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Op-Ed Columnist - Genius - The Modern View - NYTimes.com

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  • Brad White
    What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had — the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his
    Message 1 of 1 , May 2, 2009
      "What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had —
      the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on
      improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young
      age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built
      from there.
      The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even
      puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from
      the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a
      generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess.
      Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours
      (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft."

      -------------------

      May 1, 2009
      OP-ED COLUMNIST
      Genius: The Modern View
      By DAVID BROOKS
      Some people live in romantic ages. They tend to believe that genius is
      the product of a divine spark. They believe that there have been,
      throughout the ages, certain paragons of greatness — Dante, Mozart,
      Einstein — whose talents far exceeded normal comprehension, who had an
      other-worldly access to transcendent truth, and who are best
      approached with reverential awe.

      We, of course, live in a scientific age, and modern research pierces
      hocus-pocus. In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart’s early
      abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His
      early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other
      people’s work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he
      would not stand out among today’s top child-performers.

      What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had —
      the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on
      improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young
      age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built
      from there.

      The latest research suggests a more prosaic, democratic, even
      puritanical view of the world. The key factor separating geniuses from
      the merely accomplished is not a divine spark. It’s not I.Q., a
      generally bad predictor of success, even in realms like chess.
      Instead, it’s deliberate practice. Top performers spend more hours
      (many more hours) rigorously practicing their craft.

      The recent research has been conducted by people like K. Anders
      Ericsson, the late Benjamin Bloom and others. It’s been summarized in
      two enjoyable new books: “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle; and
      “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin.

      If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you’d
      take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It
      wouldn’t have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain
      some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a
      novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits.
      Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic
      background, or, shared the same birthday — anything to create a sense
      of affinity.

      This contact would give the girl a vision of her future self. It
      would, Coyle emphasizes, give her a glimpse of an enchanted circle she
      might someday join. It would also help if one of her parents died when
      she was 12, infusing her with a profound sense of insecurity and
      fueling a desperate need for success.

      Armed with this ambition, she would read novels and literary
      biographies without end. This would give her a core knowledge of her
      field. She’d be able to chunk Victorian novelists into one group,
      Magical Realists in another group and Renaissance poets into another.
      This ability to place information into patterns, or chunks, vastly
      improves memory skills. She’d be able to see new writing in deeper
      ways and quickly perceive its inner workings.

      Then she would practice writing. Her practice would be slow,
      painstaking and error-focused. According to Colvin, Ben Franklin would
      take essays from The Spectator magazine and translate them into verse.
      Then he’d translate his verse back into prose and examine, sentence by
      sentence, where his essay was inferior to The Spectator’s original.

      Coyle describes a tennis academy in Russia where they enact rallies
      without a ball. The aim is to focus meticulously on technique. (Try to
      slow down your golf swing so it takes 90 seconds to finish. See how
      many errors you detect.)

      By practicing in this way, performers delay the automatizing process.
      The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into
      unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy
      and will settle for good enough. By practicing slowly, by breaking
      skills down into tiny parts and repeating, the strenuous student
      forces the brain to internalize a better pattern of performance.

      Then our young writer would find a mentor who would provide a constant
      stream of feedback, viewing her performance from the outside,
      correcting the smallest errors, pushing her to take on tougher
      challenges. By now she is redoing problems — how do I get characters
      into a room — dozens and dozens of times. She is ingraining habits of
      thought she can call upon in order to understand or solve future
      problems.

      The primary trait she possesses is not some mysterious genius. It’s
      the ability to develop a deliberate, strenuous and boring practice
      routine.

      Coyle and Colvin describe dozens of experiments fleshing out this
      process. This research takes some of the magic out of great
      achievement. But it underlines a fact that is often neglected. Public
      discussion is smitten by genetics and what we’re “hard-wired” to do.
      And it’s true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the
      brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through
      behavior. As Coyle observes, it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.

      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/01/opinion/01brooks.html?em=&pagewanted=print
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