Are You Born Great or Made Great?

Why Practice Makes Perfect

But the fundamental question on talent: are you born great or made great? The data reveals that whether you want to be a tennis champion, like Monica Seles, or a world class soprano like Renne Flemming, nothing determines our ability to succeed more than three simple words grandmothers have been telling us for centuries: practice makes perfect.

But not just any kind of practice will suffice. Dubner and Levitt said it has to be "deliberate practice."

"It says that if we set out to practice a particular thing in a given way that we will get a lot better at things," Dubner said.

In other words, you cannot be successful unless you practice frequently, with the desire and intention to get better; and with a coach or a teacher giving you feedback. That kind of practice made Seles a world tennis champion -- even though she had no tennis court to practice on for years.

"My dad just took a ... a simple string and put it between two cars in the parking lot in front of our high-rise building, and that's kind of where I started playing tennis," she said. "I played like that for almost two years and ... my fundamentals of the game were really learned out on a parking lot. So any time I talk to kids nowadays, I really tell them that no matter where you start playing, if you have the right fundamentals and you really work at it, I think good things can come."

Doctors: Better with Age?

Dubner said the data reinforces the values of the work-ethic: "When you get that good at something, you've worked at it in a way that other people haven't worked."

But it doesn't end there. Even after you have acquired a specialized skill, not practicing can have real negative consequences.

"It turns out that -- one of the few kinds of doctors who research suggests get better as they get older are surgeons. The reason seems to be is because they're getting constant feedback. Every time you operate you know pretty well and pretty fast how you did," Dubner said.

Dubner said that a skill like surgery differs from mammography, where technicians don't get quick feedback on their performance.

"It turns out that a lot of doctors [that perform mammograms] are never better than ... the day they left medical school," Dubner said.

While that statistic is not very reassuring for women getting mammograms, Dubner said it's informative for how doctors should be trained.

"The system couldn't be arranged to provide them with much better feedback about how they're doing. It just isn't the way that our current system operates," he said.

With a little more feedback and a lot more practice, according to "SuperFreakonomics," we can improve at anything we choose to do.

"A lot of us tell ourselves that we're not good at something. We tell ourselves, 'Well, I wasn't born to be good at it,' whereas you probably could become pretty good at it if you wanted to put in the hours," Dubner said. "So, really, I think the lesson here is that we overvalue raw talent a lot. And I think that's actually a kind of uplifting message."

CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from "SuperFreakonomics."

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