Talent, hard work, and superstars

Jonah Lehrer attributes success to grit and “deliberate practice” rather than talent:

The first thing Duckworth, et. al. discovered is that deliberate practice works. Those kids who spent more time in deliberate practice mode – this involved studying and memorizing words while alone, often on note cards – performed much better at the competition than those children who were quizzed by others or engaged in leisure reading. The bad news is that deliberate practice isn’t fun and was consistently rated as the least enjoyable form of self-improvement. Nevertheless, as spellers gain experience, they devote increasing amounts of time to deliberate practice. This suggests that even twelve year olds realize that this is what makes them better, that success isn’t easy.

I found this message appealing and, to a certain degree, intuitive. Not too surprising that strenuous, repeated hard work is necessary for success. Malcolm Gladwell even wrote an entire book about theme a few years ago.

My biggest problem with studies like these (and I’ve looked at a few) is their focus on superstars. Yes, it’s true that the Mozarts and Michael Jordans of the world worked incredibly hard over their entire lives. But not everyone is going to be the spelling bee champion, or even compete at the national stage. For these people, the moderately successful, I’m not sure we can conclude anything from Lehrer’s post. The pretty good but not quite super-awesome may be able to get by on talent alone.


  1. How about the millions of kids who result in “Tiger Mom” parenting? That is pretty much based on this formula of deliberate practice as instilled by their parents. I think those kids are seldom superstars (a la Mozart and Michael Jordan) but are definitely “average bright” (a phrase I co-opted from my high school chemistry teacher).

    1. Hey I-Chant! Good point. I had totally forgotten about the tiger moms out there! And I love your “average bright” phrase. I think I’ve used it several times without giving you (or your high school chemistry teacher) credit:)

  2. What about all those who don’t have raw talent at their disposal (either to hone by deliberate practice or to not hone and rely solely on)? For them, the alternative forms of practice may be much more beneficial than deliberate practice. Being quizzed by others or “reading for pleasure” could contribute to success and provide additional useful skills (besides just being really good at memorization and rote learning) while not beinging entirely de-motivating, as I could see deliberate practice being for many children and even adults.

    PS Are there links for the Jonah Lehrer and Duckworth pieces?

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