Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet LVIII

Here's an excerpt from a book I just read, "Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success," by Adam Grant:

In the 1980s, the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a landmark study of world-class musicians, scientists, and athletes. Bloom’s team interviewed twenty-one concert pianists who were finalists in major international competitions. When the researchers began to dig into the eminent pianists’ early experiences with music, they discovered an unexpected absence of raw talent. The study showed that early on most of the star pianists seemed “special only when comparing one child with others in the family or neighborhood.” They didn’t stand out on a local, regional, or national level—and they didn’t win many early competitions.

When Bloom’s team interviewed the world-class pianists and their parents, they stumbled upon another surprise. The pianists didn’t start out learning from piano teachers who were experts. They typically took their first piano lessons with a teacher who lived nearby in their neighborhoods. In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle writes that “From a scientific perspective, it was as if the researchers had traced the lineage of the world’s most beautiful swans back to a scruffy flock of barnyard chickens.” Over time, even without an expert teacher at the outset, the pianists managed to become the best musicians in the world. The pianists gained their advantage by practicing many more hours than their peers. As Malcolm Gladwell showed us in Outliers, research led by psychologist Anders Ericsson reveals that attaining expertise in a domain typically requires ten thousand hours of deliberate practice. But what motivates people to practice at such length in the first place? This is where givers often enter the picture. 

When the pianists and their parents talked about their first piano teachers, they consistently focused on one theme: the teachers were caring, kind, and patient. The pianists looked forward to piano lessons because their first teachers made music interesting and fun. “The children had very positive experiences with their first lessons. They made contact with another adult, outside their home, who was warm, supportive, and loving,” Bloom’s team explains. The world-class pianists had their initial interest sparked by teachers who were givers. The teachers looked for ways to make piano lessons enjoyable, which served as an early catalyst for the intense practice necessary to develop expertise. “Exploring possibilities and engaging in a wide variety of musical activities took precedence” over factors such as “right or wrong or good or bad.” 

The same patterns emerged for world-class tennis players. When Bloom’s team interviewed eighteen American tennis players who had been ranked in the top ten in the world, they found that although their first coaches “were not exceptional coaches, they tended to be very good with young children . . . What this first coach provided was motivation for the child to become interested in tennis and to spend time practicing.” In roles as leaders and mentors, givers resist the temptation to search for talent first. By recognizing that anyone can be a bloomer, givers focus their attention on motivation. The top-ranked tennis players tended to have a first coach who took “a special interest in the tennis player,” Bloom’s team notes, “usually because he perceived the player as being motivated and willing to work hard, rather than because of any special physical abilities.”
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