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.

Creativity World Forum 2011

Poster with Sawyer, Gladwell
Event Poster at Ethias Arena

I’ve just delivered my keynote talk at the Creativity World Forum in Hasselt, Belgium. With over 2,000 people in the stadium, this was one of my largest audiences! The morning keynote was by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, who talked about Web 2.0 and participatory innovation, and the evening keynote was by Malcolm Gladwell, who told several stories about how the first company to create something often is not the company that successfully commercializes the idea. I did the mid-day keynote, right after lunch, and my message was that collaboration is the key to creativity.

The organizers, Flanders DC, did a wonderful job selecting the three of us because all three keynotes reinforced the same message about creativity and innovation: it’s a process over time, that involves many small ideas from a lot of people, that takes unpredictable and surprising paths, and that has many dead ends and failures along the way. It’s a relatively well accepted message these days, of course, but my own contribution is to emphasize the improvisational nature of the process, and how the most successful collaborative groups and companies are the ones that have figured out how to manage improvisation.

After my keynote, I did a special 90-minute workshop for fifty people who had pre-registered, and I focused on specific techniques and exercises, based in psychological research, that help people come up with better ideas. The workshop was great fun–the 50 who made it in were energized and focused on creativity.

Hasselt is known for Jenever, made in these copper kettles

There are people here from all over the world; the 12 worldwide “districts of creativity” are having their annual meeting here (a shout-out to my friends from Creative Oklahoma) and the “Making Creativity Work” international project is also meeting here. I’ve talked to people from Finland, Barcelona, Germany, and Scotland. An incredible event!