September 9, 2010, 9:00 PM
The Effort Is the Prize
By PETER ORSZAG
Peter Orszag on the economy, health care, education and behavioral economics.
An earlier post highlighted the evidence that in many arenas, purposeful practice is the key to high performance. In other words, top performers in complex fields like medicine, math and chess become that way through repeated and focused practice that builds their skills until their performance seems almost super-human — rather than being born with highly exceptional skill.
Some readers have questioned the evidence, arguing that it is too simplistic and that even with hard and dedicated practice, not everyone could become Mozart. Perhaps. But at the very least, the evidence presented in Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” and elsewhere should convince skeptics that the conventional wisdom significantly exaggerates the relative role of innate and immutable ability in complex tasks. (Notice the word “complex.” Dedicated practice has larger payoffs the more complex the task; in more straightforward tasks, innate ability plays a larger role.)
Or to phrase it differently, it seems plausible that many more people than commonly believed (but perhaps not all people!) have sufficient innate skill to perform at world-class levels in complex fields with sufficient practice; the problem is that they do not undertake the necessary practice. Indeed, the examples we have of individuals who put in 10,000 or more hours of dedicated practice and fail to achieve stunning levels of performance is quite limited — because most people are not willing to put in that time and effort.
A fundamental question thus becomes why some people are willing to undertake repeated and focused practice and others aren’t. It is not sufficient merely to log 10,000 hours “practicing” a complex task; one must sustain an intensity that seems beyond the reach of most people, and that must come from loving the process. You can’t just force yourself to do it; you must somehow actually enjoy it.
So why can some people do this and others can’t? And even if the end result of purposeful practice is not always (or even usually) performance at the gold-medal level, are there lessons from those experiences that can be useful in earning the equivalent of the bronze?
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that what she calls “mindset” (in her 2006 book of that name) plays a crucial role in sustaining the necessary type of intense practice — and that the right mindset can be quite useful even if your goal is not to win the gold. Dweck puts forward two mindsets — a fixed mindset, which occurs when someone believes that personal qualities like intelligence are immutable, and a growth mindset, which occurs when someone believes that skills and characteristics can be cultivated through effort. In the fixed mindset, success is showing you’re talented; in the growth mindset, it’s developing yourself.
The evidence Dweck and others present, albeit only suggestive, indicates that the growth mindset is what sustains purposeful practice even when things are not going well (which is when most mortals give up). In particular, Dweck shows dramatic differences in how people with a growth mindset react to difficulty, assess their own strengthens and weaknesses, and engage in skill-building but challenging exercises relative to those with a fixed mindset.
Dweck also suggests that many ways in which we encourage students are counterproductive. “You’re so smart” makes the fixed mindset more salient; “I’m proud of how hard you’re working and that you enjoy the challenge” makes the growth mindset more salient.
Benjamin Cardozo once wrote that “in the end, the great truth will have been learned, that the quest is greater than that which is sought, the effort finer than the prize, or rather, that the effort is the prize . . . ” If the evidence from Syed and Dweck is right — and it seems that way to me — embracing the unconventional perspective that the effort itself is the prize is ironically also more likely to lead to the conventional “prize.”