Day 5 with FedUpMom

(Today is the last in a week of posts by FedUpMom. I really enjoyed showcasing her voice here and would like to give others that opportunity as well. So please email me with your ideas. And, don’t worry. FedUpMom will be back a week from Friday, where she’ll answer some of the questions she posed about George Orwell’s essay on her first post last week. A big thanks to FedUpMom for her hard work.)

Guest Post #5
by FedUp Mom

Talent vs. Hard Work

Recently there’s been a cultural meme claiming that achievement is all about hours of practice. It began with the book Outliers, which I heard quoted so much that I never bothered to read it, and continued recently with articles in the New York Times.

On the one hand, I agree that talent takes a great deal of hard work to develop properly. On the other hand, I don’t believe for a moment that the biggest difference between me and Mozart is that Mozart got more practice. Equally, if you had taken me at the same age Michael Phelps was when he started swimming, and made me spend the same number of hours swimming that he did, I would never have gone to the Olympics. Why? I don’t have the build, the energy, the coordination, or the ability. In short (and how!), I don’t have athletic talent.

My biggest fear about the idea of hours of practice is that it will be applied unthinkingly to our kids, many of whom are already overworked.

If you are passionate about something, the hours of practice can fly by. There must be a balance that will allow our kids to find their passion, and spend their energy wisely and effectively.

9 thoughts on “Day 5 with FedUpMom

  1. If you spent as much time training as Michael Phelps, you might have gone to the Olympics. If you didn’t have the passion for it, you probably wouldn’t have trained as much.

    Neither of those statements means achievement is not primarily a function of practice.


  2. This is such a thought-provoking question, FUM, and let me add my thanks for your interesting postings this week!

    It’s a question I’ve often wondered about, both in my own life and my kids’. No question inherent talent is critical.

    But would I have been a more fulfilled person, and had a greater impact on the world, if I’d been pushed in some way to show more dedication to a particular skill or interest?

    I’ve loved classical music all my life, and started taking piano lessons when I was 8. I never practiced very much or very well. I would grow easily frustrated, and when I did, my parents’ typical response was, “Walk away from it and come back when you feel like it.” I didn’t often feel like it. As a result, I never developed the potential I (might have) had as a musician.

    In a more global sense, my upbringing was very laissez faire; I was left alone to “be happy,” and neither challenged nor encouraged to fully develop my skills or interests — or even, for that matter, to follow the example of my parents (my father’s law career, for instance), as many children are.

    Contrast that with the lives of the supremely accomplished (“talented”) like the Williams Sisters, or Tiger Woods, or Andre Agassi, who were groomed for their professions around age 2. Of course, one can make the legitimate argument that these people are very often extremely unhappy and emotionally stunted — look no farther than Tiger, or even Agassi, who in his recent bio revealed how much he hated tennis!

    And I, on the other hand, continue to enjoy and participate in music in many ways, even though I haven’t gotten rich or famous from it….

    I realize I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, and what applies to me personally may not apply more widely to others’ experiences. But to speak to your raising the question of too much practice, perhaps the answer is not in how much, but HOW. It’s interesting to speculate, if I’d been given strategies to work through my problems and frustrations, if my parents (and piano teachers) had inquired more deeply into what fears or other obstacles were blocking my applying myself more diligently…would things have turned out different, or better?

    And since this is all about homework, I believe the essence is the same thing — it’s not so much about how much (although there is certainly too much), but HOW — or, rather, what kind of homework our kids get. If schools spent less time drilling-and-grilling our kids to the point of frustration, and more in going deeper in ways that unlock kids’ intrinsic motivation, that might be homework worth doing.


  3. Fred, I go back and forth on this one myself. I know people who were pushed into various things by their parents, and it can be useful to them in adult life. But at what price?

    There are also my own needs to be taken into account. As I learned from the homework debacle, I don’t want to spend my time with my kids nagging/cajoling/dragging etc.

    You mention the piano — I’ve been struggling with my daughter and her viola. She says she’ll get back to it when she starts at her new school in the fall. They have a full music program, so she’ll have a chance to play in the orchestra or a string group, which is important to her.

    Which leads me to another thought. I wish more of these things we want to teach our kids had a full social context. We all know kids learn language best when it’s part of their natural environment. Wouldn’t it be easier to teach our kids a musical instrument if they could regularly play with their family and friends?


  4. FedUpMom, your post reminds me of my Chinese classes I have to take. At my school it is compulsory to do a language. I love learning languages, so this is okay to me but most people in my class hate it. They learn all the words and characters simply because it’s required of them so they can get a decent grade in Chinese. Of course that isn’t what learning Chinese is about. It’s about being able to communicate with Chinese-speakers. It’s a pity other people haven’t seemed to realise that and only see Chinese as another burden to add to their school workload.


  5. Talent vs. Hardwork….great post. I did read Outliers and took issue with much of what Gladwell wrote (although he is a very entertaining writer). He specifically cites all the practice the Beatles got while working in Hamberg as teenagers. Sure, it probably strengthened their skills (and bond) as musicians. However, I don’t think you could throw together any four young musicians, have then practice 10,000 hours (Gladwell’s magic number for mastery) and turn them into the Beatles. The passion, spark, and nurturing of any gift is a fragile, mysterious, and ever evolving process.


  6. Disillusioned, absolutely. And it isn’t just the talent of the 4 musicians — it’s the historical moment that got them an appreciative audience and helpful co-workers (for instance, their arranger, George Martin). It’s very complex and very mysterious.

    Of course, the Beatles also had tremendous social support — with each other, and with their audience.


  7. my baby brother was… not very athletically inclined. He, like many tall children, was a klutz. But he wanted to skateboard, and practiced until he could do it. Then, one summer, he got involved in swimming. He was not very good at it, but his friends were doing it so he enjoyed it. He got better and better– being a tall kid with long arms helped a lot. As he improved (with a lot of work on his part), he started enjoying it much more. Certainly being with a lot of good coaches helped him through the awkward stages, but the fact that he wanted to do it was important as well.
    He is now a very good swimmer– to the point where it improved his chances of attending the college of his choice (where he could swim, natch).


  8. There are indeed many books about the importance of hard work in talent development. In school I was one of the kids with talent in art (I even got an award in a statewide art competition). Since my mom and sister were both good at art, I assumed my talent had to be genetic.

    However, looking back, I can definitely see it as a result of practice. My mom liked to do arts and crafts, so we always had lots of different art supplies around the house. It was only natural for me to join my mom and make some art of my own. She was of course there to show me how to do something if I got stuck and asked for help. It makes sense that after years of practice, I would be good at it.

    On the other hand, my dad has a hart condition, so he was never able to do any sports. My mom didn’t have much passion for sports or physical activity either. I grew up in a family that’s not at all sports oriented, and thus when I failed to perform well in my PE class right away, I concluded that I’m just not built for sports and don’t have the talent for it. That lead to me never really putting much time toward becoming skilled in any sports, and accepting the fact that I just don’t do sports period.

    That was all until I was 24, when I started playing tennis with friends. I was terrible at first, but because that was the way to spend time with my friends, and it was fun, I kept coming back. Eventually, I got a hang of it and was able to control the ball, and even win some games and matches. Suddenly I was talented in sports, which I thought was impossible before. The only difference this time was that I actually willingly spent time practicing, giving it my best and constantly trying to improve.

    It may be possible to make someone a top performer, but I don’t think it’s enjoyable unless the person really loves the practice and feels it’s the right thing for them to be doing. I understand and share the fear that schools will take all that research and use it as an excuse for more useless homework for the kids.

    The positive side of the research though is the assurance, that if there is something a person is interested in and wants to become good at, there is no need for some preexisting talent in order to become good at it. All that is necessary is a desire, dedication and deliberate practice.


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