The New Yorker:
Zach Hambrick has always been fascinated by exceptional performance, or what he calls “the extremes of human capabilities.” Growing up, he’d devour Guinness World Records, noting the feats it described and picturing himself proudly posing in its pages. By the time he reached college, though, he’d moved on to a new obsession: becoming a golf pro. “I was very serious about it,” he told me. “I practiced religiously. It was very deliberate practice.” Every day, for hours, he’d be out swinging and putting. He expected to find himself on his way to glory. Except it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, young Zach was confronted with an uncomfortable truth: “I just wasn’t very good.” He saw other students, even kids around town—many of them, far less devoted and far less driven—and many of them played a better game. When he tried out for the college team, he didn’t even come close to making it. “I thought, What is the deal here?”
There, he ended up working with Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology. A couple of years earlier, Ericsson and Neil Charness had published a provocative paper arguing that training and so-called deliberate practice could describe performance differences that had been previously ascribed to innate talent.
So where else, exactly, do performance differences come from? While Hambrick’s work has been focussed more explicitly on practice and genetics, David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, has been approaching the question from a slightly different angle: through what’s called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (smpy), a longitudinal study of the lives of students who, by the age of thirteen, had scored in the top one per cent of mathematical-reasoning ability and were then selected to take part in an enriched educational environment.
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