Do You Know Why You Are Good at What You Do?

Our new “Freakonomics” column in the New York Times Magazine asks a fundamental — but very hard – question: When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good?

To find the answer to this question, we turned to Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the ringleader of what might be called the Expert Performance Movement. Ericsson and his colleagues have spent years trying to figure out how the best pianists, golfers, soccer players, surgeons, writers, stockbrokers, and chess players in the world got so good. How far can talent take you? What role does selection play – and how about practice?

For me at least, this was easily one of the funnest columns we’ve written. Child car seats and crack cocaine and NASCAR crashes may be sexier subjects, but to me the issues of talent vs. skill vs. environment are fundamentally fascinating. And the implications of Ericsson’s work are very broad. As always, we’ve posted some complementary materials, including a few papers by Ercisson and others working in the field.


jglickman

Conventional wisdom and lots of quotes by famous people have said that talent only takes you so far, practice makes perfect or it's the hungrier team that wins, wouldn't it be really funny if they were all wrong and it turns out that the only thing that matters is genetics? lol.

Hootsbuddy

Nice work.

I am reminded of a matrix I heard about years ago referring to "conscious competence" and "unconscious competence" having to do with employee motivation. Works okay as an occasional tool, but I ran into problems dealing with a few people who were incompetent but thought otherwise.

Almost as frustrating are those who are extremely competent but for some reason are reluctant to come to terms with their leadership potential.

Siwi

It is a complex question composed of genetics, environment being brought up especially the family and school...

smili

There is a real world test of investing experts going on now at http://www.marketocracy.com/ . I've done well with my tests and am applying them now, but there are investors there generating returns that I could only wish to approach.

Here's one of my amateur entries http://www.marketocracy.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Portfolio.woa/ps/FundPublicPage/source=IiBoBmMeDlBfFcBkMaKiAbOa

And a second that utilizes a more aggressive sell strategy http://www.marketocracy.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Portfolio.woa/ps/FundPublicPage/source=GoMoCiPiDpDpKoEoMaKiAbDe

Based on what I've seen I'm convinced that it's possible to beat the market by wide margins, and am confounded on why so much of the scientific literature doesn't show it. Perhaps not focusing so much on professionals will reveal something different?

I don't know if the owners of the site share data with researchers, but there are funds there that demolish market averages and will certainly make an onlooker wonder why there's such skepticism to market beating returns.

Many of the superior performances have been turned in by funds targeting sectors (energy has done very well over several years), or target small to very small companies - companies with little interest by larger investors. But there seems to be something significant here that the academic community is missing.

All imho, but I do tire of seeing Warren Buffet or Peter Lynch dismissed as a statistical outlier.

Read more...

jgans

Fascinating article. I became curious about the soccer birthday statistics and looked up the Australian team because they would be influenced by a Southern hemisphere sports season.

I posted the results at coreecon.blogspot.com (along with some other thoughts). The interesting things is that there is a dip in birthday from Apr-June; a six month difference from the German case. Of course, they are a much better team!

vard

IJWTS that I guessed *immediately* that it was about birth-date cutoffs! This may be the only time in my life that I will ever be intuitively correct about anything.

cbharat

Another potential reason: Kids born early in the year initally outplay their peers simply by virtue of their size. This gives them self-confidence and an increased interest in playing because they are *talented*. This positive feedback cycle becomes stronger and stronger every year they are in school.

Trent

Very interesting article, but strongly disagree with the conclusion that the implication is that children should be encouraged to specialize at an earlier age. My daughter, who is 4, is interested in art and her work is somewhat better than that of her peers. Should we now focus her education more exclusively on art? Of course not. She has not yet been exposed to a myriad of other skill sets that she may find even more interesting than art. You would not draw conclusions from a sample set of three data points, so why should I try to influence my child toward the skillset she likes best after being exposed to three when exposure to hundreds would create a more valid assessment of her true interests?

On the other hand, Mozart was writing symphonies by the time he was my daughter's age. If she was clearly that far ahead in a potential skill I would by no means stand in her way. If I saw a six-year-old who was consistently beating the bigger kids at soccer, I would allow that child to focus on an area in which he clearly had greater potential than most.

It is just not something I would suggest be made into policy - it has to be approached on a case by case basis.

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Westy

I would encourage you to examine Jon Entine's work examining the influence of genetics on sports.

The conclusion that due to the larger presence of early birth months in soccer does little to prove that genetics has no basis in determining good athletes. It can be presumed that say 5% of the kids born each month have what it takes to become soccer stars. Some of those 5% do make the effort to play soccer, and in their early years, the members of the 5% born in the early months have quite an advantage due to their size. Thus, their interest is reinforced and they end up beating out the similarly talented late month athletes. The late month athletes eventually give up the sport due to their interest not being reinforced.

Overall the conclusion that genetics has little to do with success is shaky, in my opinion. Potentially careers or professions for which a majority of the population has the physical and mental skills but maybe not the interest to do fit this argument. But for most careers we think of as elite, I don't think this is the case. No matter how much practice they do, the 50% of the population who are under the median height have an infinitesimal chance of making the NBA. Could you become the next Lance Armstrong if you just set your mind to it? Not a chance, due to his genetically larger lung capacity. Unless you hit the genetic lottery, most elite sports opportunities are nill. Any given person who is not a genius has basically zero chance of becoming a chess grandmaster. And this carries over to most elite physical and mental careers.

The bottom line is that there certainly is some component of both environmental influence and genetics. MJ wouldn't have been the player he was if he hadn't practiced as much as he did, certainly. But he was already 6'6" and able to jump over 40" no matter what he did. The overwhelming factor for determining a person's performance ceiling seems to be their genetics.

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minderbender

"But keep practicing: a child conceived on this Sunday in early May would probably be born by next February, giving you a considerably better chance of watching the 2030 World Cup from the family section."

I love the implication that what you really need to be doing is getting it on. No arguments here. If this guy is right, though, you should get a lot of feedback from your lover if you want to become/remain an expert.

salekson

Its quite interesting article and seems to support/articulate common wisdom with evidence. About the "deliberate practice", I could think of a recent experience with my son's attempt to improve his SAT scores. Over the time, he was able to improve the score by 200 points using on-line practice tests. Come to think of the experience, it sure involved "deliberate practice": Immediate feedback (practice scores are known immediately) and setting specific goals (analyzing previous scores and high lighting weak areas)

billy tsigginakis

First, practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. The extension of this is that practicing something wrong makes one really good at doing things wrong. This is why quality teachers are absolutely required.

Second, Bob Dylan is not tone deaf. His voice may be grating at times, but this says nothing about perfect pitch. A song like "Lay Lady Lay" proves the man can sing. Further, a close listening to anything he has done will confirm that he is not off pitch. I don't know if Mr. Dylan has perfect pitch (the ability of a person to identify or recreate a musical note without the benefit of a known reference), but I would guess he probably does.

As an aside, if you would like to determine if you have perfect pitch, sing the opening notes of your favorite song, then while singing, play the CD. If you are in tune with the tune, you probably have perfect pitch (I unfortunately am usually about 1/4 tone sharp).

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jglickman

Conventional wisdom and lots of quotes by famous people have said that talent only takes you so far, practice makes perfect or it's the hungrier team that wins, wouldn't it be really funny if they were all wrong and it turns out that the only thing that matters is genetics? lol.

Hootsbuddy

Nice work.

I am reminded of a matrix I heard about years ago referring to "conscious competence" and "unconscious competence" having to do with employee motivation. Works okay as an occasional tool, but I ran into problems dealing with a few people who were incompetent but thought otherwise.

Almost as frustrating are those who are extremely competent but for some reason are reluctant to come to terms with their leadership potential.

Siwi

It is a complex question composed of genetics, environment being brought up especially the family and school...

smili

There is a real world test of investing experts going on now at http://www.marketocracy.com/ . I've done well with my tests and am applying them now, but there are investors there generating returns that I could only wish to approach.

Here's one of my amateur entries http://www.marketocracy.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Portfolio.woa/ps/FundPublicPage/source=IiBoBmMeDlBfFcBkMaKiAbOa

And a second that utilizes a more aggressive sell strategy http://www.marketocracy.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/Portfolio.woa/ps/FundPublicPage/source=GoMoCiPiDpDpKoEoMaKiAbDe

Based on what I've seen I'm convinced that it's possible to beat the market by wide margins, and am confounded on why so much of the scientific literature doesn't show it. Perhaps not focusing so much on professionals will reveal something different?

I don't know if the owners of the site share data with researchers, but there are funds there that demolish market averages and will certainly make an onlooker wonder why there's such skepticism to market beating returns.

Many of the superior performances have been turned in by funds targeting sectors (energy has done very well over several years), or target small to very small companies - companies with little interest by larger investors. But there seems to be something significant here that the academic community is missing.

All imho, but I do tire of seeing Warren Buffet or Peter Lynch dismissed as a statistical outlier.

Read more...

jgans

Fascinating article. I became curious about the soccer birthday statistics and looked up the Australian team because they would be influenced by a Southern hemisphere sports season.

I posted the results at coreecon.blogspot.com (along with some other thoughts). The interesting things is that there is a dip in birthday from Apr-June; a six month difference from the German case. Of course, they are a much better team!

vard

IJWTS that I guessed *immediately* that it was about birth-date cutoffs! This may be the only time in my life that I will ever be intuitively correct about anything.

cbharat

Another potential reason: Kids born early in the year initally outplay their peers simply by virtue of their size. This gives them self-confidence and an increased interest in playing because they are *talented*. This positive feedback cycle becomes stronger and stronger every year they are in school.

Trent

Very interesting article, but strongly disagree with the conclusion that the implication is that children should be encouraged to specialize at an earlier age. My daughter, who is 4, is interested in art and her work is somewhat better than that of her peers. Should we now focus her education more exclusively on art? Of course not. She has not yet been exposed to a myriad of other skill sets that she may find even more interesting than art. You would not draw conclusions from a sample set of three data points, so why should I try to influence my child toward the skillset she likes best after being exposed to three when exposure to hundreds would create a more valid assessment of her true interests?

On the other hand, Mozart was writing symphonies by the time he was my daughter's age. If she was clearly that far ahead in a potential skill I would by no means stand in her way. If I saw a six-year-old who was consistently beating the bigger kids at soccer, I would allow that child to focus on an area in which he clearly had greater potential than most.

It is just not something I would suggest be made into policy - it has to be approached on a case by case basis.

Read more...