The Natural Ability Myth
“The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement. Nothing else.” – Anders Ericsson
When asked in an interview if he was surprised at his quick success at the pro level, quarterback Russell Wilson replied, “I’m not surprised at all. I think, more than anything, it’s my work ethic that has prepared me. I’ve done everything that I can to be the best that I can possibly be.”
Another person who was not surprised by Russell’s success was the psychologist Anders Ericsson (1947-2020), the “expert on experts” whose research focused on what the top performers in various fields shared in common. The results of this research, which he detailed in his book Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise, were clear and intuitive, if not necessarily what you might want to hear: in order to improve, you must practice at getting better. A lot.
It’s Not Just for Those “Born With It”
While this might not have been good news for those looking for an “easy button” for success, Ericsson’s research had a very positive message for those willing to put in the work: if you consistently put in the right type of practice, there are virtually no limits to what can be achieved.
This doesn’t just mean that people with natural ability can all climb to the highest reaches of their field (which they can); it also means that the same potential exists for those born without similar genetic advantages.
Russell Wilson’s career is a great example: nearly all of the critics, and even his college coach, said that his physical limitations could never be overcome. Because he consistently executed what Ericsson would describe as the right type of practice, however, he proved all of those naysayers wrong.
Mozart Was Special, but Not That Special
The myth of natural ability doesn’t just apply to physical competence, either, Ericsson found – it also applies to our cognitive capabilities. As an example, he tells the story of Mozart, the musical prodigy and composer who could immediately identify the exact note played by any musical instrument. Known as “perfect pitch,” this talent is extremely rare, occurring in only about 1 in 10,000 people. Therefore, it seems to represent “a perfect example of an innate talent that a few lucky people are born with.”
Except that it’s not.
In 2014, psychologist Ayako Sakakibara of the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo published the results of a study in which twenty-four children, aged 2 to 6 years old and of varying musical experience, were given training in a very specific learning program called “chord identification method.” A year later, the twenty-two children who had followed through with the entire study (two children dropped out) had all acquired perfect pitch!
As other studies have replicated, virtually any child with the right type of practice can achieve this cognitive ability that was previously thought to be only genetically available to a minute portion of the population. And this practice-driven theory holds up with Mozart himself: as a young child, he received an unusual amount of classical training from his father who was himself a violinist, music teacher, and composer.
The Dark Side of Natural Ability
Not only is natural ability not required to succeed, Ericsson goes on to argue, it can also get in the way.
To prove his point, he provides the example of chess grandmasters. Chess is usually thought of as a game for intelligent people, and you might think that the best chess players in the world are also some of the smartest – but you’d be wrong.
It’s true that those with higher IQs do pick up the game of chess more quickly, and are more successful early on. But surprisingly, those who end up reaching the highest classification of grandmaster actually have a slightly lower than average IQ! And this isn’t just true at the highest level – the same pattern appears throughout the various ability ranks, with no direct correlation between IQ and skill rating appearing until the lowest level of those just starting out.
What does correlate with increased ability? You guessed it: practice. Those who consistently put in the hours of learning and practicing new skills were the ones who ended up at the top. Those with the “natural ability” of higher IQ did not feel the need to practice as much because of their early success, and over time they were passed by those who developed the habits of hard work.
The True Factor for Success
Ericsson was fascinated by this role of practice in performance, and spent his career replicating these types of studies in many different types of environments, including athletics, music, and even business. Whether in sales or sports, the findings were always the same: over time, the deciding factor in performance was always the right kind of practice, not natural ability.
These findings translate into a message of hope for all of us; Ericsson believed that we really can achieve most things that we set our minds to, as long as we pursue it the right way. He had a vision of “a society of people who recognize that they can control their development and understand how to do it,” and believed that “we need to get the message out: you can take charge of your own potential.” In Peak, he goes so far as to say that “in the broadest sense this is a book about a fundamentally new way of thinking about human potential, one that suggests we have far more power than we ever realized to take control of our own lives.”
While the principles he uncovered “were discovered by studying expert performers,” he writes, “the principles themselves can be used by anyone who wants to improve at anything, even if just a little bit.” I’m living proof of this: by the time I turned 27, my athletic abilities had steadily declined from the not-so-high peaks of my grade school chain crew days. As mentioned in the introduction, I had become a regular smoker, weighed 235 pounds (with hardly any muscle), and was beginning to feel the physical pain of my unhealthy habits.
While the principles he uncovered “were discovered by studying expert performers,” he writes, “the principles themselves can be used by anyone who wants to improve at anything, even if just a little bit.” I’m living proof of this: by the time I turned 27, my athletic abilities had steadily declined from the not-so-high peaks of my grade school chain crew days.
As mentioned in the introduction, I had become a regular smoker, weighed 235 pounds (with hardly any muscle), and was beginning to feel the physical pain of my unhealthy habits.
How the I GOT This Framework Impacts Practice
Personally, within three years of implementing the I GOT This framework (which is a framework for deliberate practice), I quit smoking, lost over 80 pounds, and completed my first Ironman triathlon.
Success isn’t just for those who are born with it and happiness isn’t hiding on the other side of achieving. Success is for anyone who knows the right way to practice and happiness comes from knowing you’re on the right path toward a worthy goal.