Today’s NY Times has an article about a new paper in Psychological Science on whether talent or practice is more important for elite performance. In a meta-analysis, the psychologists “found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions”. I haven’t read the Psych Science paper, but, while the 21% for music is at least somewhat plausible, the 4% and 1% are obviously too low. Something is wrong with this research.
The debate is a bit poorly framed too, although the NY Times article goes some distance in the direction of setting it straight. The dichotomy between talent and deliberate practice is a false one. There are at least two other huge factors: determination and quality training (in addition to starting at an optimal age, which I’m going to ignore here).
Every elite performer is a unique case, with its own unique combination of factors that explain it. But you are not going to understand elite performance if all you focus on is talent vs. hours of deliberate practice.
It doesn’t take a lot of sophisticated science to know that talent and (deliberate) practice are insufficient for elite performance. For one thing, it takes good training. The better the teaching/training, the better the results are likely to be. That’s one reason that students obsess about getting into good Ph.D. programs. And even that is insufficient. We all know people who are talented and worked hard under good teachers, and yet they didn’t perform at the expected level. What they were missing is what I here call “determination,” which is a whole complicated set of skills and dispositions that would be worth investigating in detail.[Image credit: Flickr user Steven S.]