Differentiating excellence

2014-02-18 00:00

THERE is often debate about why certain people excel at what they do, and others don’t. Did some people simply get lashings of talent, while others find themselves rather short-changed, or is success simply potluck?

I have been reading a fascinating book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell takes a scientific look at factors of success, and reveals some fascinating and rather unexpected results. At one point in the book, he makes reference to a study that was conducted by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues, at Berlin’s elite Academy of Music. With the assistance of the college’s professors, they divided the schools violinists into three groups — those who were unlikely to play professionally and intended becoming music teachers, those who were considered “good” and those who were likely to become “stars”. They set about asking each violinist a series of questions, and the outcomes were most interesting.

They discovered that everyone had started playing the violin at roughly the same age (around five years old) and that they had all practised for around two to three hours a week until the age of eight. Thereafter, real differences in practice regimes started emerging. The “stars” were practising up to six hours a week by age nine, eight hours per week by age 12, 16 hours a week by age 14 and well over 30 hours a week by the age of 20. In fact, the elite performers had each totalled in excess of 10 000 hours of purposeful playing with the intention of improving their skill. By comparison, the “good” students had only totalled on average 8 000 hours and the aspirant teachers had practised just over 4 000 hours.

The same pattern emerged when Ericsson and his team compared amateur and professional piano players. By the age of 20, amateur players had totalled on average 2 000 hours and, by contrast, the professionals had exceeded the 10 000-hour barrier.

The really remarkable thing about this study was that the professors couldn’t find a single musician who was so talented that he or she had effortlessly floated into greatness, and neither could they find anyone who had invested the time and effort and had failed to achieve. Obviously, all candidates were selected for the music school because they exhibited ability in the first place, but the research suggests that it isn’t ability that necessarily determines greatness; rather, it is the amount of dedicated effort. Those that excel don’t just work harder than their peers, they work much harder.

The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a minimum level of 10 000 dedicated hours of practice has been widely adopted, and many professionals accept this as the required practice level to achieve mastery.

This even appears to be true of people who we consider to have been geniuses in their chosen fields. Psychologist Michael Howe, in his book Genius Explained, maintains that Mozart was only an exceptional composer after the age of 20 and after he had achieved more than 10 000 hours of dedicated composing. He makes the point that Mozart’s early pieces were essentially arrangements of works by other composers that were written down by his father, who in all likelihood improved them during the transcription. The earliest completely original composition or masterwork (No. 9, K.271) was not composed until Mozart was 21.

This just goes to show that talent is all very well, but without dedicated effort and commitment, it is simply not possible to excel — there is no substitute for old-fashioned hard work.

I like what former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had to say on the subject of success. She said: “I think it is a mixture of having a flair for the thing that you are doing; knowing that it is not enough, that you have got to have hard work and a certain sense of purpose.”

It’s a learning worth sharing with our youth, many of whom seem to expect instant success.

It’s all in the effort, as author Sam Ewing said: “Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.”

• Melanie Veness is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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