Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Practising to be a genius

Browsing through the Freakonomics blog recently, I found myself following the links to a profile of psychologist Anders Ericsson, the man behind some of the research that informed Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers.

As summarised by Shelley Gare in the article in The Australian, Ericsson's most famous hypothesis is simple enough:
For him, deliberate practice is the magic bullet that takes someone into the stratosphere of brilliance, whether they're golfers or ballet stars, business tycoons or doctors. Not innate talent, which he's not sure even exists, but practice, albeit practice of a particular, concentrated, gruelling kind.
So it's not just any old practice, but 'deliberate practice'.
...what makes someone spectacular in their field - and keeps them there - is training via a kind of focused, repetitive practice in which the subject is always monitoring his or her performance, correcting, experimenting, listening to immediate and constant feedback, and always pushing beyond what has already been achieved.

Back in November last year, Piers Beckley blogged on the subject in relation to writing.

My thesis... backed up by Gladwell, is that hard work is it. There's no magic spark, no such thing as god-given genius. Just bloody hard work over a period of years.
Do you agree? Is deliberate practice the key for writers? If so, what, for writers, does deliberate practice mean?


  1. Hard work is crucial, of course, but suggesting this is some wonderful revelation is ridiculous. I think we've known that for a long time.

    To suggest his theory is backed by Gladwell (or is it the other way round? Or indeed a feedback loop?), is not a good sign, as this gentleman is a very poor source. Full of popularist guff in fact.

    If we want to pass off the bleedin' obvious as learned knowledge then I have a few ideas that could get me paid £30,000 an appearance.

    And that should be "practice" not "practise" when used as a noun.

  2. More spelling practice for me...

  3. Only 9,999 hours to go.

  4. In ten years time I'll be the Yehudi Menuhin of spelling...

  5. Cue Morecambe & Wise joke.

  6. "Deliberate practice"? No.

    Not for writing, anyway. You write to the best of your ability, put it out there, and squirm when you see it through the eyes of others. Then when you start the next piece, fix what you didn't like. Put that out there, squirm again.

    (or as Beckett put it, "Fail better".)

    That's practice of a kind, I suppose, but it's not "deliberate practice".

    It would be great if deliberate practice could circumvent the process and allow you to perfect your technique away from the public eye. But alas, it would just be pointless typing.

  7. I agree with all my learned colleagues, but I really do think the more you write, the better you get... as long as the writing gods smiled upon you in the first place. The hard part is not to lose the vitality and excitement from the time you DIDN'T know better, but created magic anyway.

  8. Meg Davis5:33 pm

    Perhaps this is a reaction to the Wordsworthian 'The Muse dictated it and I mustn't spoil it by doing a second draft' school of thought?

  9. Interesting, Meg. As I said to Coleridge, I'm always happy to make a script better. But nothing knocks the life and joy out of a work more than the 7 or 10 drafts that telly script editors and/ or producers seem to expect nowadays. I always think a good writer should be able to nail it in three drafts: the first; a rewrite and a tweak. Any more than that is greatly worrying. 7 or 10 is a joke.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.