True greatness is rare, but almost impossible not to miss. Once in a lifetime we come face-to-face with individuals whose godlike-genius leaves us awestruck. It exists in John Coltrane’s almost-religious ‘sheets of sound’, Senna’s obscene horsepower and the way Simone Biles flies higher and faster than anyone else in the arena. But what is it that makes these world-class experts great? According to psych journalist Martin Gladwell, anyone can achieve expert proficiency in any given field, following an average of ten-thousand hours of guided practice. This principle was labelled the ‘ten-thousand-hour rule’, and explored in Gladwell’s seminal book ‘Outliers’. At the heart of his concept, was the idea that practice is crucial towards mastery of a given skill. Gladwell opens his argument with the story of the famous computer scientist Bill Joy, claiming that whilst Joy undoubtedly had a wealth of natural talent his success was rooted in extraordinary opportunity and thousands of hours of practice.
Dr. Brooke N. Macnamara
Practice is essential but what else matters?
Where Gladwell’s theory posed that practice can significantly shape the development of expertise, modern studies have found that hours of deliberate practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance. This was measured across fields that allow for talent to be easily measured including music, games, professions and sports. In light of these findings, researchers have turned their attention to the question, “what else matters?”.
A recent study published by Dr. Brooke N. Macnamara and her team at Princeton, propose that the science of success is a formula that involves the interplay of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of factors. A question of both nature and nurture, she suggests that professional mastery requires a combination of genes, environment, tireless practice and passion. We sat down with the professor and athletes and musicians who have reached the top of their game to explore the complexity of human performance and the factors that are important for expertise.
(Left- Maud Le Car, professional surfer. Photography: Tyler Walker )
Dr. Brooke N. Macnamara
The definition of an expert, most people would agree, is that it’s rare. That’s what makes it intriguing. Not everyone will be LeBron James, not everyone will be Tiger Woods, not everyone will be Serena Williams. Even with lots and lots of practice.
We are all born different, with a unique talents, differences and hard-wired genetic behaviours. Whilst practice is undeniably important, no-one is born with the strength and agility of a prima ballerina or the ability to score a symphony, Gladwell’s theory fails to recognise the importance of our inherited characteristics and individual differences. Studies involving child prodigies and athletes suggests that our genes do contribute to the innate talent that these children show at such an early ages. Not only do they contribute to physical traits that are important in sport such as height, muscle twitch speed or the strength of connectivity tissue, our genes also contribute to cognitive abilities; including traits like memory, emotional response and problem solving.
TBE : What do you think of the idea that it takes a minimum of ten-thousand hours for anyone to master an instrument?
Sarah Chang : I think with 10,000 hours you can probably become good enough at something but I think the word mastering is probably used loosely when it comes to that. I’ve probably driven 10,000 hours but, I’m still the world’s lousiest driver. I walk, I run, I workout, I’m still not and expert. So no, I really do believe a huge percent of that is the talent that you’re born with.
TBE : When was it that you realised that you had a special talent for playing?
S : I grew up with people saying I was talented but never really feeling it. I made my New York Philharmonic debut aged 8, then I made my first record when I was 9, and all of a sudden I had all of these agents representing me. It was becoming a business, and when it started becoming more than just fun, I think that was when it struck me.
TBE : There is quite a history of musical talent in your family, did you play together at home?
S : No, no, that’s such a bad idea! At the beginning they did try to teach me and, as with any parent and any child learning from a parent will probably tell you it’s a bad idea. Just for the sake of peace in the household, we decided pretty early on that we were going to separate family and work. So aged 5, my dad sent me to his teacher who was Dorothy DeLay at the time. Then after a few months, I auditioned for and earned a place at Julliard when I was 6.
Tom Chilton, British World Touring Car Driver
Passion is a very big word for me.
Whilst we might not all have the genetic ability to be a legendary athlete, if passion exists, and we are given the opportunity to flourish, it is entirely possible to reach a high level of proficiency. If you are trying to push yourself, or a child, to become the next LeBron James or Yoyo Ma, and that’s not where their talent lies, you are setting yourself up for a failure. Dr. Macnamara explains that if we stop treating people like ‘blank slates that can be moulded and categorised’ and start acting on our passion and natural talent, we are much more likely to start to seeing results. Speaking from the heart, British racing car driver Tom Chilton explains that passion is essential for anyone hoping to reach a professional standard.
Tom Chilton is a British World Touring Car driver. At 19 he was the youngest race winner and has since gone on to take 12 wins, 45 podiums, the manufacturers title and the 2010 BTCC Independent Championship. In 2016 he joined forces with Sébastien Loeb Racing and in 2017 Tom secured the WTCC Trophy and also managed to finish the highest of any independent in WTCC history. @tomchilton
TBE : You seem very passionate about racing.
T : Passion is a very big word for me, and I think most racing drivers are very, very passionate people. You need to love cars, you need to love the sport to get the most out of it. Because when you want to know everything about your sport, it’s very different from somebody teaching you for 10,000 hours. I can teach somebody about a car but you can’t teach that feeling you get when you’re driving it. Your performance, as much as you can teach somebody this in 10,000 hours, the last few tens of seconds of each lap comes down to natural talent and wanting to be the best, which comes from passion. I disagree with 10,000 hours. I think anybody can get very good, but you’ll never be a professional unless you’ve got natural talent and really want it.
TBE : Some of your races are up to 10 hours long, how do you keep focused?
Tom Chilton : When you’re in the zone you just want it so badly, everything else becomes irrelevant. You’re just there in the car with your helmet on focusing on the next corner, the next gear change, your next break point, your next overtake, that’s all you’re thinking about. You’re not thinking about anything else. And when you stop, you get out of the car and then go ‘oh my god I’m exhausted’ how the hell did I just do that.
TBE : What kind of things do you think you need to succeed in a race like that?
T : Good concentration levels. You can’t afford to just relax on one corner. You’ve got to be very calm as well as fiery, it’s a really hard combination. You’ve also go to be calculated and have a little bit of aggression when you go to make a move on somebody. You have to think about where they’re slower than you, where their car is not quite as good or they’re not quite as good as you. Then when you do move you can’t be too forceful otherwise you damage your car. So it’s a very fine line actually. It’s very hard to find the right combination of everything. I’m quite a calm guy and I’m very calculated when I’m on circuit. I think that’s why I’m fairly good. I don’t lose my shit.
Dr. Brooke N. Macnamara
It depends on what country you’re born in, certain countries have a focus types of talent that they develop. The Dominican Republic for example has a lot of baseball players. The country is focused on that as a priority and develop more talent that way.
Whilst genes play a huge role, they aren’t the whole story. The country or household we are born into and the way we interact with the world around us affects the way natural talents are built upon. The most common equation for success is when a person who has a certain amount of inherited talent and was raised in a household that surrounds them with the literature, opportunity and inspiration to let them flourish. This is why certain professions tend to run in the family because the parents have created a home environment that is reflective of their own heritable characteristics. Child prodigy and virtuoso violinist, Sarah Chang, explains that her mother, Myoung-Jun was a talented classical composer and her father, Min Soo Chang, played principal violin with the National Symphony Orchestra of Korea before they emigrated to the US. Although musical ability runs in her family, it was the access to her father’s music teacher and the wealth of musical knowledge she was surrounded by that helped her to tap into her potential.
TBE : Can you tell us about the environment that you grew up in? How do you think this influenced you in becoming a professional ballerina?
Jovanka Zarić : The environment that I grew up in is indicative of who I am today. Both of my parents helped and supported me to follow my talent. Although I was an excellent student at school and my professors persisted in telling my parents that I would be a great doctor, none of these subjects moved me. I was fascinated by science, but nothing could compare with the magic of the ballet world and my love for it. My father as a former professional basketball player and as a current tennis coach played a big role in me becoming a professional ballerina. The combination of my father’s athletic spirit and my mother’s artistic influence, created the perfect environment to grow up in. My family never forced me to become a ballerina, on the contrary they supported me towards my dreams.
TBE : When did you start practicing ballet?
J : I took my first steps into ballet when I was about three years old in my mother’s ballet school on the island of Kefalonia in Greece. My talent was recognized very early by her and by the international ballet examiners who visited every year. They saw that I was learning very fast, that I had the right body proportions, flexibility and musicality and I had passion for it. So, when I was fifteen years old, I was accepted after audition at the National Ballet School of Belgrade. Within two years I had graduated and was accepted at the National Theatre of Belgrade, where I continue to dance today as a soloist.
TBE : What would you say it takes to get to your level of skill and success in ballet?
J : First of all, I have to say that I am still very young and I have a lot to learn and achieve in the future. To succeed in the ballet world, you need talent, the right body proportions, musicality, expression, passion and a strong mind. Hard work, discipline and dedication are important too but, sometimes they are not enough. To succeed we also need luck, which means to meet the right people, at the right place and at the right moment.
Dr. Brooke N. Macnamara
It happens when the music teacher listens to you play and says, “Wow, I really think you have something, why don’t you join this jazz band?”
Although, many talented individuals refuse to let where they were born decide their future. Often, we recognise the areas that we naturally excel in and actively seek out the circumstances that enable us to improve; seeking out the music teacher, choosing a course of study or joining a sports team. Occasionally, an individual’s talent is recognised by their mentors, prompting them to reach out and provide the opportunity to develop their abilities. The incandescent genius Srinivasa Ramanujan is a real life example of such a story. Living hand-to-mouth with no formal education, this poor Indian clerk went on to develop theorems that have been matched in skill only by the heralded geniuses of mathematics. Romanticised on screen by the mentor-underprivileged genius relationship in ‘Good Will Hunting’, these stories of hidden genius are however are rare.
Dr. Macnamara explains ‘it happens when the music teacher listens to you play and says, “Wow, I really think you have something, why don’t you join this jazz band?”. Something so simple can set the course for the rest of your life. For Maud Le Car, her mother saw that she had a special talent for water-sports and helped create the environment and opportunity for her to become the professional athlete she is today.
TBE : When did you know you’d found the right fit with surfing?
Maud Le Car : My mother saw that I loved being in the sea and had a talent for water sports so, she decided that we were going to train in everything until we found the best fit. We started first with bodyboarding and then wake boarding and then we tried surfing. My mother and my brother came with me, we all started surfing together. I think I fell in love with the sport right with the first wave I rode. I knew that I had found my special thing. I keep surfing because it’s what I love the most and I am so grateful that it has all worked out. Ever since that first wave I dreamt of becoming a professional surfer.
TBE : So is there a history of sporting talent in your family?
M : Not really, my family are more artists, a lot of painters. My mum is a painter, grandma was a painter, everyone paints.
TBE : Do you ever feel like you want to give up?
M : Yeah I think when you’re doing something like everyday and it becomes your job you get tired, You get bored even if it’s your passion because you do it everyday. I think if you’re lucky enough to have a passion as your job then you have to remember why you started and remind yourself of the dream. Sometimes I have to think back to when I was 12 years old, when I was just working hard for common provisional and then I remember my passion and don’t give up sight of what I’m working for. For me surfing is my whole life, I don’t count the hours I spend in the water or waiting for a specific thing, I do it with my heart. It’s the thing that makes me most happy so, I give all my heart and soul into my surfing and becoming the best I can be.