How talent can be taught

In this excerpt from his book, The Art of Performance: The Surprising Science Behind Greatness, Professor Jeroen De Flander dives into how leadership requires us to rethink what we know about performance, and why talent can actually be taught

It’s the summer of 1763. Seven-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his family embark on a European tour; from that moment on, he will be known as a musical genius. Around 250 years later, researcher Ayako Sakakibara from Tokyo wanted to unravel the mysterious talent that had made Amadeus Mozart so special. Perfect pitch is that amazing ability to recognise, name and even reproduce a tone, without any context at all; just hit any note on a piano, a guitar, or even a random object like a glass, and someone with perfect pitch knows instantly what it is. It’s extremely rare. Less than 0.1 per cent of the population has perfect pitch; just imagine the advantage to a musician.

For over two centuries, Mozart’s greatness was linked to this unique gift, a talent he shared with very few others, like Frank Sinatra. But the overarching explanation didn’t satisfy Sakakibara. There were other great musicians out there who didn’t have this unique talent and still reached the top of their field. Convinced that other dynamics were at play, he set out on a fascinating, multi-year musical training experiment with 24 children.

Once a piano was installed, and perfectly tuned, at their homes, the toddlers trained daily with a family member. A typical day consisted of four-to-five short sessions of two-to-five minutes, each with 20-25 trials. Using small flags with colours corresponding to the chords, the children had to raise the right flag corresponding to the right chord. When someone made a mistake, the trainer told them the correct answer and played the chord again. Sakakibara asked the parents to send him regular recordings of daily practice once every two weeks. He used the input to suggest an appropriate practice method for the next period. In short, he told the parents how to train their children.

The results were amazing. Two children dropped out for personal reasons. The other 22 all developed perfect pitch; they all developed the talent that was the basis for Mozart’s success. Being a professor myself, I know we have an important role to play – not only to get people enthusiastic about our content, but also to transfer the right tools and techniques. It’s our job to help people travel the mastery curve. How can we inspire people to do this?

  1. Kill the talent myth to boost motivation

We are all in awe when we discover the work of masters—whether it’s a painting from Monet, a world-class goal from Ronaldo, a musical piece from Mozart, or the innovative ideas of Elon Musk and Steve Jobs in the business world. We admire their greatness. And it’s the right thing to do. Amazing performers should inspire us. But, if we’re not careful, their mastery might discourage us. Why would we try our best if talent is the ultimate success predictor?

Hundreds of scientific studies offer us a new, more accurate view on exceptional performance and the underlying drivers: passion and purpose, deep practice, and persistence. The first one covers what you want to do, the second what you can do, and the third what you will do. Each engine is useful on its own, but it’s the combination that is the key to superior performance. Remove one and progress slows; combine them and your performance gets a real boost.

  1. Coach people to travel the mastery curve
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Once we have helped our team members to get rid of the talent myth, and replaced it with a more accurate view on how to be successful, we can coach them to travel the mastery curve. I find it very useful to draw the following picture and discuss with my team members where they are today and where they want to go. We then design a made-to-measure coaching and training programme to get there. I have used and taught this approach for over a decade and learned it really makes a difference.

When we take a helicopter view of skills’ development, we discover that those who travel the mastery curve all the way to the end will go through four distinct stages—no matter what the field.

  1. Novice. You ended up here because something triggered your interest. Or someone—a parent, friend, boss, or co-worker—got you involved. If interest isn’t constantly triggered, you will quickly drop out. To move up, focus should be on play rather than practice.
  2. Amateur. You figured out a way to motivate yourself and feed your interest. Practice takes up time in your agenda, often with the help of a teacher or coach. Progress is mainly based on the amount of your practice and can be quite fast. At this stage there is a risk for arrested development—you keep doing the activity, but you stop improving.

We often get this wrong. We think if we do something long enough, we will get better. If we drive more hours, we become a better driver. If we play more golf, we become a better golfer. If we manage longer, we become a better leader. But research shows us to be wrong. The 10,000-hour rule bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell made popular is fiction. Studies show that, once a person has reached the level of acceptable performance—this happens in the amateur phase—and doesn’t adopt deep practice techniques, additional years of training don’t lead to improvement. To advance beyond the amateur stage, we need to push ourselves.

  1. Expert. Others will call you ‘passionate’ and ‘talented’ and will seek out your advice. You are clearly established in your field— ‘I’m a golfer’, ‘I’m a writer’, ‘I’m a business leader’ – and you are commitment to push forward using deep practice techniques.
  2. Pathfinder. You reached the top three per cent in your field. You have absorbed and internalised all the available knowledge that is out there today. Furthermore, you have developed a unique style, based on signature strengths you have honed for many years. To move forward, you must innovate and open new avenues for others as well. At this level, your purpose comes into play. You want to become the best you can be and leave a legacy in your field.

Leading a team is no easy job. The journey to the top of the mastery curve is steep and full of unexpected twists and turns. But the evidence also offers great news. Greatness isn’t a lottery ticket handed out to a privileged few at birth. It’s available to all of us.

We can all travel the mastery curve. So get out there, and help your team to discover their true reach.

Published with permission from Professor Jeroen De Flander.

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