Are Elite Performers Born or Made?

iceberg-illusionMost of us have had the experience of seeing someone perform at an extremely high level and having the feeling that that person is fundamentally different from the rest of us. We may see this type of performance while watching the Olympics, or some other world-class event, and suppose that the participants are “gifted” or “special.” I imagine that that is how most people felt when they saw Mozart composing his own symphonies at age 5, or Tiger Woods sinking 30-foot putts as a toddler. Certainly, geniuses such as these must be born with the ability to perform such feats… or are they? You see, most of us fall victim to what Dr. K Anders Ericsson (the world’s leading authority on expert performance) calls the “iceberg illusion.” We can see the masterful performance before us, but, like an iceberg, we are unable to see the huge mass underneath the surface. In the case of Mozart and Tiger Woods, these young prodigies received thousands of hours of practice before they were even five years old. Both were trained by parents who were experts in training their specific skills. Most of us never think about what’s under the surface of an elite performance. However, when we do look under the surface, we find that the performers are not extraordinarily gifted. To the contrary, they are extraordinarily prepared.

Dr. Ericsson discovered the “iceberg illusion” by spending the greater part of his life analyzing what separates expert performers from the rest of us. In one co-authored paper he wrote, “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.” If that’s the case, then how are these superstars “made.” Many of you may have already heard of something called the “10,000-hour rule.” This rule says that elite performers do not reach the pinnacle of their field until they have practiced their craft for 10,000 hours. Ericsson is a proponent of this rule, but he believes it is more complicated than that. 10,000 hours of any old type of practice will not yield world-class results. The 10,000-hour rule only works if the individual engages in what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice.” Deliberate practice is practice that is focused on developing relevant skills at the edge of one’s ability. Its impact can only be seen as performers consistently focus on attaining higher levels of mastery in their training. In practically every case, a top performer has been guided through their years of “deliberate practice” by an expert coach.

The great news about Ericsson’s research is that it shows us that we can all achieve greatness. The bad news (or at least the news that brings us back to earth) is that in order to be the best, we have years of sacrifice guided by demanding coaches ahead of us. Our advice is to find something that you love to do, and don’t let anything stand in the way of developing yourself into the type of person that can achieve your dreams. You can do it! The choice is up to you.