As a young teenager on the main line of Philadelphia, I had big hoop dreams. I practiced my layup for hours at my school auditorium, imagining myself as the next Michael Jordan. That is, until a classmate named Kobe Bryant came along and I saw what the next Michael Jordan really looked like. Let’s just say that when ESPN dropped in to film Bryant playing against his school pals (and killing us) it became crystal clear to me: No matter how hard I practiced, I’d never be like Kobe.
When I was 16, I decided to take up the cello. Though my grandfather, Harry Gorodetzer, was an accomplished cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I’d never touched the instrument. When I asked Harry to start giving me lessons, he was thrilled and we went to work. Right away, I became obsessed. I started practicing during each lunch hour, and after just a few months of playing I got a higher ranking in the school orchestra than a student who had started years earlier. My progress was so rapid that at graduation I was awarded the music department prize. What a contrast from my performance on the court!
Lately, research such as K. Anders Ericsson’s work on the importance of “deliberate practice”—strategic training that focuses on improving one’s weak spots as well as building on one’s strengths—has been getting a lot of play, giving the misguided impression that anyone could be a top musician or athlete if they put in the immense amount of time it takes to master a complex skill. While that may be technically true, it’s not always realistic. To engage in deliberate practice you need a huge helping of motivation. And where does such passion to improve come from? Often it’s in our genes. Merely inheriting some of my grandfather’s string prowess wasn’t enough—I had to do the work. But would I have been willing to callus my fingers if my music-ready mind weren’t so completely enraptured by cello playing? I doubt it.
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