Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

Seeking the Story Behind Genius

Two High Achievers

Alisa Weilerstein is my age. She’s a cello player and she just won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her “adventurous” playing.

Adam Riess, an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University, just won a Nobel Prize for his work measuring the universe’s expansion.

It’s easy to admire such high accomplishments from a distance. For those of us with low self-esteem, we can dismissively conclude that some people are just born brilliant, and should be admired much in the way we admire natural beauty or a lush head of hair. For those of us who are more Type A, we can instead derive a hazy sense of inspiration: “That’s what I need do,” we think, “something huge!”

I find it more productive, however, to dig a little deeper.

In an interview with The New York Times, for example, Weilerstein pushes back against the idea that she was born a musical prodigy.

“Obviously there is natural talent,” she said. “But you accomplish things only by working extremely hard.”

This echoes what has been found again and again in the deliberate practice literature: the best musicians, athletes, and chess players, among other group of high accomplishers, really do out work everyone else.

For those in the Type A camp, by contrast, a recent interview with Reiss pushes back on the idea that it’s enough to simply wait for your breakthrough idea.

When talking about the inspiration that led to his Nobel, Reiss emphasized that his breakthrough was based on the fact that “I am always thinking about how to measure the universe.” It was this complete immersion in the problem — something that persisted over years and years — that laid the foundation for his innovations in parallax measurement.

The conclusion for the Type A’s: if you want to do something big, talk is cheap, it’s more important to get started down the long road to mastery.

Bottom Line: Obviously these quotes are just scratching the surface of the deeper stories lurking behind the headlines, but they emphasize my basic point: I find high achievers to be incredibly inspiring and instructive, but only when I get into the details of their stories. When admired from afar, they provide little value. I think it’s important that we keep discussing how to understand the high achievers we encounter, because becoming adept at reality-based deconstruction of these stories seems to be a key strategy in any quest to become remarkable.


26 thoughts on “Seeking the Story Behind Genius”

  1. “Obviously there is natural talent”. I’m not sure what that really means. What is natural talent, as opposed to skills you develop by through practice and learning?

  2. Whenever I think of the dichotomy between natural talent and hard work, I am always reminded of Gary Kasparov’s excerpt in “How Life Imitates Chess”:

    “Why isn’t the capacity for hard work considered a natural talent? If a soccer player who is short and can’t run fast practices more than everyone else and becomes the superior player, has he overcome a talent deficit or simply exploited his talent to work harder and found a way to be successful through determination and focus?”

    What are your thoughts on that?

  3. Paul, good question, you’re talking about the greyest of grey areas there. When we’re born we have basically our genes, which will lend to certain athletic endeavors, handed-ness, which relates to which side of the brain we favor (left brain, analysis/logic, right brain, holistic, creative, etc). Pretty much everything beyond that is nurture: the food you eat, the people that surround you in your formative years.

    I think there are some very very bright people who like to think that they are ‘gifted’ (like Will Hunting-types), but often the ‘gift’ is the environment that they were raised (as Malcolm Gladwell points out, rich kids often have much more productive summers than poor kids) and not some super special cellular/neurological makeup.

    Sometimes the ‘gift’ comes in the form of a ‘personal hell’: it’s not all sunshine and lollipops. Without naming names, I’ve heard of a number of famous actors comedians, and artists who grew up in deplorable living conditions, and developed a part of their personality to overcome that, kind of like how England in the early 20th century developed so much technology to overcome the fact that they had very limited natural resources to trade/sell (or to use an American example: the North during the time of the civil war did the exact same thing).

    ‘Obviously there is natural talent’ is a throwaway line, but its the casual and flippant way in which she says it that leads the reader to ask, ‘hey wait, do you have any evidence to back that up?’

    Well spotted.

  4. This post is a good reminder for us not to focus so much on the success event that we forget about the story behind that event.

    As shown in this post, the story is often filled with challenges and an incredible amount of hard work.

    Focus on the process, and the event will eventually occur.

  5. Using the term “natural talent” isn’t necessarily a throwaway line, at least when one considers the venue/audience as a newspaper interview not an academic paper. Natural talent for a cellist likely refers to having the combination of a certain hand and finger shape, dexterity and flexibility of joints, finely tuned hearing, and mathematically-inclined mind. Saying “what that means” requires a hyperspecific answer that changes for any pursuit or skill one is considering. For example, the span of one’s hand can quite literally make or break whether somebody can be a concert pianist. Hand span, from what I understand of the cello, is significantly less important. Sure, if you deconstruct the term “natural talent”, then no that combination of words doesn’t quite add up to the intended meaning. But to expect her to explicate the meaning of that statement during a newspaper interview is a bit ridiculous, and your protest comes off as just pointing out an odd foible of conversational English and a bit like a puerile “gotcha” moment.

  6. “ For example, the span of one’s hand can quite literally make or break whether somebody can be a concert pianist. Hand span, from what I understand of the cello, is significantly less important”

    Completely agreed. I just disagree that certain people are born with a mind or genetic interest or ability in a particular endeavor (like Kobe Bryant being “born to play basketball”, when in fact his father was an NBA player, and sent him videotapes from a young age to study the legends like Michael and Oscar Robertson). I’m just referring to Nurture, and you’re referring to Physiology–Genetics. That’s cool.

  7. @Michael A. Robson: I just wanted to point out, that it is actually wrong about the handed-ness link to right vs. left-brain functioning. It’s been debunked many, many times, and it just doesn’t work that way. All our behaviors and cognitive functions are integrated across the brain, through both hemispheres. Much of the information is carried out by both hemispheres of the brain, but — sometimes — in different ways, so it may complement rather than substitute being carried out by right vs. left brain hemisphere. Hope that helps.

  8. I’ve seen a few studies recently about the need for natural talent and that deliberate practice alone is not always enough.

    Michigan State did a study on the effect of working memory on expert performance:

    Another link on sports performance and practice:

    Finally, if you are interested in the thinking process of MacArthur Grant recipients, there is a book called Uncommon Genius that is based on interviews of 40 of them. Some parts seemed less useful than others, but I think it was worth reading.

  9. Wow, you guys denying “natural talent”? Natural talent (being born with the innate capacity to do certain things much, much better than others) is undeniably a fact of life. I can give examples from athletics to all sorts of brain work or performance or dance. I taught in a theater school for a while and some people were just really good and didn’t need to work that hard and others sucked and no matter how hard they worked did not improve –certain things like the tone of your voice, your looks, etc. etc. for being an actor are hugely important –do you think other careers don’t have cognates?

  10. Declan,

    What, specifically, is an undeniable fact of life? Some of the examples you give relate not to talent but genetics (as you mentioned Good looking actors–that’s not a talent). If someone’s body is not built for dance or the 40 metre dash, that’s not talent either.

    I would classify talent as something that can be learned, but what cannot be learned is loving dance, painting, or computer programming (as a young Bill Gates did beginning around age 13). It’s loving something to do something that gives you the strength and positive feedback to push past the early stages and challenges, as you log your 10,000 hours. 😉

    And besides, why would you want to do something you didn’t enjoy for 10,000 hours? The ‘hopeless dancers’ you cite probably don’t want to be there. Lots of parents do this to their kids. For some young girls it’s dance, for me, as a guy, it was Piano Lessons and 4-H. *sigh*

  11. I understand how a musician can engage in deliberate practice, but how an astronomer (or any researcher, really) does it is much less clear to me. Is it about reading lots of papers or doing lots of experiments? Any more insights into Reiss’ process?

  12. I agree with Cal’s assertion–you’ve gotta devote yourself beyond belief to a single ideal/problem/goal. Take fermat’s last theorem, a mathematical problem that couldn’t be solved for centuries. Andrew Wiles (a princeton mathemetician) spent many years (I’ve heard anywhere from six to more than ten years) in secrecy trying to solve one math problem.

  13. “Obviously there’s natural talent. I’m not sure what that really means

    She’s probably referring to the experience, shared by many virtuosos, of starting to move away from the pack in terms of ability pretty early on in life. The most natural conclusion is that some early natural talent played a role in that separation (even though an incredibly amount of work was subsequently required to keep improving). But even that conclusion is now debated. Lot’s of work talks about small differences in circumstances and training leading to those early separations from the pack that then snowball into larger and larger separations.

    Why isn’t the capacity for hard work considered a natural talent?

    Because it can depend on all sorts of environmental factors. Gladwell, for example, talks about young hockey players who due to when they were born were sorted into more advanced teams that received more intense training and attention. This opened up an early gap between their performance and their peers, which gave them the motivation to work even harder, and so on. There quite a few studies of this type. Small differences early on can help build a capacity (and more importantly, confidence) for sustained hard work.

    Focus on the process, and the event will eventually occur.

    Well summarized. Events have all sorts of randomness involved and can be unpredictable. Processes are much more consistent to replicate.

    there is a book called Uncommon Genius that is based on interviews of 40 of them.

    I keep hearing about this book. People tend to give it the same review you did: not great, but parts that are interesting. It’s probably that luke warm reaction that’s kept me away, but perhaps I should bite the bullet and pull out what I can. (The other things that makes me nervous about it is the huge diversity of pursuits that are rewarded by the MacArthur…)

    Wow, you guys denying “natural talent”?

    I think it’s less “us guys” denying natural talent, and more our citing of a robust research literature. For popular summary, see TALENT IS OVERRATED, THE TALENT CODE, OUTLIERS, etc. They all point to the same idea, that when you find people at different ability levels, the explanations is usually a lot less “natural” than you think.

    I understand how a musician can engage in deliberate practice, but how an astronomer (or any researcher, really) does it is much less clear to me.

    For a researcher, I think stretching yourself to understand a new technique that’s beyond what’s comfortable to you, and then applying that technique to a new place: that’s our equivalent of deliberate practice. It stretches our mind, improves our ability, and increases the value of our results.

  14. You say, “for a researcher, it is stretching yourself to understand a new technique that’s beyond what’s comfortable to you, and then applying that technique to a new place: that’s our equivalent of deliberate practice.”

    I am assuming by a new technique you are referring to specific research techniques (critical theory, grounded theory, case study are some examples from the social sciences). I agree with an earlier post of yours when you suggested that a remarkable career for a researcher requires remarkable research. It seems to me that producing remarkable research may be less about research techniques and more about great and provocative research questions. I would think the centerpiece of deliberate practice for a researcher would be generating research questions. I also think committing oneself to a particular line of research (innovation for example) and then embarking on consistent and deliberate study and research (perhaps this is where your comment on new research techniques come into play) in that area would be a part of a researcher’s deliberate practice.

    Does genius in research require deep expertise in a narrow area or the ability to think and connect broadly across disciplines? Or is this a false dichotomy?

  15. The people interviewed in Uncommon Genius mostly came from the art side of things, though there are a few scientists. I was a bit disappointed by that (no offense to the arts). That said, it should be fairly cheap used.

    If there are books that elaborate on talent development/deliberate practice in technical/research fields, I’d like to hear about them. There seems to be a lot more out there on deliberate practice in sports, chess, and music. Are those areas more suited to deliberate practice and measurement of success, or have they just developed better methods for practice and teaching/coaching? I think the latter plays a role, especially after seeing the Atul Gawande piece and lots of reading on deliberate practice. The former probably plays a role too, even if its just that those areas seem more open to improving one’s performance.

  16. ” I think it’s important that we keep discussing how to understand the high achievers we encounter, because becoming adept at reality-based deconstruction of these stories seems to be a key strategy in any quest to become remarkable.”

    Oh really? I don’t see these high achievers writing BLOG POSTS and doing ‘reality-based deconstruction of these stories’…

    So how did they become remarkable Cal?

  17. Thanks for the inspiration! I have been racking my brains on my topic for a leadership paper and I think this is what I’d like to do. How are leaders become who they are. Any suggestions on how I can approach such reality-based deconstruction?

  18. So I was just discussing this topic with a friend of mine who is a PhD in musicology at harvard and while he’s not an expert on the history of “talent” or outliers like Malcolm Gladwell et al, he said if you look at the major composers yeah there was a lot of hard work but many of them were undeniably gifted –there was no moving away from the pack because they never were part of the pack. He told me several facts about Mozart, for example, and his ability to pick up an instrument he had never even played and be able to learn how to play it in a few short days(the violin). He was composing and playing several instruments at a fairly high level at 5 years(this is a fact, not some romantic myth, this info is from an academic history on the topic). So Mozart is an extreme example, but if this is true –it’s only an extreme case of what a lot of high achievers probably have in terms of genetic predilection or gifts or whatever you want to call it.

    Also, my friend said that if you look at the history of music, music went from being relatively more skill oriented to being more “concept-oriented” so the kind of talent mozart had may not have been necessary for people to make an impact, i.e. schoenberg or modern music is based more on ideas, then on the type of virtuosity and skill motzart or many other classical musicians had –John Cage is the most extreme example in this other direction where skill and talent become meaningless –though he’s still considered a revolutionary in the art/music world.

    Regardless, my friend said mozart did work very, very hard throughout his childhood, he was obsessed by music, but to deny that he had a gift is preposterous!! Moreover, he said Mozart’s skill and talent would have amounted to nothing if his father had not promoted him doing all sorts of stunts that we would now consider only possible by the top hollywood agents or publicists. Again, i’m making a distinction between talent and success –the latter does not necessarily follow from the former.

    Lastly, I just want to echo what one of the posters above said –why aren’t all these genius’ doing reality based deconstructions or writing blog posts?

    Cal Newport, if it’s just a matter of time and practice etc. why aren’t you a revolutionary computer scientist? You’re successful to a certain degree. And I applaud you for the fact that unlike most of the top self-help gurus you are not a one trick pony(i.e. you don’t just make money off your motivational speeches and books), you’re actually a computer science professor which is admirable, but you’re not close(none of us are) to like the Steve Martin’s or Bill Gates’ or that Harvard society of fellows guy you’re always on about or any number of people. Your main achievement is that you seem to be a good teacher and you write good books that help people get good grades in high school. I fully, fully believe that you can help people do well in college(no small feat) –but as for deconstructing or reproducing or emulating true talent or genius or even world class level success -GOOD LUCK!

  19. yeah and i’m just curious what all you 10 000 hours people would say about Tom Ford, the designer, who decieded at the age of 47 to make a film and produced one of the best films of 2009 –a film so good it garnered a few oscar nominations, including one for it’s lead actor. Ford had never picked up a camera or written a script before producing the screenplay for the film and directing it.

    True, he did have a long career in fashion, so he had developed a certain aesthetic taste and skill that involved visual design components, but he had never written squat nor had he taken any directing classes or spent 10000 hours practicing anything. Will you claim that directing then is not a talent (i.e. something you can get good at?). I don’t really know myself –I would say you need ability– but I’m not sure that ability is something that involves deliberate practice, even though it involves skill.

    One of the most innovative directors right now is a guy named Steve McQueen whose films HUNGER and SHAME have both won multiple awards and he transitioned from film after a career as a performance artist –clearly, again some transferrable skills –but he also co-wrote the scripts etc.. and I don’t see how he was practicing either directing or writing as a performance artist whose media were nothing like film. That said, with both Ford and McQUeen they leveraged their success in other fields (fashion, art) and used that momentum to get directing gigs. I think momentum and confidence attained through success and a lot of talent and taste explains their success –but I don’t think the kind of talent they have came from systematic, deliberate practice AT ALL. A lot of it did come from certain innate predilections undoubtedly, and also experience that was formed through much messier circumstances than deliberate practice –it’s really more a bizarre mixture of factors that lead one to enhance and develop some of these creative abilities. Hard work, but I don’t think you can reverse engineer it.

    I think maybe Cal’s techniques are great if you want to achieve something simple, like an A plus in your french class –indeed I used his techniques when I went back to school to do a college level french class–and I scored a 98 percent! But I don’t really see how those same techniques can necessarily be used to become something more complicated like the genius level folks Cal discusses.


Leave a Comment