Learning Lab

What is your true potential?

By Amy Brann

How much of your true potential is determined by the genes you do or do not have? How much is down to your environment? Or the education and experiences you had before you were 7?

Anders Ericsson may hold the answer to this question. He has spent the last 20 years studying geniuses and other superior performers. What comes next may excite or disappoint you (or just plain interest you!). Ericsson says that the difference between the normal and the superior is the willingness to “stretch yourself to the limit and increase your control over your performance”.  He carried out a study at the Music Academy of West Berlin where he found that the difference between the superior students and the good students worked out to be around 6,000 hours. (Email me at amy@synapticpotential.com if you want the breakdown of how this was calculated).

This same pattern of focused, determined consistent solitary practice was seen across athletes, chess players and mathematicians.

I personally found the following quote from Ericsson very inspiring so will share it with you here. “For the superior performer the goal isn’t just repeating the same thing again and again but achieving higher levels of control over every aspect of their performance. That’s why they don’t find practice boring. Each practice session they are working on doing something better than they did the last time”.

What really stands out from Ericsson’s work is the drive for individuals to stay engaged. In normal life the tendency can be to gain competency as quickly as possible, for example with making dinner – so long as its edible and safe its ready to be eaten. For a superior chef they are always seeking to improve a component, each time a dish is made it has the potential to be better than the last.

Pianist Busoni reiterates this (although he did say it first in 1913) “I never neglect an opportunity to improve no matter how perfect a previous interpretation may have seemed to me. In fact, I often go directly home from a concert and practice for hours upon the very pieces that I have been playing because during the concert certain new ideas came to me”.

For us I believe there are two potential questions:

  1. Do you want to be superior in something?
  2. If so, what?

Sam Snead (voted 4th best golfer of the 20th Century) said “it all comes back to the question of how much you’re willing to pay for success”

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