This kid is a poster child for deliberate practice:
Marc Yu, a 9-year-old piano prodigy from Pasadena, Calif., recently played at a benefit for victims of the earthquake in Sichuan, China. And he didn’t play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” He played a piece that Chopin wrote for victims of the Polish-Russian war, the composer’s “Nocturne in C Minor.”
“My legs are long enough for the pedal, but still my legs aren’t straight,” Marc says. “I sometimes have to sit close to the piano or stretch my legs.” He says his left hand can reach an octave, but his right hand isn’t quite there yet.
Marc says he can only vaguely recall beginning to play the piano. He says his mother has told him over and over that he was 2. He does remember his recital debut, when he was 3. He played a G major sonatina by Beethoven.
That same year, he asked his mom if he could become a pianist. These days, he practices up to eight hours a day, depending on his schedule and his mood. “Practice makes perfect,” he says. “You don’t want a Beethoven piece to sound like something else. That’s disrespectful to the composer.”
Virtually every psychological study that investigates expert “performers” – from chess grandmasters to concert pianists to brain surgeons – concludes that what separates these individuals from their peers is the amount of “deliberate practice” they are willing to endure. If there is an innate difference between Yo Yo Ma and a mediocre cellist, or between Tiger Woods and your golfing uncle, it is a willingness to practice, and not an innate aptitude for the cello or the 9 iron. As K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State University, wrote in his influential article “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” “The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance.” Ericsson estimates that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” before a person can become a world class expert. If Marc Yu puts in an average of 1500 hours of practice per year (probably a lowball estimate), and he began practicing the piano at the age of two, then it’s possible that he’s already crossed the 10,000 hours threshold.
This is a deeply counter-intuitive idea. Although we pretend to be egalitarians, we really believe that the talented are naturally “gifted”. You and I can’t become chess grandmasters, or brain surgeons, or concert pianists, simply because we don’t have the necessary anatomy. Endless hours of hard work won’t compensate for our biological limitations. When fate was handing out skill, we got screwed.
But there is virtually no evidence that expert performers are born with extraordinary brains. In fact, the average IQ of people at the top of their field – whether they are surgeons or politicians, pianists or painters – equals that of the average college student. In other words, their expertise is very specific, confined to a particular “cognitive domain”. Mark Yu might be able to make Tchaikovsky look easy, but I bet I could take him in Guitar Hero.