If You Want Your Kids to Excel

Talent is overrated. What you need is hard work and dedication. At least this is the conclusion reached by Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated and by Malcom Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success. Both authors reach the counter-cultural conclusion that success, even for über-talents like Mozart or Tiger Woods, was not just the result of genetic lottery or divine inspiration, but the result of ten to twenty years of hard work. Most people that master their field started at a very young age, between three and six years old; their training was never mindless, but painstakingly focused.

For those parents who want their children to paint the walls of history in a chosen field, the message of these books draws the first strokes.

Lack of talent is no excuse. Anyone can achieve greatness in their chosen field, provided they practice, and practice deliberately for twenty years (Colvin) or 10,000 hours (Gladwell). Either ones does it a few hours a day, day in and day out, or one throws in the towel and gives Bartleby the Scrivener’s response: “I prefer not to.”

And the thing is, time is of the essence. In almost all cases of mastery of a field at young age, in fact, wunderkinds like Mozart and Tiger Woods have built up a nearly insurmountable “time in the saddle” advantage by starting their deliberate practice at three or four years of age.

What is deliberate practice, anyway? Colvin gives the example of a wannabe golfer, who heads to the practice range with his gear and a few hundred balls, and spends a few hours hitting them one after the other, hoping thus to improve his game. Sorry but no cheese. This is what most of us do, and it simply does not work.

Deliberate practice is what Tiger Woods would do in the same situation. Along with his gear and golf balls, he would bring in a coach and break down his swing in segments, and deliberately work on each segment to perfection, with his coach analyzing each attempt and suggesting improvements before the next one. For hours, sometimes days, on end.

If it sounds like a painful activity, it is. That’s why most people won’t do it. It’s a matter of the will, and most people are simply not trained to train their will, and thus slip quietly into mediocrity.

How does talent fit in all this? Or passion? They are the first cause. Without passion or a modicum of talent for a subject, people will simply not subject themselves to the twenty years of painful dedication it takes to master any field, whether it be computer programming, writing, music, or golfing.

Interestingly enough, too much talent can even be an impediment, if it leads the practitioner to overlook deliberate practice. It’s not infrequent to see less flashy artists or sports players outlast the hyper talented ones whose short careers reflect the unwillingness to subject themselves to the dire requirements of deliberate practice.

What’s the lesson? The lesson is that, if you want your kids to excel in an endeavor they like, dabbling with it is just not enough. They have to practice hard and deliberately. For a long time.

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