Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good advice for students

Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. His and his colleagues' work, as described in the New York Times, holds some lessons for any student:

Their work, compiled in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers -- whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming -- are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love -- because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

"I think the most general claim here," Ericsson says of his work, "is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it."
So often I've heard students say that they're "not good" at writing essays or at reading poetry, as if their present skills were beyond improving. The way to get better at these things, as I always say, is to work on them.

      » A Star Is Made, from the New York Times

comments: 2

Stefan Hagemann said...

While searching for a different one, I came across a comment by Thomas Jefferson that's relevant here: "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."

Phil said...

Bravo! My philosophy for life! I took piano lessons for close to 14 years. When I sit down to play the piano, or guitar people always try to tell me how talented I am. I usually respond by telling them that this "talent" came from years of practice. The person usually ignores this, preferring to chalk up my skill to "talent." I believe that people do this because as someone once said, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." People don't want to admit that greatness comes from hard work because they would then have to acknowledge the fact that they also have a responsibility to achieve greatness. Some people would rather go through life on autopilot and tell themselves that they aren't as talented, or gifted as the high achievers they see all around them. And as usual I agree with Ben Franklin. A quote similar to the one above me which I appreciate reads, "Luck is where opportunity meets Preparation."
Very good post!
Phil