It is now conclusive that talent is created, not innate. At first glance, this can be a hard pill to swallow. But current research bears this out. Those considered elite have engaged in specific activities and types of practice that changed parts of their brain, creating a level of ability that did not exist prior.
In most cases, these peak performers began engaging in this type of training in childhood. While it is true the brain is more malleable, or plastic, during development, these neuroplastic changes are possible throughout one’s lifetime. However, to achieve these neurological changes requires following the principles of what is known as deliberate practice.
The Three Types of Practice
There are three main types of practice: ordinary, or naïve practice, purposeful practice, and deliberate practice. Ordinary practice consists of developing a basic level of skill in a task or activity and then engaging in this activity in a rote manner, such as learning how to play basketball or tennis at an adequate level and then just playing games repeatedly.
The notion that if you just keep working harder, and for a long enough period of time, you will excel is a myth. In fact, actual research shows just the opposite. In a study assessing the skills of physicians who had been in the field for several decades versus first and second year doctors, those who had only a couple years of experience outperformed their seasoned colleagues.
You Can Get Worse Over Time
There are a couple of reasons for these findings. The first is the brain, and body’s, desire for homeostasis on a cellular level. Once you have reached a level of skill that has become automatic, and you are no longer challenging yourself, your system will attempt to maintain the status quo, which will result in a progressive degeneration of your skills.
Another factor is due to the continued reinforcement of incorrect behavioral patterns, which will result in lowered performance over time. Take golf for an example. An amateur golfer goes to the range and tries to hit a bucket of balls. He occasionally hits a good shot. But more often than not he pulls and hooks the ball off of his intended target.
Over a period of time, he is able to hit a small percentage of shots accurately. However, he never works on practicing particular aspects of a technically sound golf swing, which results in inconsistent results. Furthermore, he reinforces bad habits over time as these become neurological patterns.
A more effective means of skill acquisition is purposeful practice. There are four main characteristics of purposeful practice:
- It has well-defined, specific goals – it is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal. The key is to take the general goal – get better – and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.
- It is focused – you must give the task your full attention
- It involves feedback – you have to know whether you are doing something right and, if not, how you’re going wrong. Without feedback – either from yourself or from outside observers – you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals.
- It requires getting outside of one’s comfort zone – this is perhaps the most important part of purposeful practice. This is the fundamental truth about any sort of practice: if you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.
Purposeful practice is a giant leap beyond naïve practice. Moreover, following these principles will begin to make neurological changes allowing you to increase your ability in the area you are attempting to acquire skill.
Changing Your Brain Through Experiences
The brain has limited resources. And when it comes to allocating its biological assets, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Numerous studies have shown how certain brain regions associated with various activity grow in size to accommodate the demand for that endeavor.
One groundbreaking study was performed on aspiring London cabbies. The researchers measured the size of the hippocampi, the region the brain stores explicit memory, of a group of individuals attempting to obtain their license to be a London cab drivers. London does not have an organized street system like New York or Los Angeles. It requires a great deal of memorization of the city streets that resemble a labyrinth more than a modern city.
The Key is Neuroplasticity
Those who eventually became cabbies, and those who did not, initially exhibited the same size hippocampus. However, those who were successful in receiving their licenses displayed larger size hippocampi at the end of their training. This was one of the first studies that empirically showed engaging in practice following the guidelines that lead to neuroplasticity actually change the brains structure to then create the ability one did not have prior.
Additional studies from various fields, such as music, mathematics, and athletics have all shown the same results: the brain will change itself structurally to meet the demand of what you are attempting to do if you adhere to the tenants of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice takes purposeful practice a step further. Deliberate practice is characterized by the following traits:
- Deliberate practice develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established. The practice regimen should be designed and overseen by a teacher or coach who is familiar with the abilities of expert performers and with how those abilities can best be developed.
- Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.
- Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.
- Deliberate practice is deliberate, that is, requires a person’s full attention and conscious actions. It isn’t enough to simply follow a coach’s direction. The student must concentrate on the specific goal for his or her practice activity so that adjustments can be made to control practice.
- Deliberate practice involves feedback and modification of efforts in response to that feedback. Early in the training process much of the feedback will come from the teacher or coach, who will monitor progress, point out problems, and offer ways to address those problems. With time and experience students must learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly. Such self-monitoring requires effective mental representations.
- Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations. Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more. Mental representations make it possible to monitor how one is doing, both in practice and in actual performance.
- Deliberate practice nearly always involves building or modifying previously acquired skills by focusing on particular aspects of those skills and working to improve them specifically; over time this step-by-step improvement will eventually lead to expert performance.
Talent Is The Starting Point
The verdict is now in – talent is created. This is a paradigm shift when it comes to peak performance. This levels the playing field for all of us. According to the research, there are no chosen few. Of course, there are certain limitations such as height and various physical attributes. But the majority of skills can be developed through neuroplasticity, which will allow you to reach the level of performance you aspire to. The gift we all have is the ability to develop the gift. If you are willing to put in the hours and follow the principles of deliberate practice, you too can become elite.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.