We can all point to clear evidence showing that elite performers – in all areas – possess innate strengths that give them an edge over the rest of the crowd. For example, Shaquille O’Neal’s body gives him an edge in professional basketball, and composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven obviously had musical talents that set them apart from generations of artists. But is “talent” really the core ingredient of expertise and elite performance?
An interview entitled, The Expert on Experts, from Fast Company’s November 2006 issue, illuminates “expertise” in a different light, and suggests that my examples above are extreme exceptions to the typical evolution of expertise. The interview’s subject is K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the 918-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. Ericsson says:
“With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level….Elite performers aren’t genetically superior. They spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call deliberate practice – an effortful activity designed to improve target performance….. In general, elite performers utilize some technique that isn’t well known or widely practiced.”
I was recently reminded of this Fast Company article when reading Brad Gilbert’s book, I’ve Got Your Back: Coaching Top Performers from Center Court to the Corner Office. Gilbert is a former top-ten tennis pro who later coached #1 players, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick. As a youngster, Gilbert was always a good player but he never stood out as a future star. He received a tennis scholarship to a junior college, eventually transferred to Pepperdine University, joined the ATP tour, and slowly worked his way from #180 in the world to his peak ranking of #4.
It was this paragraph from Gilbert’s book that struck me:
“I guess a couple of things made me different from other up-and-comers on the tour. Sure, I had resilience and foot speed. But other guys had those traits. What set me apart, maybe, was my eye for the game, my memory of how people played it, and my drive to pay attention. Almost every other guy on the tour, when he was finished with his match, couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there – to go back to the hotel room to watch TV, or go pound a few beers. Call me nutty (and a few people did), but I loved to hang out at the venue: watching matches or practice, shooting the breeze with guys in the locker room or training area. And whenever I was watching tennis, I was taking notes. I kept a little black book on every guy I played, and every guy I saw playing…. if you know the other guy’s weaknesses, you have a huge leg up.”
Later in the book, when Gilbert explains how he helped Andre Agassi improve from a #30 world-ranking to #1, the “black book” technique is featured once again.
Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner (authors of the interesting book, Freakonomics) wrote this about Ericsson’s expertise book in The New York Times Magazine:
“The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”
I find it amazing – and thrilling – that good performers can become elite performers through “deliberate practice” and “utilizing some technique that isn’t widely known or widely practiced.” And I find it fascinating that, since natural talent isn’t the central reason for superior performance and any of us can become an elite performer in an area that deeply interests us, we aren’t all among the “elite” in something.
Clearly, everyone has a choice: to become an expert or elite performer in an area of our choosing, or to be a generalist. (And while “generalist” implies mediocrity and dulled impact, we can always turn to Benjamin Franklin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias, two “expert generalists,” for stunning counter examples…)