Posts tagged deliberate practice

The Making of a Genius: Required Ingredients

What goes into the making of a genius? More mundanely, what factors are required for success in any field? Your answer will differ based on what factors you consider to be the most important for success.

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by...

Photo of the obverse of a Fields Medal made by Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU), showing a bas relief of Archimedes (as identified by the Greek text) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one can deny the large role that intelligence and talent play in the making of a genius, or to achieve moderate levels of success compared to peers. We can probably club these two factors together as ability, that is more or less inborn, and is not very easy to increase or amenable to interventions.

Let me be a be it more specific. I consider ability to be made of two components: specific talent in a particular domain, say singing talent or mathematical talent; and fluid intelligence, or the ability to solve problems in real time using cognitive resources like working memory and typically measured by IQ. While talent is domain specific, fluid intelligence is domain general, but both will be required to be successful in a domain. Intelligence (fluid) will enable one to learn at an exceptional rate and also to learn form ones mistakes and improve.

Both talent and intelligence have been shown to explain up to 50 % of variance, in say, academic performance. Thus they are definitely required to achieve extraordinary success/ genius.

However, another stream of research informs us that putting in 10,000 hours or more of deliberate practice is what does the magic. As per research by Andres Ericsson and colleagues to achieve and expertise in any domain you need 10,000 hours or more of focused, deliberate practice. Here two things are important to note:  you are not putting in brute force efforts blindly, but following a process of deliberate practice (picking up a weakness, working on it constantly to improve soliciting feedback etc) and the second is that you do put in more than 10,000 hours of such efforts to attain some expertise and then again 10,000 hours more to achieve genius level expertise.

Thus, one can subsume these factors under the common label effort: comprising of a daily ritual of deliberate practice or Riyaaz or smart efforts; and a long term fruits of putting in 10,000 or 20,000 hrs of such efforts in the form of expertise or domain specific crystallized intelligence.

Both indulging in deliberate practice daily and building expertise by putting in the required hours are correlated with genius level expert performance or success.  In more mundane terms, if you really want to make contributions to mathematics such that they deserve a Fields Medal, you need to systematically work on which areas of Maths need improving and actually spend hours daily honing your maths skills for a few years before hoping to get one.

and of course as Angela Duckworth says, talent * effort = skill and skill* effort = performance, so effort counts twice and is an important determinant of success.

But this brings us to the question is effort same as grit, another factor that has been shown to predict success/ achievement/ genius?

While to the naive mind they may appear same; to me effort is willingness and ability to work smart and work hard; while grit is more about being passionate about a particular super-ordinate goal and getting back on track and showing persistence in the face of setbacks/ adversity.

And of course another personality factor or character strength that is similarly predictive of success is self-control. Self-control is the ability to resist temptations and forego pleasure-in-the-now for gains-in-the-future. It reliably predicts success in many domains and is domain general trait.  Grit however is more domain specific. Also while Self-control works on a shorter time scale, Girt works on a longer time scale.

Both can be subsumed under goal-commitment: a in the moment domain general self control factor and a long term domain specific grit factor.

And this brings us to the final set of factors which are equally important for success: enjoying and being engrossed in what you are doing and being curious/exploratory about the things you don’t know/ haven’t experienced yet. These are emotional-motivational processes that ensure that you actually do put in the efforts required to meet the goal commitments and to actualize your ability.

Recent research has shown that a hungry mind is very important for predicting academic success. This hungry mind is conceptualized as intellectual curiosity. Curiosity as initially defined by Todd Kashadan et al was comprised of Exploration (or Curiosity as they define now per se) and Absorption. Later Todd et al have disowned absorption as a part of curiosity, and they are right to do so, but given the high correlations between  absorption and exploration, I think they were on to something. Important for us is to remember that curiosity or the appetitive strivings for novelty, complexity,uncertainty and ambiguity; and Absorption or flow or full engagement in specific activities, taken together are again strong predictors of success/ achievement.

Thus, we have a fourth big factor predicting and causing success, viz Engagement: one sub-factor of which is a domain/ task specific flow or absorption and the other a domain general or task independent curiosity or love of learning or intrinsic motivation.

With that we can probably summarize the ingredients required to make a genius:

  1. Ability, both talent and intelligence
  2. Effort, both daily deliberate practice and 10,000 hours of expertise
  3. Goal commitment, both self control and grit
  4. Engagement, flow as well as curiosity

As an aside, this fits my ABCD model: Engagement or flow/curiosity are Affective in nature; Effort is Behavioral; Ability (intelligence) I consider as Cognitive and goal-commitment as Dynamic/motivational.

So, what are you going to do different to achieve extraordinary performance after having learned this? Will you work on your curiosity, put in more hours of deliberate practice , ensure you are feeling flow and absorption or work or your self-control muscle. There are many paths to greatness, and you can choose to focus on one or more to take you where you need to be!

Practicing deliberately for excellence


Malcolm Gladwell had popularized the ‘10,000 hour’ rule to expertise in his popular book ‘Outliers’. As per his formulation, anyone who puts in 10,000 hours of effort could excel in a particular field. What one required was determination and raw effort. He had based these conclusions on the work of Anders Ericsson and colleagues and now Anders Ericsson (with Robert Pool) in his new book ‘Peak’ has tried to clear the muddied waters surrounding the 10,000 hour rule.

You can read an excerpt from peak here , where Anders himself clarifies that it doesn’t necessarily take 10,000 hours to develop expertise- for some it takes longer while for others it is much lesser. Also that the number of hours required varies form domain to domain;  and that for exceptional performance you may need another additional 10,000 hours; he adds all that nuance but the most important caveat is that not any effort will do, it has to be 10,000 or more hours of ‘deliberate practice‘.

So what is ‘deliberate practice’ and how does it differ form mere blind efforts? As Scott Barry Kaufman brilliantly explains in this article:

Deliberate practice involves a series of techniques designed to learn efficiently and purposefully. This involves goal setting, breaking down complex tasks into chunks, developing highly complex and sophisticated representations of possible scenarios, getting out of your comfort zone, and receiving constant feedback.

And this is over and above purposeful practice , which again is a different beast from mere effort or repetition and involves, well-defined specific goals, focused efforts, , feedback and getting out of one’s comfort zones. Add to that specialized learning (and teaching) techniques available in a field, learning from a coach or mentor to constantly push oneself beyond one’s limits, the use of mental representations and  conscious and intentional improvement efforts and you have a perfect recipe for deliberate practice.

However, important caveats apply.  Deliberate practice is useful/ applicable only in highly specialized domains (what a downer!).

But as they note midway through their book — and I believe this is a really important caveat— the techniques of deliberate practice are most applicable to “highly developed fields” such as chess, sports, and musical performance in which the rules of the domain are well established and passed on from generation to generation. The principles of deliberate practice do not work nearly as well for professions in which there is “little or no direct competition, such as gardening and other hobbies”, and “many of the jobs in today’s workplace– business manager, teacher, electrician, engineer, consultant, and so on.”

Important points to note here: for most messy fields, like say expertise in psychology, the 10,000 hours rule may not apply as there are no clear techniques for being a  better psychologist that one can learn from a  coach/ mentor and improve by getting instant feedback on one’s skill as a psychologist – so there is little room for deliberate practice…..moreover deliberate practice as I understand applies more to development of skills and not so much to knowledge, so many academic disciplines will likely remain out of its ambit.

I myself have been guilty of wrongly understanding and applying the 10,000 hour rule- my about page proudly proclaims that I have developed expertise in psychology by the hard way- by putting in more than 10,000 hours of self-study- however as long as the 10,000 hour is rightly applicable to domains in which one can learn under the guidance of a coach and consciously keep improving and pushing limits, my 10,000 hours of self study is unlikely to make me an expert or anything like that as per the research is concerned.

However, I can think of one example from my life where I did indulge in deliberate practice. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, it was while preparing for a high stakes educational assessment called JEE (entrance test of IITs‘), and this may be applicable to other high stake testing like GRE/GMAT /SAT also.

One can consider the final exam / test as a performance and all the prior preparation like mock tests etc as practice. Now, I used to study in  a coaching class under the guidance of an expert teacher in mathematics, and the teacher (Mr Bansal) used to stretch us beyond our comfort zones by constantly exposing us to problems that were difficult to solve and also helping us see what we can do to improve and where we needed to put in more efforts. Although the whole duration of preparation was about an year, and I definitely did not become a maths expert after that, it was enough to crack the JEE, but the larger point is that if that sort of deliberate practice was continued, I might have become an expert in maths.

So having just said above that deliberate practice may not apply to academic pursuits,  on second thoughts I would grant that it may apply very well to some academic pursuits by building skills of thinking and solving problems.

Creativity of course would be a different beast and as Scott rightly notes may involve more than the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. But while everyone may aspire for creativity, and its origins still remain mysterious, Anders with ‘Peak’ had demystified how to be an expert in any field.

‘Peak’ is a much needed and timely book that will help you apply the principles of deliberate practice to all parts of your life , including your work life, and can take you to the next level- of course you will have to put n the right efforts, keep motivated , find the right coach , but the sky is the limit once you decide to achieve expertise in the domain and Anders is there to help.

Do yourself a favor, do read this book on expertise , by the world’s foremost authority on the subject and then choose a domain and stick to it. You may surprise yourself with what you are able to achieve

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