Two obvious rebuttals to the argument that talent is just a matter of learning by doing are Mozart and Tiger Woods. Mozart famously began composing symphonies as an eight-year-old, and Woods was the world’s best golfer at 21. But do they really contradict the “learning by doing” principle?
Not so much. Mozart began playing at two, and if he averaged 35 hours of practice a week— his father was known as a stern taskmaster—he would, by the age of eight, have accumulated Ericsson’s golden number of 10,000 hours of practice. In addition, Mozart’s early symphonies are not nearly as accomplished as his later works. John Hayes of Carnegie Mellon has shown that modern symphony orchestras almost never perform or record Mozart’s childhood compositions, and argues that Mozart’s early works would have long ago been forgotten, were it not for his mature masterpieces. In other words, Mozart’s genius wasn’t innate or instantaneous—he learned how to write immortal symphonies by writing lots of mediocre ones.
As for Woods, when we watch someone like him perform (Baryshnikov, Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma also come to mind), we assume that nature is entirely responsible: Tiger Woods was simply blessed with the PGA gene. But our intuition is off the mark. Woods is the best golfer in the world because he has devoted his entire life to golf. Thanks to an encouraging father who happened to be a golf fanatic, Tiger took his first golf swing before he took his first steps. When he was 18 months old, his dad started taking him to the driving range. By the age of three, Tiger was better than most weekend amateurs.
This allowed Woods to get a head start on his current competitors, but what really made him great is how he practices. For starters, his routine is merciless. Rain or shine, Woods sets out. More importantly, he always makes sure his practice sessions revolve around learning by doing. He analyzes sequential snapshots of himself playing, relentlessly scrutinizes the elements of his swing, then drills these subtle alterations into his nervous system through thousands of repetitions. Of course, more practice leads to more new ideas, which leads to more practice. “Other golfers may outplay me from time to time,” Woods wrote in his book, “but they’ll never outwork me.”
Originally published July 19, 2006