A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.
Inspiration or perspiration?
I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.
First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.
It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.
I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.
This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.
However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).
Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes
Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before they put in the work required in a particular field. I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.
I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data: SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.
Interest is far more important than aptitude.
Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.
What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?
Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.
Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:
- Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
- Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.
What is deliberate practice?
Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:
1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.
2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill.
3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.
If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?
All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.
My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.
Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.
And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.
I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.
What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?
I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out.
The point is that it is being good that sells.
If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting). I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.
It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.
What if I don’t know what I like?
You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.
I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.
It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”
This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.
It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people.
It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.
How are accomplished people’s brains different?
Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.
As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.
The meaning of meaningful glances
I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.
It turns out that that’s a thing that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye. Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate. Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation).
Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.