Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn By Studying Amazing Kids : NPR Ed In the age-old fight between hard work and talent, researcher Anders Ericsson says it's no contest. Practice wins the day.

Practice Makes Possible: What We Learn By Studying Amazing Kids

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When it comes to learning how to be really good at something, which matters more, practice or talent? You'll find one answer in the new book "Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise." It was written by Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University. He has spent decades exploring the power of practice, starting with one remarkable study. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team has that story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: If I read out a bunch of random digits - five, three, nine, seven, one, six, two - how many can you remember in order? For most people, it's a phone number - about seven. Well, in the summer of 1977, Anders Ericsson left Stockholm for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There he teamed up with the famous psychology professor Bill Chase to see if, with the right practice, someone could remember a lot more than seven digits.

ANDERS ERICSSON: Steve actually started improving in a way that was really mind-boggling even to us.

TURNER: Steve was Steve Faloon, an undergrad who agreed to a few hours a week one summer trying to remember random digits. Ericsson says by summer's end...

ERICSSON: It's probably the one time in my research experience where I really felt that excitement and, in some ways, that mystery feeling that you were having an experience that haven't been had by anybody else.

TURNER: Each session was recorded. This tape is from a very big day. First they quickly read Steve the numbers.


STEVE FALOON: Four, one, three, one, seven, seven...

TURNER: Then Steve would try to recite them back. Ericsson encouraged him to think out loud like this.


ERICSSON: OK, OK, OK, all right. Now, this one is...

TURNER: Faloon was also an animated guy who loved the challenge. So there was a lot of this...


FALOON: OK, all right, all right.

TURNER: Once he'd psyched himself up, he got to work.


FALOON: Four, 13.1, 77, 84...

TURNER: Do you hear what he's doing there? Steve was on the cross-country team, and after struggling early on in the study, he realized he could remember more digits if he grouped them together like running times.


FALOON: Eleven, 46.2!

TURNER: And with that emphatic two, Steve set a new personal best. He'd remembered 22 digits. Now, to appreciate how hard that is, do you remember the seven digits I gave you at the start of this story? I didn't think so.

After two years of deliberate practice, always pushing at the edges of Steve's ability and developing new memory strategies whenever he hit a wall, Steve torched his old record. At his peak, he could remember 82 digits. To prove Steve was no fluke, Ericsson recruited one of his friends from the cross-country team, Dario Donatelli.

DARIO DONATELLI: I mean, I became so intrigued. Boy, I got 15 today, got 16 and 17. And then when Steve would start to egg you on, you know, you wanted to do better than him.

TURNER: Steve Faloon died not long after of a rare disease, but Dario spent more than five years in the study. His peak - 113 random digits. Ericsson says while the study was about short-term memory, the takeaway applies to tennis, too, and chess and violin. Pick your passion. In short, practice makes possible. Today Ericsson is deeply skeptical of the idea that we're all born with some kind of talent or natural gift.

ERICSSON: And I think it's a very counterproductive view that your task as a high school student or college student is that you're supposed to go around testing things to find your gift because I've yet to find anybody who finds a gift.

TURNER: Instead, he says, find something that you want to do. Surround yourself with people who can help you, and get practicing. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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