Hard Work Plus Talent Equals Creativity

I’ve often cited the research of Professor Anders Ericsson, showing that world-class expertise only emerges after you invest 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice.” Ericsson’s research is consistent with a well-known finding of creativity research: “The ten year rule,” the observation that major creative contributions generally don’t happen until a person has been working in an area for at least ten years. (If you do the math, ten years comes out to about 10,000 hours.) Ericsson studied a wide range of expertise–chess players, musicians, and others. In one of his more famous studies, he analyzed how many total hours violin students at a top music conservatory had rehearsed over their lifetimes. The number of hours rehearsed correlated highly with ratings by conservatory faculty.

Many authors have latched onto these findings; they align with the meritocratic American belief that anyone can be exceptional. All you need is hard work and stick-to-it-ivness. The 10,000 hour finding has been repeated in books by Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, David Brooks’ The Social Animal, and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.

It’s absolutely true that you don’t get to a world class level without 10,000 hours. But I’ve always thought the research has been misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean that anyone can spend 10,000 hours and be famous; after all, the violin players that Ericsson studied were a carefully selected group. They had self-selected by choosing to invest years of their childhoods practicing violin. They had been admitted to a highly selective conservatory. Ericsson’s research actually has a more subtle meaning: among all of those people who display some talent or gift, what distinguishes the top people is hours of practice.

I just read an article in the latest Sunday New York Times that describes research by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They’ve dedicated their careers to tracking more than 2,000 people who scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. And their research doesn’t support the “effort is all you need” position. Instead, they found that intellectual ability at age 12 was a surprisingly good predictor of educational and occupational accomplishments twenty years later. For example, those who were in the 99.9 percentile outperformed those in the 99.1 percentile, fairly dramatically: they were between three and five times more likely to earn a doctorate, to get a patent, to publish in a scientific journal, to publish a literary work.

Many people find this depressing. It’s not even good enough to be in the top 99 percent! You have to be in the top 99.9 percent to reach the top of your profession! And mathematically, that’s only 1 out of 1,000 people. It’s no wonder that these studies don’t make it into the newspaper, and instead “hard work is all you need” is the message we hear.

The NYTimes article citing this research* was by two professors of psychology who studied expertise in pianists; they found that Ericsson was partly right: hours of practice are a good predictor of ability. The total amount of practice over a career predicted half of the differences in performance quality. But in addition, raw intelligence also predicts ability: Working memory (a core component of intelligence) predicted about seven percent of the difference in ability. In other words, even among pianists with the same number of hours of practice, there are differences in ability that are predicted by an intelligence measure.

Actually, I don’t find this depressing at all. After all, this is common sense, right? We all know that there are early differences in ability and propensity for talent. You can’t necessarily be whatever you want to be. I personally have no drawing ability whatsoever; I’m sure that even with 10,000 hours of drawing, I would still suck. When my sister and I were young, she took to painting like a natural, and I failed miserably. But I took to the piano like crazy, whereas she stopped after a year.

And we all know that success in life takes a lot of hard work. That’s why Ericsson’s findings are important: they demolish the myth of the “natural born artist,” the myth that some people are just born creative and they succeed because they have a gift. Yes, the do have a gift, but we would never find out about it if they didn’t invest long, hard hours of work.

The lesson is to choose an endeavor where you start out with some natural talent, and then to move forward and invest the necessary hours. Again, common sense: your parents probably told you that long ago.

*David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz, “Sorry Strivers: Talent Matters,” New York Times Sunday November 20, 2011, p. SR12.

17 thoughts on “Hard Work Plus Talent Equals Creativity

  1. One of the things that is striking to me about the post is that calls educators to think about how often in education we might miss a particular child’s talent or gift because of a narrow curriculum, or narrow modes of assessment, or in forgoing to support the arts. If it is true that there has to be both some natural ability AND opportunity for an individual to DO this particular thing this is all the more reason to support a fluid, creative, child centered classroom modality in education. Clearly, all children need some level of proficiency in a small set of “skills” but moving beyond that we need to give opportunities for children to find that place where they can possibly become an expert.

    1. Wow, this post (and the article) definitely struck a chord! Absolutely, every child should be exposed to the full range of human endeavor, to allow them to identify where their talents lie.
      Another potential lesson I didn’t mention: if you choose a career where only 1 out of 1,000 can find work, then you’d better be pretty sure you are in that 99.9% or pretty near it. (Or that you’re independently wealthy!) That’s probably true for symphony violinists, for example. But there are lots of great paths through life where far more than 1 out of 1,000 can lead successful fulfilling lives.

  2. Love this post, as I do your work in general. I read your book, Explaining Creativity, and found it fascinating. I appreciate how you blend your various fascinations with psychology, music, collaborative design and the creative process.

    I just began following you a few weeks ago, and had to laugh when I read this. I was just about to post my article on the same topic via my blog, also inspired by that New York Times article. Apparently we are in the same camp philosophically! I am a career coach and write a blog about how to “create yourself.” If you have a moment, please check out http://www.growcareercoaching.com/

    After obtaining a Master of Fine Arts in Acting, I performed professionally as an actor and singer for over a decade. I then, thankfully, found my stride with career coaching. I absolutely love it. Now I deal in a different way with talent- optimizing it in others. And I use my creative bent to help others “create themselves” by designing their lives and careers from the inside out.

    I wish you all the best, and am looking forward to reading more insights into creativity!

  3. As a rule of thumb I always learned the 80-20 Pareto rule. In most cases this rule applies pretty well: e.g. 80% of your profits come from 20% of your time spent. This rule says something about the impact of the time and energy you use. So in order to become more successful, you have to get rid of the 80% non-productive time. You have to shift the 80-20 balance.

    But your post clearly says there is a limit to that! Because the 80-20 rule might not say anything about the likeliness for success. There’s a whole different rule at work: you have to belong to that 99.9% percentile!

    It gets me wondering: would the Pareto rule be one of those rules where shifting the balance from 80-20 to say 95-5 is actually hardly impossible. Because one would bump into the lack of talents? Would then the Pareto rule more have the nature of a physical law i.e., unchanging and immovable?

    And would we, as a society, then be able to predict the success of individuals?

    1. Your comment reminded me of a saying in the advertising industry, something like “90 percent of advertising is worthless. But there’s no way of knowing which 90 percent that is.” I think the same goes for innovation. You can’t know which efforts will fail; there’s no known way to cut out the failure and only work on the great successful ideas.

      With your application of Pareto’s rule, the skills of the top 20 percent of your staff generate 80 percent of your profits. That means they should get 80 percent of the salary pool, right? Which would mean they’d make a LOT more money that the bottom 80 percent. Oh wait, that describes our current U.S. society pretty well.

  4. I realize that I am a little behind the times, but I just read your 2006 review of the book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, and find it curious that you make the same mistake in perception as so many others when you correlate children choosing to practice a concept to precision and mastery –as the lack of opportunity to be creative (especially given the theme of your article above).

    Your review is so riddled with inaccuracies that it should be retractedFor example, you wrote “In a Montessori classroom, there is no free play time and no recess” and “the computer is
    noticeably absent from Montessori schools.” These are blatantly false statements.

    Your understanding of the use and scope of the educational materials is also severely limited. You suggest that there is no research that supports the design of a curriculum that has NO GAPS in instruction because the activities are ordered by only the smallest amount of difficulty. Yet, from what we know about classic basic learning processes, even B.F. Skinner said that when learning is broken down into small enough steps so that the child can feel sure of success, the only reinforcement necessary is “the opportunity to move on” (Chance, 1999, p. 237). He said that when children experience few aversives, and many successes, they can make very rapid forward progress and that “steady progress is powerfully reinforcing” (Chance, 1999, p. 238). This means that the child is FREE to learn with very little formal instruction from adults –and can successfully explore and discover the world of the classroom creatively on their own. They can repeat the activities as little or as often as they individually require to learn (even skipping over a lesson and then returning to it again at a later time).

    The restrictions for use of materials are similar to any other in reality. You can’t put your cat in the dryer, for example. That is not restricting a child’s “creativity,” it only delineates the limits of any given object. Some lessons require precision and hand eye coordination, but others do not. Because the child chooses their own activities, they are allowed to challenge themselves at whatever level they intuitively feel they need!

    What the neuroscience tells us is that in the years between 0-6+, the brain is literally wiring itself to be able to thrive and survive in whatever it finds itself. The child’s immediate surroundings are like a second “womb.” Repeated exposure to a stimulus signals certain genes to “switch on.” They give the orders to dedicate more neurons (and more “real estate” of the brain) to perceiving, and interacting with each part of any given environment –with INCREASED ACUITY. These early years have specific sensitive periods for perfecting the brains ability to process certain types of information — and this (along with genetic proclivity) creates the cognitive foundation for which following experiences will be received.

    What the child will need to be creative later in life relies on this foundation. You cannot impose the adult creative process on the child any more than you help a newborn to walk by placing it on its feet. There is a required biological progression in place that must be accomplished (rolling over, crawling, pulling up to stand, etc.) as a perquisite. Quality Montessori classrooms support this process, with the expressed commitment to support the creativity and the uniqueness of each child.

    1. I agree with almost everything in your comment! That leads me to believe you may have misinterpreted my article, which was a review of a book by Angeline Lillard, an expert on Montessori and an advocate of Montessori schools. In the book I reviewed, Lillard says both that Maria Montessori discouraged play (pp. 183-189) and that computers are generally missing from Montessori schools (pp. 335-337). (Of course, there are lots of schools out there that call themselves “Montessori” and they vary in how strictly they align with Maria Montessori’s actual writings.) If you think these are incorrect statements, you might take it up with Prof. Lillard.

      In my review I provide a lot of support for Montessori schools. Contrary to your comment, I explicitly say that incremental curricula with small gaps are supported by current research: I write “One of the strengths of the Montessori curriculum is how these activities are connected across the curriculum.” Of the eight Montessori principles that Lillard identifies in her book, I say “Most of these principles are supported by the new interdisciplinary field of learning sciences.” Anyone reading your comment would think I was a strong critic of the Montessori method, which not true.

      For other readers: you can read my very short review of the book at this link:

      Click to access Montessori_APA_Review_of_Books.pdf

      In this post here that you’ve commented on, I agree that years of practice and mastery are a necessary prerequisite to creativity.

      So we agree on most everything. Thank you for your comment!

  5. Thank you so much for your reply!

    The frustration for me is that the same misconceptions are so often repeated (even by scientists).

    From Lillard’s book on page 185, she writes that Dr. Montessori “did not appear to be against young children playing with objects. What she objected to was adults’ imposing their fantasies on children.” This does not match your claim that the book says “Montessori discouraged play.”

    Montessori did observe and write that imaginary play requires the ability for more abstract thinking; and that children in the earliest stages of development are often more interested in gathering information about things that are real (for example, they are prone to “get into mommy’s make up, or the pots and pans) than in playing with toys. The imaginative play we remember from our own childhood likely did not emerge until after the sensory-motor stage. That’s all. Since she wrote those words, there have been all sorts of research and new definitions concerning play that have reflected age-related progressions, including: unoccupied behavior, solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play and cooperative play that support her observations about activities and theories of mind during specific developmental periods. Yet, the myth remains that Montessori’s words meant she was against play, imagination, and fantasy in general. Lillard addresses this in her book on the very pages you suggest.

    There is a similar misperception about computers and technology. Montessorians are not against either!!! (As you may know, both founders of Google were Montessori students and attribute much of their success to their Montessori experiences in early childhood.) Lillard tries to respond by saying that Montessori practitioners only suggest that introduction, and the time spent with technology, is developmentally appropriate. (To me this means that computers do not interfere with other essential activities such as development of the vestibular system through movement in the early years, social interactions, etc.). She also says that some schools may lack equipment because of finances, not philosophy.

    I do want to thank you again for your thoughtful response. I am especially grateful for the opportunity to have a meaningful exchange.

    My best to you and your family.

  6. Perhaps you can advise me then.

    HOW do you suppose that it could become possible for Montessori schools to shed the “cultish” image in the media? How do we follow your admonishment to keep refining our efforts in an effort to come closer to a best practice that meets the needs of learners, and have others recognize it?

    Maybe I am just too close. Our school does not feel the least bit “weird” or clandestine to me. We have worked to become IMC and IB accredited.

    Please look at our website: http://www.westwoodschool.org/

    Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Steve Hughes?

    Click to access Neurophsychology%20and%20Montessori.pdf

    Thank you again for the conversation : D

  7. Maria Montessori was far ahead of her time. But now, the approaches that she originated are considered standard practice in preschool programs (“developmentally appropriate practice” of the NAEYC) so at this point in history, I believe the rest of the preschools have caught up with Montessori, and they are all (or, mostly) based in research. Absolutely there is nothing “weird” about Montessori preschools!

    Continuing to apply these approaches in primary school remains somewhat unique, although many of the “multiple intelligences” schools are quite similar to Montessori schools. As Lillard argues in her book (and I agreed in my review) Montessori approaches are consistent with contemporary research. However I also pointed out that lots of other schools today are just as consistent with contemporary research. So I would never argue with a parent who chose a Montessori school for their child; but I would say there is a whole range of great schools, based in research, including Montessori and also many others.

  8. I have taught in Montessori classrooms for almost 20 years in a variety of socioeconomic settings. This includes working with the nationally recognized East Dallas Community Schools (serving mostly lower income families –and a recipient of the 2011 Educational Achievement Award from the American Psychoanalytic Association), large public magnet schools, and the school I referenced in an earlier post. Now that my own children are successful adults, I have returned to the university in pursuit of several degrees (currently Early Childhood Education and Cognitive Science). After reading the most recent literature, completing coursework, and observing in a wide variety of schools, I can tell you beyond a shadow of doubt that while academia continually gets closer and closer to understanding and confirming the neurological and pragmatic discoveries of Dr. Montessori, “the approaches that she originated” are NOT “standard practice” in today’s preschools (or other levels). Over the years more and more components of her pedagogy have been accepted and incorporated into the mainstream; that is true. However, there is still a large disconnect between theory and practice in many cases, and the most important and essential elements are still missing.

    This is NOT TO SAY that there are not many ways to educate a child!!! I wholeheartedly support all parents, educators and others interested in raising creative, intelligent, mentally and physically healthy, fully functioning human beings! Of course there is more than one way to accomplish this task!

    However, there are underlying biological processes that support the development of cognition and wellbeing. That is a large part of what the surgeon and medical doctor contributed to the science of learning, along with a way to precisely support the emergence of particular capacities. As you say, fMRIs and the current research continues to confirm her scientific observations and to support the efficacy of her work.

    I believe that what is needed is a more active collaboration between the approaches. There is so much research to be done. However, I consistently find that scientists without Montessori certification and experience completely overlook extremely relevant information. I feel certain that over time these things will work themselves out, but given the current circumstances (of globalization) the topic of education has never been more important or timely.

    I intend to become an instructor –to develop and deliver programs for new Montessori teachers. I am committed to the idea of creativity in the classroom. I will also continue to follow your articles and learn from the information you provide. Thank you so much for your meaningful work!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s