Another answer appeared in how the top violinists described their experience of solitary practice. Unlike the other violinists, the top students didn’t consider practice fun or lighthearted; instead, they described it as hard, challenging, and unpleasant. In addition to putting in more hours, the Music Academy’s star students were doing an entirely different kind of practice: what Ericsson called “deliberate practice.”

Finishing the quest that started with SF and 22 random numbers, Ericsson reported his grand discovery in a 1993 paper: doing a certain type of practice, and doing a lot of it, is the key to expert performance. Unfortunately, Ericsson’s theory languished in academic obscurity for over a decade. until popular authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (of Freakonomics fame), Malcolm Gladwell (of Outliers fame), and Geoff Colvin (author of Talent is Overrated) brought deliberate practice to the public eye.

So what does deliberate practice look like specifically? How is it different from regular “practice,” such as fooling around on a guitar? Colvin explained it best:

  • DP first requires that you know exactly what you want to achieve. (e.g. “I want to play this specific riff from my favorite song” rather than “I want to get better at the guitar.”)
  • DP is designed to nudge you just past your current level of performance. (In other words, it’s practice composed of bite-sized nuggets that meet your exact challenge level. Not too hard, not too easy.)
  • DP is repeatable. (You can work on each bite-sized nugget over and over again. But once you’ve mastered that nugget, you press on.)
  • During DP, performance feedback is constantly available to you. (Someone or something is telling you how you’re doing.)
  • DP is highly mentally demanding; no one can do it for more than 4 or 5 hours a day.
  • When you’re doing DP, it’s not much fun.  It’s strenuous and painful.

As you can see, DP is quite unlike regular “practice.” Think of a teenage girl teaching herself bass guitar. What does her practice consist of? Most likely:

  • She has a fuzzy and larger-than-bite-size goal.
  • She’s working with a book or website that can’t customize the practice specifically for her performance level.
  • Nobody is around to observe her, provide feedback, and adjust the challenge level. (Or no one has prepared her to provide her own feedback, as the music professors did for the violin students’ solitary practice.)
  • The practice isn’t too difficult, but she also doesn’t feeling like she’s growing.

The result of such practice is a plateau. On a plateau, you can practice all day but gain little skill. The normal response to this disheartening situation is to quit outright.

The antidote to plateauing is deliberate practice, but DP isn’t just for hobbies. As Ericsson suggested, it’s the pathway to high achievement in any field.

Anyone who has participated in a high-challenge/high-achievement sport, business, study group, or personal project knows what DP feels like: It’s the experience of intensive learning that’s unpleasant in the moment, but satisfying in the end.  It’s the experience of moving quickly and purposefully toward a well-defined goal. And therefore it’s no wonder that DP hours, when added up, lead to incredible performance.

Ericsson famously suggested that the key to achieving world-class performance in any discipline is to put in 10,000 hours—at least 10 years—of deliberate practice. More importantly, he argued that the “10,000 hour rule” isn’t optional for top performance; it’s mandatory. And so-called geniuses don’t get an exception.

Applying Ericsson’s logic, authors Levitt, Dubner, Gladwell, and Colvin, looked at the lives of Mozart, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and other so-called geniuses through the DP lens and made an incredible discovery: each had spent roughly 10,000 hours doing deliberate practice before making their greatest achievements.

You’ve probably heard that Mozart started composing symphonies at age 5; but did you know that his father Leonard, a famous performer and composer himself, initiated young Mozart into an intensive performance and composing program at age 3? Or that Mozart didn’t produce his first masterpiece until age 21, after 18 years of intensive practice?

Tiger Woods was also a case of early training by a skilled father: Earl Woods put a golf club into his son’s hands at ripe old of age of 18 months. Before winning the U.S. Amateur Championship at age 18, Tiger had racked up 15 years of (very deliberate) practice.

Bill Gates debugged mainframe computers, digitized an electric power grid, (perhaps) created the first computer virus, and founded a small company (with Paul Allen) that earned $20,000 years before dropping out of Harvard to start Microsoft.

At age 12, Mark Zuckerberg devised a messaging program called “Zucknet” that his father implemented in his dental office. In his early teens Zuckerberg built computer games, worked with a private computer tutor, and took graduate courses in programming from a local college. In high school, he started a company and built Synapse Media Player (an early version of the music software Pandora), which AOL and Microsoft expressed interest in buying. And at Harvard, he built two social networking programs, CourseMatch and FaceMash…all before becoming the “genius” inventor of Facebook.

Colvin argues that deliberate practice, not high inborn IQ or memory, is what matters for high achievement. Each of the “geniuses” above illustrate  this fact. Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel that some giant chasm separates “them” from “us.” What explains that?

It’s not that Mozart, Woods, Gates, Zuckerberg, or (insert top performer in your field of interest here) was born with significantly more talent than you. They were simply born into unique environments that gave them deliberate practice  opportunities at a very early age.

For the rest of us (who did not grow up in such unique circumstances), we must create deliberate practice situations for ourselves. If we do so, then we have a shot at high achievement; it will just appear later in life.

So far we’ve covered DP in sports, music, and business—but how does DP apply to college-type learning? In 2010 a team at the University of British Columbia replaced one week of lecture in an undergraduate physics course with DP-oriented small group tasks, student-to-student discussions, and targeted instructor feedback. The result? The attendance, engagement, and test performance of more than 200 physics students increased dramatically, producing the most effective “educational intervention” ever observed in a study.

So the answer is yes: college-type, theoretical learning can benefit from DP too.

The significance of deliberate practice to Zero Tuition College now becomes clear. If the reason that you won’t consider a radical educational path is that you fear a lack of personal talent, genius, or giftedness: fear not. Building talent in one or two fields is an unquestionably important part of the college experience because it makes you employable. But as we learned above, talent is a product of deliberate practice, and deliberate practice doesn’t require an institution.

What DP does require is a knowledgeable mentor or coach to design appropriate challenges for you, provide feedback, and nudge you forward when practice gets tough. If as a college student you can join (or create) such a deliberate practice experience with a professor, graduate student, or fellow undergraduate, that’s fantastic. But must a DP mentor, coach, or teacher come from an expensive institution? Certainly not. Talent is talent, and you can find knowledgeable people who will design DP for you outside of college. We’ll tackle the challenge of finding such people later.

But first we must dispel the third boogeyman of self-doubt. Deliberate practice may unlock the gates to high-level achievement without college— but DP is hard. The endless hours of violin practice in Ericsson’s study didn’t sound fun. Why would you purposefully subject yourself to DP? Are you not the “type of person” who throws herself into challenging situations?


Sources for this article include:

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin.







Related ZTC blog posts:

Deliberate Practice Strikes Again

What is Deliberate Practice?

10 Ways to Do Self-Directed Learning



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