In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell went after the question of why some people are highly successful. It wasn’t enough to just ask them how they did it, he wanted to know where they came from and what situations allowed them to be positioned for greatness.

One way people become successful is referred to by Gladwell as the 10,000-Hour Rule. He borrows this theory from K. Anders Ericcson of Florida State Univeristy. This “rule” refers to the fact that many of the people considered outliers in our history have devoted around 10,000 hours to honing their craft. Meaning Michael Jordan practiced basketball around 10,000 hours, Bill Gates spent around 10,000 hours programming, and Beethoven spent around 10,000 hours composing.

Jonah Lehrer, the author of Frontal Cortex (a blog), recently wrote about this. He, like myself, was left with some questions after this information.

“That’s interesting, right? Talent is about practice. Talent takes effort. Talent requires a good coach. But these answers only raise more questions. What, for instance, allows someone to practice for so long? Why are some people so much better at deliberate practice? If talent is about hard work, then what factors influence how hard we can work?”

If people have a general idea of what it takes to be great at something, what is that keeps them from doing what they most likely understand to be the only way to greatness?

To answer these questions Lehrer refers to a recent study done by Angela Duckworth, titled “Deliberate Practice Spells Success,” that focuses on children that compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Ms. Duckworth wanted to know what the best predictor of performance was among the children.

There are three main ways children prepare for the spelling bee, according to the research:

  1. Quizzes from others (people or computers)
  2. Leisure reading that indirectly affects the memory of spelling
  3. Deliberate practice done alone by a child (usually involving note cards)

She believes that number 3, deliberate practice, will be the best indicator. The reason why she hypothesizes this is that deliberate practice includes the use of a character trait she refers to as grit, which is defined in the paper as “the tendency to pursue long-term challenging goals with perseverance and passion.”

Here’s a graph of responses from the 190 participants in the survey about each of the three study methods:

The important thing to note is that although it required the most effort and was among the most relevant study method, deliberate practice was the least enjoyable technique. This probably makes sense to you. I know I would rather be quizzed by someone else or read, instead of doing flash cards.

But even more interestingly,

“Early in their competitive spelling careers, spellers devoted more time to being quizzed than to deliberate practice, but over time, they increasingly favored deliberate practice over being quizzed to prepare for competition.”

What this shows is that even though we are only talking about 11- and 12-year olds, they already understand the importance of deliberate practice if they want to succeed.

In the end, the authors of the report proved their hypothesis correct.

“Our major findings in this investigation are as follows: Deliberate practice—operationally defined in the current investigation as the solitary study of word spellings and origins—was a better predictor of National Spelling Bee performance than either being quizzed by others or engaging in leisure reading. With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance.”

What the data showed was the importance of grit.

“Not surprisingly, those with grit are more single-minded about their goals – they tend to get obsessed with certain activities – and also more likely to persist in the face of struggle and failure. Woody Allen famously declared that ‘Eighty percent of success is showing up’. Grit is what allows you show up again and again.”

Lehrer, in his blog post, says there are two main takeaways from this. The first is that, “there’s a major contradiction between how we measure talent and the causes of talent.” He refers to the NFL combine and how they test each draft pick in a series of tests that only looks at maximal performance. What is missing from the tests, and perhaps what matters most, is how does the individual perform week after week, and season after season? The combine, as designed, cannot include this characteristic. Perhaps this is why number 1 selections like Jamarcus Russell happen and are subsequently a disaster for the team that drafts them. Sure he could perform, but did he have the grit to come to practice week after week and put in the work needed to excel in the NFL? History would suggest that no, he didn’t. The second big lesson

“involves the growing recognition of “non-cognitive” skills like grit and self-control. While such traits have little or nothing to do with intelligence (as measured by IQ scores), they often explain a larger share of individual variation when it comes to life success. It doesn’t matter if one is looking at retention rates at West Point or teacher performance within the Teach for America program or success in the spelling bee: Factors like grit are often the most predictive variables of real world performance. Thomas Edison was right: even genius is mostly just perspiration.”

I think there’s a third big lesson here: you cannot succeed spiritually if you do not possess spiritual grit. Just as there are no natural born spellers, there are no natural born spiritually devoted followers of Christ. These are both things we must work hard at. Children who want to succeed in the spelling bee must prepare by spending the time deliberately practicing on their own. Followers of Christ must spend the time deliberately reading God’s Word if they want to “succeed” spiritually. (We’ll define success as coming to know God in an intimate way, and truly accepting that Jesus was the Christ.) Nothing will substitute for spending time alone in the Bible in the wee hours of the morning. Not reading other books about the Gospel, and not discussing it with others. These are both good and necessary parts of Christian faith, and indeed, just like having others quiz you and leisure reading, they seem more enjoyable than deliberate reading of God’s Word. Being a devoted follower of Christ requires true grit.

I want to close this the same way Jonah Lehrer ended his post:

“Taken together, these studies suggest that our most important talent is having a talent for working hard, for practicing even when practice isn’t fun. It’s about putting in the hours when we’d rather be watching TV, or drilling ourselves with notecards filled with obscure words instead of getting quizzed by a friend. Success is never easy. That’s why talent requires grit.”


Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee by Angela Duckworth, Teri Kirby, Eli Tsukayama, Heather Berstein and K. Anders Ericsson

Which Traits Predict Success? by Jonah Lehrer


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