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How ‘Talented’ Is This Kid?

A while ago, we wrote a New York Times Magazine column about talent — what it is, how it’s acquired, etc. The gist of the column was that “raw talent,” as it’s often called, is vastly overrated, and that people who become very good at something, whether it’s sports, music, or medicine, generally do so through a great deal of “deliberate practice,” a phrase used by the Florida State psychologist Anders Ericsson and his merry band of fellow scholars who study expert performers in many fields.

As we wrote, there are at least three key elements to deliberate practice:

1. Setting specific goals.
2. Obtaining immediate feedback.
3. Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.

I thought of No. 3 the other day while reading an article about a young baseball pitcher from Lubbock, Tex., Garrett Williams, who in a Little League World Series game struck out all 17 of the batters that he retired. Only a pitch-count rule prevented him from facing and potentially striking out all 18 batters (Little League games are 6 innings long). When asked if he was aware of his strikeout count, here’s what Williams told the reporter:

“No sir, I don’t worry about stuff like that … I just concentrate on the mitt and try to get the batter out.”

Sounds like Williams depends on more than just “raw talent.” This probably bodes well for his potential as a baseball player. I haven’t seen any data on the subject except for this, but from everything I’ve read and heard, there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation between success in Little League and success in the majors. Kids who are big and strong and fast are likely to do well at a young age; but it’s the kids who engage in deliberate practice who are likely to make a career of it. So while Williams may be just another “talented” 12-year-old, he also sounds like the kind of kid who turns into Roger Clemens.

In related news, an e-mail happened to arrive yesterday in the Freakonomics in-box from one John DePalma with a couple of interesting writings in the Anders Ericsson school of expertise: an essay by Michael Mauboussin of Legg Mason on “experts” and financial markets; and a chapter from a CIA monograph about the power and paradox of expertise.