At five years old, most of us were in kindergarten being trained on phonics and flash cards. At five years old, Mozart, the quintessential child prodigy, was already composing his first musical pieces.
At age seven, we were learning to write in cursive and reading the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, or the Boxcar Children. At age seven, Akrit Jaswal was already performing his first surgeries.
At thirteen, we were likely discovering the opposite sex, playing in the school band, and entering our adolescent stage of rebellion and self-discovery. At thirteen, Magnus Carlsen became a grandmaster at chess.
Child prodigies like Mozart, Akrit, and Magnus continue to blow our minds and make us all feel hopelessly inadequate. However, research shows that their incredible abilities may not be as supernatural as they seem.
Bounce, by Matthew Syed, discusses the myth of talent and how it permeates our society.
We tend to credit miraculous skills with having an over-sized brain, superior genetics, or God-given talent, thus rendering these feats impossible to achieve by a normal, “untalented” person.
However, if you look more closely at child prodigies like Mozart, Akrit, or Magnus, you won’t see superhuman genetics or an over-sized brain. Instead you’ll see thousands upon thousands of hours of relentless study and practice.
Studies show that we need 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to reach world-class status at any skill.
As it turns out, most “child prodigies” have simply had thousands of hours of practice at an early age, reaching ten thousand hours – the equivalent of three hours per day for ten years – well before they were teenagers.
In fact, researchers estimate that Mozart had accumulated nearly 3500 hours of purposeful practice before he was even six years old, making him one of the hardest-working composers in history.
Rather than coloring or watching cartoons like the rest of us, child prodigies are working on their craft and racking up experience normally only achieved by a 30 or 40 year old.
More importantly, they are not busy earning hours of mere practice; they are earning hours of purposeful practice.
Purposeful practice means doing challenging exercises just beyond your skill level, in contrast to simply practicing what you already know. Simply practicing what you’re already good at will not do much, even if you acquire ten thousand hours of experience.
According to Syed, child prodigies amaze us because we compare them not to other performers who have practiced for the same length of time, but rather to children of their same age who haven’t dedicated their lives in the same way. In other words, we assess them using the wrong context.
We also succumb to the iceberg illusion, where we see their abilities as magical but neglect to consider the thousands of hours spent practicing that made it possible, thereby seeing only the tip of the iceberg.
The talent myth is highly entrenched in our society and is promoted in mainstream media. The danger of this myth is that if we are not considered “talented,” it may diminish our own motivation and capacity to achieve great things. Why try if we are born with an insurmountable disadvantage?
But really, it is purposeful practice – not talent – that yields incredible results.
We need to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset considers all personal traits to be unchangeable – the intelligence, the coordination, the ability you have now is what you’re stuck with forever.
A growth mindset sees all traits as changeable – you can increase your intelligence, master a skill, and ultimately change your reality.
Those with a fixed mindset tend to give up more easily. After all, why work hard if you can never be the best? They tend to believe that talent is something you’re born with and that “normal” people can never prevail, no matter how hard they work.
Someone with a growth mindset is more flexible, will work harder, and does not get discouraged as easily. They know that any skill can be learned and that no one is cut from a different cloth.
For example, when I ran cross-country in high school, only a handful of us could run the 5000m race below 16 and a half minutes. Two years after I had graduated, most of the younger runners who had been inexperienced, weak, and pathetically slow when I had been on the team had grown to be much faster than I ever was, breaking 16 minutes and even approaching the sound barrier.
But this wasn’t due to raw running talent; it was due to relentless purposeful practice.
My coach had refined his training strategy and could mold any doughy Michelin Man freshman into a vascular, thunder-thigh-wielding running machine provided they go through a backbreaking training regimen for several years.
Only those with a growth mindset could endure the intense training because they knew it would pay off. Those with a fixed mindset who thought that it takes talent to succeed would give up after a few weeks or months of halfhearted effort.
Unfortunately, most of our society sees the world through a fixed mindset. We idolize Olympians, world class musicians, and top performers as if they were divine creatures.
We lose hope in ourselves and embed our shortcomings deep into our self-identity thinking that we’re unavoidably stupid, awkward, clumsy, weak, or incompetent.
What we don’t realize is that a simple shift in mindset along with eye-watering amounts of purposeful practice could reverse this identity and land us among the greats that we so highly revere.
Believing in something greater than oneself can enhance one’s performance.
Most top athletes are also loyal followers of a religion whether it’s Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Pastafarianism. Many also practice superstitions or rituals before a competition.
Studies show that both religion and superstition can cause someone to perform better. After all, it seems natural that someone would be more courageous when they believe that the entire universe is conspiring in their favor.
What’s interesting is that it doesn’t matter which God you pray to or lucky charm you hold so long as your belief is sincere.
Just like with our diets, the path we choose does not matter as much as our belief in the path we’ve chosen (see my post on Diet Cults).
Believing in something beyond the self can have a hugely beneficial psychological impact, even if the belief is fallacious.
Top performers have to have an irrational belief in themselves in order to win.
The best athletes always believe they will win. Logically, this doesn’t make sense, since everyone thinks they will win but there can only be one winner.
This stubborn belief in oneself regardless of the odds is called irrational optimism. Every champion has to fully believe he will win in spite of the competition or level of difficulty. No top performer has ever succeeded without being able to remove all doubt from his mind that he will emerge victorious.
Of course, sometimes this irrational optimism is confronted by hard reality. We can’t win every time, so in order maintain our doubtless perseverance we have to be able to rationalize our failures.
Fortunately, we have an incredible knack for shaping real evidence to fit our beliefs rather than the other way around. We can always find reasons why we have an advantage or why our opponent’s advantages mean nothing. We can even find a way to look at our failures in a positive light before moving on.
Check out these two examples of irrational optimism:
“It had never even crossed my mind that I would leave the tournament with anything but a gold medal.”
— Ronda Rousey, famed UFC champion fighter. From her bestselling book My Fight/Your Fight.
“I was anxious not to just beat their records but also to run over them; if somebody could win Mr. Universe three times, I wanted to win it six times.”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger writing about his early role models in his book Total Recall.
It’s easy for us to get intimidated by the competition and focus on our flaws and weak points. But no matter how prepared we are, this self-doubt will undermine our performance.
We have to work on being irrationally optimistic and believe we will win against all odds.
Just as a golfer chooses to focus on the green rather than on the sand traps, we must acknowledge that failure may occur but then turn our focus fully toward success.
This may seem unrealistic or naive to the common mind, but this unwavering self-belief may be the difference between whether you win or lose.
- It takes 10,000 hours to fully master a skill. Over 10 years, that’s roughly 3 hours of purposeful practice per day.
- Cultivate a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. Believe your skills, habits, and behavior can be changed and improved.
- With religion and superstition, it’s not always what you believe so much as how strongly you believe in it.
- In order to win, you need to believe that you will win, no matter what the odds may be.
***To learn more about the myth of talent and the secret to success, check out Bounce, by Matthew Syed.***
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