Pursuing Greatness: Do We Need Talent, Practice, or Both

Hard work is necessary for greatness. Is it sufficient?

Posted Apr 22, 2011

Does greatness require talent or is it all about hard work? This question is just as difficult as it is important. Which is why The Dan Plan is a great idea.

There are two camps. According to the Rocky Balboa school of thought, becoming an expert is all about hard work. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, has shown convincingly that you can separate the good from the great based on hours spent doing deliberate practice--that is, working to improve one's skills. His data show convincingly that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become an expert. 

But there's also the Luke Skywalker school of thought: Inborn talent gets you to the top. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that talent is overrated, and that we tend to underestimate the importance of training and our environment.

Here's the problem: There's a difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. Lettuce is necessary to make a BLT, but it's not sufficient. You need other ingredients. Similarly, deliberate practice is necessary for greatness. But do you need other ingredients? Maybe you need practice and talent to be great. (I think you probably need both to become great at basketball.)

Are All Experts Talented?

The existing evidence doesn't address whether practice is sufficient. For example, a seminal study showed that you can predict high-level violinists' skill level based on the hours they've spent practicing. But how many people who are terrible at something dedicate their lives to it? Probably not many. It's very hard to measure talent, but it seems likely that all of the violinists in the study were talented. (Also, some would argue that the ability to engage in extensive deliberate practice--which isn't fun--is a talent in itself.) The question is, can someone who lacks talent become great?

Deliberate practice researchers, therefore, need a new kind of experimental subjects: People without talent who will volunteer to spend 10,000 hours (about 10 years) practicing. If they can become great, deliberate practice is all you need (it's necessary and sufficient). But if they falter, then maybe deliberate practice is not sufficient; maybe talent matters too.

The Dan Plan

And this is why The Dan Plan is so awesome. Dan is a photographer who decided to quit his day job and become a great golfer. He's not particularly gifted physically and when he started his project he had never picked up a club. In other words, he's not talented. But he has dedicated himself to practicing golf for 10,000 hours. He's over 1,400 already. Crucially, he's not playing golf, he's practicing, which is a pivotal distinction. 

Of course, Dan is just a man with a plan. What we really need is a Dan Army--a whole group of volunteers who will try what he's trying. If Dan (and his Army) succeed, it's all about practice. If not, it's about talent and practice. 

Dan's goal is to make the PGA tour, which is quite different from merely becoming an expert. Can he do it? As one of the untalented masses, I'm pulling for him. 

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