I show you three groups of recent college graduates. The first group has been identified as intrinsically talented at a certain discipline. The second group identifies themselves as very passionate about a certain discipline. The third group engages in tough, technique-oriented practice for an hour a day, but otherwise has no extraordinary talent or passion for any particular discipline. You are asked to bet $100 on which group will yield the highest average level of success in ten years. On which group do you bet?
When I was in drama school, I had to take some design courses. We had a particularly excellent artist named Curt who headed our design department, and the school routinely produced beautiful production sets and lighting. I remember during a fundamentals class asking if I (or anyone) could teach myself to draw like he could, given enough practice. His understandable if disappointing response was, “I could always just draw.”
I had a lot of professional doubts during that time which were never fully answered, even to this day. I liked many aspects of theatre–such as acting, lighting design, music composition and direction–none of which I executed with particular distinction back then. Advisors told me that I needed to figure out who I was, and they were glad when I told them that my strategy involved hedging an acting career with some slightly more lucrative technical disciplines. Of all those disciplines I tended to like acting the best, but I don’t think they saw in me any real signs of promise. I couldn’t “just act” the way Curt could “just draw”. Knowing how daunting it would be to try and “make it” as an actor, I spent a lot of time asking myself, “Should I be doing this?”
My father–who very graciously supported me in a theatrical education–gave me very practical career advice: “Find what you love to do, and then find a way to make money at it.” He had a very progressive attitude about professional success: that fulfillment should be the primary consideration. My roommate’s father also had some sage advice, quoting Stephen Covey: “Begin with the end in mind.” He was trying to emphasize the importance of goal orientation and focus.
What was confusing to me–and I later learned confusing to a lot of people–is that I had a very hard time at that age isolating what I loved to do, and therefore had no real vision of “the end” to keep in mind. When I was feeling good about myself, every discipline seemed exciting. When I was feeling unaccomplished or low, every discipline seemed like a different flavor of drudgery.
I developed anxiety about not following the “right” path, the path that was supposed to best leverage my talents. I didn’t really even have a sense of what those talents really might be, and personally and strength-finder testing never gave much direction. I was hungry for a concrete calling; something I could settle into with the assurance that I was mastering the best thing for me to master, and therefore I could engage it with full conviction rather than always having one foot out.
Then I read a very interesting book by Cal Newport called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport turns the idea of preexisting passion on its head. Rather than trying to match a professional end goal to a preexisting passion, it’s actually the mastery of a discipline that brings about the passion. We already know that accomplishment and excellence within a discipline is intrinsically motivating. We’ve discussed this in a previous article about Daniel Pink’s book Drive.
Newport is a proponent of a route to mastery and passion that scientists have been working with for some years: Deliberate Practice. Before I lose you with such an obvious-sounding concept, I need to point out that Deliberate Practice is a very, very specific form of practice that is so far the only significant correlate with the mastery of a certain discipline. The psychologist who has produced the most work on this topic is Anders Ericsson from Florida State.
Deliberate Practice is consistent, technique-building practice that’s uncomfortable to the practicer and yields instant, brutally honest feedback as to performance status, like feedback from an instructor or listening to a recording. We contrast this with other forms of practice like performing by rote that which is already in muscle memory. We also contrast this with the “flow” state of peak performance popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which you “lose yourself” in the process. The practicing we’re talking about here is deliberate, pedantic, focused, perfectionistic and often times painful.
Deliberate Practice produces measurable adaptations both physically and cognitively. According to Ericsson, “…the cognitive mechanisms responsible for the acquisition of expert performance involve complex acquired representations. These representations facilitate experts’ ability to plan, monitor, and reason about their performance.” In past articles, we’ve talked about Daniel Kahneman’s two mechanisms of the brain: the deliberate and the associative. We’ve discussed how the explicit learning style of our deliberate mind tends to “train up” the faster, implicit learning center as we practice something. One of the prerequisites of mastering a discipline is the complex manipulation of its unique concepts. When we engage in Deliberate Practice, we concentrate on taking the rudimentary concepts of a discipline and building them up into higher and higher levels of abstraction.
“Similarly,” Ericsson goes on to say, “many distinctive characteristics of experts such as the larger hearts and greater maximal oxygen uptake of endurance athletes and the fast-twitch muscle fibers of sprinters, are accurately characterized and physiological adaptations to extended periods of intense training.” So if you could open up the body of a masterful athlete, the superior athleticism of his or her body could be attributable to their training rather than, as we’ve assumed in the past, to their DNA.
So, of the three groups of college graduates mentioned earlier, is it best to bet on the third group (the one that engages in deliberate practice)? The answer is, on average, probably. Research tends to indicate that there is more significant difference on average between those who practice regularly versus those who were merely talented but didn’t practice with the same rigor. And while preexisting passion could be a factor to encourage practice and study, it does not always encourage these things. More often the payoffs of the practice and study will contribute to a feeling of passion and satisfaction.
There’s a danger here, though, that’s been brought on by the popularizing of Deliberate Practice. It’s brought about the notion that anybody can master any discipline given enough application time. The most famous example of this is the 10,000 hour notion from Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers: the idea that mastery comes about on average after about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, of practiced application. It’s a very seductive idea to think that we have total control over our abilities in any discipline, and that the nature versus nurture question is settled for good.
There are several problems with jumping onto this conclusion. First, there is scientific dispute about the 10,000 hours theory. Second, these mastery-based theories are very hard to test because you can’t isolate someone for ten years in a lab while you control their influences. Third, most people take Deliberate Practice to mean just practice. So there is no real sense out there for exactly how demanding this activity is, or how much effort it takes to do it consistently over ten years. In our theatre department I knew many gifted and practiced performers, but none who went after it with the kind of deliberate, relentless effort we’re talking about here. Even if I thought I could become a masterful actor, I would not have been capable of this kind of discipline. I would have gotten excited and then petered out quickly like everyone else.
Research into the acquisition of excellence can help us better choose what to emphasize in training programs and in our professional lives. They can also help us unravel these questions of life direction, like, “Should I be doing this?” After college, for example, I was a high school speech coach for ten years. If I had this information back then, I would have played with Deliberate Practice technique within rehearsal sessions (which otherwise largely featured making minor tweaks to rote performances). I also could have used these ideas to become a more masterful coach, as most of the coaching technique I used never strayed from my own comfort zone.
So how do you follow your passion if you don’t think you have one? Well, first remove the pressure of having to find your exact right path. Try some things, knowing that they might be disappointing or lead to initial failure. Do more of what works for you. Do more of what you like. Eat away at it. Follow your significant successes. But as you’re searching, figure out a way to deliberately improve your technique and be relentless in your practice.
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