photo credit: Scott Webb

Play to Your Strengths, Hide Your Weaknesses

At only four years old, Yeou-Cheng Ma exhibited a clear talent for the violin.

Under the tutelage of her father, a Ph.D. student at the Paris Conservatory of Music, Yeou-Cheng began to play the instrument at two-and-a-half years old. Only a year later, she entered in her first competition against students ranging from fourteen to nineteen years old. She won.

Her violin teacher praised Yeou-Cheng’s ability to her mother, a vocal student who later sang opera. She said, “Your daughter is a brilliant musician. There’s no doubt in my mind that she inherits this talent from you and your husband…It’s in her genes.”

Finally, the teacher added: “Mrs. Ma, what I’m trying to tell you is that I think it is a great pity that you don’t plan on having another child.”

At the time, the three of them lived in a tiny apartment in Paris. They struggled to earn a living and had barely enough for themselves. Yet, four years after the birth of their daughter, a son was born in 1955. He was named Yo-Yo Ma.

A Prodigy in the Making

Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most recognized classical musicians in the world. He has recorded over 90 music albums and performed as a solo cellist with numerous orchestras globally.

Ever since he was born, Yo-Yo Ma grew up hearing music. He picked up the violin at age three and started playing the cello at age four. Both he and his sister (who eventually became a medical doctor) were homeschooled by their father. Their father believed that memorization, concentration, and discipline were the key to success.

To be sure, Yo-Yo Ma has worked incredibly hard at his craft. As a youth, he was challenged to play difficult pieces beyond what was expected at his age level. Under the careful eye of his father, Yo-Yo has practiced and performed for almost his entire life.

But how much of Yo-Yo Ma’s success is attributable to hard work, and how much of it comes from innate talent?

The Effectiveness of Deliberate Practice

In a 1993 paper on deliberate practice, researchers found that elite musicians had accumulated thousands of hours more deliberate practice than other musicians. From this, they concluded that the difference between expert performance and normal performance was due to deliberate practice over a long period of time, rather than innate talent.

The study’s findings have since then contributed to the popular belief that someone who puts in enough hours can develop mastery over a skill. This type of thinking leads us to think our success is fully within our control — what we get out of our efforts is directly related to what we put in.

But there are also negative connotations involved with this belief. When we see someone fall behind others or perform poorly on a test, we often resort to phrases such as “Try harder” or “You should have practiced more,” placing the blame on the recipient.

Scientists have found evidence, however, that goes against the idea of deliberate practice being the main contributor to success. In the study, they re-analyzed six previous chess competition studies and eight studies on musicians, involving 1,083 chess players and 628 musicians respectively.

When they analyzed the relationship between practice and skill level, they found large disparities in the amount of practice experts put in. In one case, one chess player took 26 years to reach the same level that another reached in only two years. By revisiting previous studies, they found that some people, no matter how much work they put in, couldn’t reach the same level that others did in a shorter period of time.

The same study also found that deliberate practice accounted for only one-third of the variance in chess and music levels. In other words, skill largely involves factors outside of practice.

So if putting in the hours alone isn’t enough, that means other, greater variables are impacting our ability to learn a skill. Let’s take a look into the world of competitive sports for insight into the ingredients that make up a world-class athlete.

What Makes a Great Athlete?

At age 22, many Olympic athletes are at their prime. Helen Glover, however, had never rowed before in her life. While she had participated in a number of sports ranging from cross-country to hockey, Glover had yet to discover her calling.

In 2007, the Sporting Giants program was created in Britain to identify and train individuals in anticipation of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Young people could apply, so long as they had an athletic background, were between ages 16 and 25, and reached the height minimum of 6’3″ for men and 5’11” for women. At age 22, Helen Glover was selected.

Only one year after she began rowing, Glover placed first in the single scull at a major regatta. In the 2012 Olympics, she and partner Stanning, who only started rowing in university, won the gold medal. After winning gold in numerous world rowing championships, Glover and Stanning once again won gold in the 2016 Olympics.

In The Sports Gene, author David Epstein explores the role that genetics, along with culture and environment, plays in competitive sport. For instance, while height is an obvious factor in basketball, there are other cases where a nuance in genetics makes all the difference.

One example is the ACTN 3 gene, also known as the “sprint gene.” If your gene isn’t configured for sprinting, you’ll have a hard time practicing your way to the 100m final in the Olympics. In many cases, no amount of practice will help you if your genetics don’t support the field of sport that you’re training for.

It’s notable how quickly some individuals take to a sport and then excel. While they might have had a late start or practiced fewer hours overall, they were quickly able to reach the top of their field.

In Helen Glover’s case, she was tall, long-limbed, and, as noted by her former PE teacher, hardworking and coachable. In other words, she was an ideal rowing candidate to begin with.

While this discussion makes it sound as though athletic success is the result of winning the genetic lottery, inborn talents is only part of the story. The other component to succeeding is knowing where to invest your efforts, and then doing what works on a repeated basis.

The Job Preferences of Twins

Inherently, we know that physical attributes play a large role in competitive sports. Attributes which, before any training takes place, give some individuals a natural advantage over others in sports.

But what about the less obvious attributes needed to excel in other fields? Are there traits that provide someone with talent in, say, innovation or company management?

Studies have indicated that genetics do affect occupational choice. Our preferences for certain occupations, types of work, and skills are determined by the genetics we inherit. Some studies has also shown that identical twins, whether raised together or apart, have more similar job interests than their other siblings. Adopted children are more likely to work in the same professions as their biological parents, rather than their adoptive parents.

When twins were examined for heritability of occupational choices between being a manager, sales person, and teacher, a genetic component of 0.30, 0.46, and 0.43 respectively was found. There was also a heritable tendency for some twins to prefer self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Although the evidence does point towards heritable preferences, there is one important point to make: Genetics alone do not determine occupational choice. They merely predispose individuals to some occupations over others. Most of the variance is due to environmental, rather than genetic factors.

Now that we know the effects of genetics and environment on our skills, how can we best set ourselves up for success?

How to Amplify Your Strengths

The vast majority of people don’t become basketball players. Most people lack the height, the stamina, or any number of physical or mental factors needed. Would it make sense, then, for an average person undergo training to become a professional basketball player?

Probably not. Each of us only has a limited number of time and energy that we can devote towards an endeavor. If we aren’t set out to work in a certain field, then it would be a better strategy to choose another where our natural tendencies are better suited.

A sales position, for instance, requires persuasiveness and the ability to converse with different types of people. If you’re uncomfortable talking with strangers and prefer to do your own work, then choosing a position that requires less interaction and more analysis would work in your favor. Quitting an endeavor to find one that fits better is a better long-term strategy than trying to work on something that goes against your preferences and skills.

The other strategy, which goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, is to combine your skills. If you can’t be the best at one thing, be good at a few things. When you look at a single skill one person has, the person might not look particularly talented. But when that one skill is combined with other skills, the result is powerful.

One person I knew studied and worked in civil engineering. Civil engineering, while a respected skill, isn’t a particularly unique attribute. What made this individual stand out were other factors, including strategic planning skills, persuasiveness, and marketing expertise. This individual eventually became an executive at an engineering firm and is worth millions.

Very few people are genetically pre-disposed to become the next Yo-Yo Ma or Helen Glover. What we are given, though, is the tendency towards certain skills and fields of work. When we make of the most of our natural attributes, we put ourselves in the best position to make the most of what we have.

Nurture That Which is in Your Nature

Who was right after all? Was it Yeou-Cheng Ma’s violin teacher, who believed her skill was inherited from her parents, or her father, who brought up two talented musicians on the basis of diligence, concentration, and practice?

The answer is both. If we work hard enough and believe in ourselves, many things are possible. Yes, there are limitations. Yes, some people can work to reach greater progress in less time.

But here’s the good news: You can start focusing on what matters. When you find yourself picking up some skills more quickly than others, you learn where to invest your efforts. When you focus your strengths, then you start to find purpose.

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