Do you consider yourselves suitable? I don’t know for what, for whatever you want to be but you aren’t right now. Maybe a singer, maybe a writer, maybe a succesful blogger or a scientist… And how do you approach that case? Let’s say you feel a deep desire to be very good in football. When this thought reaches your mind what do you say? I think there are two possible tendencies.
- You see it as a so huge and distant an achievement for you that you just dismiss the thought. You have some reasons to believe that you will not be able to reach that level because you have some either physical or mental limitations depending on the activity. One example about football would be your idea that you aren’t fast enough to be distinct.
- You, also, see it as a huge and distant an achievement but this time you are aware that everything flows as Heraclitus had said. You are aware that belief together with consistent practice can lead you to much higher tops than what you have imagined. Even sometimes without recognising your progress during the process. So, instead of abandoning your desire, you become motivated to set a plan, commit to it and wait for the results to arrive.
The above two ways of approaching a desired goal are actually two different mentalities for the whole life. The ones that push themselves to think with the second way will eventually reach points that those of the first will only be imagining in snapshots. This may sound absolute but I think it totally makes sense that by setting limitations is not generally so helpful for your potential.
The myth of talent in a meritocratic society
As you may have already understood, the idea of physical talent comes easily in that discussion. When we believe we can’t achieve something mostly is because we don’t have enough physical talent, right? Else, if it isn’t the talent limiting us, what is? Many ideas about this concept were perfectly presented by the English journalist and broadcaster Matthew Syed in his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. Syed was also a UK champion in table tennis with participation in the Olympic Games so he uses there many examples from sports which are actually directly connected with debates of talent versus practice. This book was my main influence on writing this article.
Anyway, he believes that we live in a meritocratic society. A society that automatically recognises talent as the main benefactor of someone being succesful. We even use expressions like “he has tennis encoded in his DNA” for Roger Federer. But when we recognise an excellent ability on a person, do we actually know how extensive and quality training he has been through to reach that level? Do we know his mentors? Do we know the psychological boundaries he has tried and eventually managed to overcome? Or when we see a young talent how do we know that these amazing abilities will remain? Humans have a tendency to focus “on the tip of the iceberg” while ignoring what rests below.
An investigation of British musicians found that top performers had learnt no faster than those who reached lower levels of attainment: hour for hour, the two groups had almost improved identically. The difference was simply that top performers had practised for more hours. Further research has shown that when top performers seem to possess an early gift for music, it is often because they have been given extra tuition at home by their parents. ~Matthew Syed, Bounce.
Both quantity and quality are significant for the effectiveness of practice
What has to be cleared out is that practice alone is not enough. Usually the people who are competing on high levels spend similar times on practice. The quality of the practice is also significant. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers describes how outstanding successes such as the Beatles’ where not so much what they like rather is where they came from.
The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves but in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. ~Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
Another argument is the differences in the abilities of people in different generations in any given sector. Through Darwinian Evolution of course there hasn’t been any physical change, we contain exactly the same genome. However, the time that the winner of the olympic games one century ago did on marathon can be achieved by any average marathon runner nowadays. Or complicated musical compositions of the 17th and 18th century can be performed by all top and maybe lower performers nowadays. It’s not that musicians and athletes today are more talented, they just train more time (they are professionals) and more efficiently (the scientific findings and human experience improve the training methods).
Excellence of style as a result of extensive preparation
Think also of how perfectly the professional sportsmen hit a ball in any given sport. We tend to explain that as an incredible natural ability that was somehow there since birth. But what if this splendid move wasn’t a result of brute force or strength, but the executive control of fine motor movement to achieve perfect timing? And this amazing executive control comes from years of dedicated and quality preparation so that professional athletes are able to evaluate the conditions and act accordingly. In other words there isn’t something specific in their palms or in their toes. Instead is the sophistication they have achieved to control the part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for the movement so that they impact the ball with precisely the right angle, finesse, power etc.
In 2000 the visual function of elite and non-elite football players was tested using standardized measures of visual acuity, stereoscopic depth and peripheral awareness. The elite players were no better than their less accomplished counterparts, and neither group recorded above average levels of visual function. ~Matthew Syed, Bounce
So any expert with great capabilities has trained so hard that has developed outstanding motor expertise that directly affects the development of perceptual expertise (the efficiency of each move). The thing is that through all this extensive training , the knowledge transfers from the explicit memory to be solidified in the implicit which means that the movement becomes automatic after some point. If you ask Federer to explain to you the mechanical movements that made an excellent stroke most possibly he won’t be able to offer any insights. This is called expert-induced amnesia.
The most important differences are not at the lowest levels of cells or muscle groups, but the athletes’ superior control over the integrated and coordinated actions of their bodies. ~Anders Erricson, world’s leading authority on expert performance
Stretching our limits
As aforementioned, the fact that someone is spending much time in an activity doesn’t necessarily mean that this will make them an expert. I have been driving for 10 years but this hasn’t made me more than an average ability driver. The reason is that I never tried to be an expert so every time I was driving my thoughts were somewhere else. And this is a fundamental that can be come across everywhere. Whenever we want to improve we must stretch our limits, our comfort zones. Only by going beyond to what we already are we will become better.
I know many people that have been running for years consistently but they have remained in a very low-level. I don’t mean to criticize because they may not care to improve but if they do they have picked the wrong way. This situation makes many people wonder why it’s happening but here are the reasons. Because they never pressurize themselves when they run so eventually they can’t improve. Same happens with the employees in the companies. They spend very long hours working on repetitive and boring tasks that leave their natural creativity idle so they don’t progress.
Dr. Dweck and the fixed and growth mindset
And here comes for me the most important part of the article. These experiments actually blew my mind and inspired me much more. In fact they amount to the whole substance of what I am trying to argue in this article. In 1978 the psychologist Carol Dweck wanted to measure not talent itself this time but if our opinions about talent play a role in our lives. So she took 330 students aged between 11 and 12 and gave them a questionnaire to probe their beliefs about talent and specifically intelligence. The students that believed that talent is only genetically influenced were labelled as having fixed mindset whereas the ones that believed that intelligence could be transformed through training as having growth mindset.
The students were given a series of tests that were easy in the beginning and later formidably difficult. The students in the fixed mindset started blaming their capabilities for every failure that occurred, “I am not so smart”, “I was never good at these things” etc. During the row of successes these guys were performing as the ones of the growth mindset. However, immediately after a failure they were losing the faith in their intelligence. In short the majority of them abandoned or failed to adopt more effective strategies.
At the same time you know what the children of the growth mindset blamed for their failures? NOTHING. Actually they didn’t see it as a failure and with a deep sense of optimism they kept adopting new strategies and more than 80% maintained or improved the levels of their performance during the difficult problems.
This finding is dramatic! There was a huge difference in the effectiveness of the students independently of their capabilities. Instead according to their MINDSET. Because the fixed mindset students weren’t seeing the test only as a measurement of their intelligence at that time. As well, for them it was a measure of their intelligence in the future… They had identified intelligence as a pure talent. And you know where all this lead them? To not try things in the fear of failure and as a result a proof of their inabilities. Whereas a person with a growth mindset gains from every activity independently of each outcome. Knowing that the chase of success goes hand in hand with plenty of failures.
In a path towards mediocrity you can pick any of these mindsets. It will work fine. You will be safe in the comfort zone and the road is flat. But if you really pick a path to excellence means that you have accepted a road that often changes directions and is almost never straight. Failures and misjudgments are all a part of a process that leads to a distinctive goal. Fixed mindsets cannot resist failures because they are identified with the outcome. Growth mindsets are identified with the process.
Carol Dweck this time in 1998 and a colleague took 400 11year old students and gave them a puzzle. Afterwards each student was given a score with a six word praise. The half of them were praised for intelligence “you must be really smart” and the other half for effort “you must have worked really hard”. These six words were able to change everything. Dweck assigned them another puzzle in order to come to a conclusion. They had a choice between easy and difficult.A full two third of the students praised for intelligence picked they easy one. They were praised for intelligence and they were scared that they might be proven that they weren’t. At the same time the 90% of the students praised for hard work picked the difficult one. They saw it as a fruitful challenge to increase their skills and to prove that they are hard workers.
Another dramatic finding. Consider yourselves how you approach every challenge. And also think of what praises we give to the younger ones. Do we praise them for beauty, for intelligence, for strength or do we praise them for having worked hard in a goal? And the first ones are in a great risk to become scared to take an initiative in fear of not meeting the standards the others have put to them. When we praise them for effort we give them motivation to keep trying and focus on that by seeing failures as opportunities for progress.
In the Growth Mindset you don’t feel the need to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you are secretly worried is a pair of ten. The hand you’re dealt is just the starting point… Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience. ~Carol Dweck, Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential
Limitations from social environment
All that kind of limitations apart from us putting them to ourselves, the environment is doing the same, as well. I consider it a lie someone to declare they don’t care at all about the opinions of their environment. Be it the close people such as family and friends, be it unknown people to them if they are doing something publicly. Well I’ll tell you my opinion on this. I believe there are two kinds of people in the way they react when they hear a high goal set from others.
The first go immediately in denial. They start thinking of reasons why it will NOT work. It is also very dangerous, risky and who knows what happens in case you fail. They may even be ironic or they will be waiting for every single failure of yours to declare that they were correct. These people of course belong to the fixed mindset group and likewise act in their lives.
The second are the ones that will listen to you calmly and they will say yes, give it a try, I hope you’ll succeed. Deeply knowing that even if you don’t manage it, you will still have gained lessons and have improved. Of course this is the growth mindset.
My humble opinion is never tell your dreams to the people of the first group. If they ask you in a discussion, reply as generally as you can in order to be kind and try to change subject as soon as possible. By opening a discussion with these people most possible thing is that you will be psychologically harmed. You will be influenced the same way as the children in the second experiment of Dweck. If you really really wanna talk to them, wait to have some results first and then do it. On the contrary try to socialize as much as possible with people with tendencies of the second group. With people who are open to ideas and exploration and above all that don’t try to put limitations to both themselves and to their environment.
Contradictions: Still there’s a lot to be discovered
All this debate of talent versus practice has been going on for decades now. It’s actually the well-known scientific debate of nature vs nurture. Truth is that we are no way ready yet as humanity to be certain about the level of influence of each one in our lives. There exist contradictory findings to the “only practice makes perfect” mindset. For example, 2 weeks ago The Economist published an article that was describing the influence of genes in the musical ability or the Psychological Science published a research where they were defining other factors in the achievement of expertise apart from practice. They speculated that the age at which a person becomes involved in an activity may matter, and that certain cognitive abilities such as working memory may also play an influential role. However, even after all these debates it is undeniable that extensive practice is unavoidable on the path towards success. And actually is the only thing we can do if we really have mentality of growing our abilities as human beings.