Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Talent for Practice

I recently read Complications: A surgeon's notes on an imperfect science written by Atul Gawande. He uses anecdotes from his days as a resident to introduce the reader to discussions about mistakes, failures, uncertainty, and mystery. I highly recommend this book to any medical professional and, if you are into thoughtful discussion about the human element of life and work, I'd recommend it to you, too, regardless of your chosen profession. I was particularly drawn in by this passage and have been contemplating it for a couple of weeks now:
Surgeons, as a group, adhere to a curious egalitarianism. They believe in practice, not talent. People often assume that you have to have great hands to become a surgeon, but it's not true... To be sure, talent helps. Professors say every two or three years they'll see someone truly gifted come through a program - someone who picks up complex manual skills unusually quickly, sees the operative field as a whole, notices trouble before it happens. Nonetheless, attending surgeons say that what's most important to them is finding people who are conscientious, industrious, and boneheaded enough to stick at practicing this one difficult thing day and night for years on end. As one professor of surgery put it to me, given a choice between a Ph.D. who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the Ph.D. every time. Sure, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the Ph.D. being less "flaky." And in the end that matters more. Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught; tenacity cannot. They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them, and then take most of their faculty from these same homegrown ranks. 
And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers - international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians, and so forth - and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one's willingness to engage in sustained training. He's found, for example, that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do. But more than others, they have the will to keep at it any. 
I've added underlines for emphasis on the statements that really struck a chord in me. This is an interesting excerpt, especially in a society that values talent so highly. Anyone logical could probably reason that practice is really what makes perfect, but to have someone in a field in which talent is perceived to be so highly regarded explain so skillfully that talent is not what got him where he is, is quite refreshing. Personally, it's also pretty inspiring and forces me to tweak my perception of success and how to gain it. I've been fortunate enough to have been successful to the point where I am now, but I can't help but fear what will happen next. In a few months I'll be jumping out into the abyss on my own in a world of science that is every changing and never completely knowable. How will I keep up? Especially because I will no longer have the crutch of schooling helping me through it all. More and more I realize what "life-long learning" truly means in it's most basic form: I'll have to keep practicing. Hopefully I have that talent.

Gawande, A. Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science. New York, NY: Picador; 2002.

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