What Makes Geniuses Stand Out

“Fail better,” Beckett advised. David Shenk affirms that it’s not just persistence that produces brilliance—it’s persistence at a skill level beyond one’s own.
  • Transcript


Question: If persistence divides mediocrities from successes, why do some people stand out even among the ultra-persistent?

David Shenk:  Yeah, that’s a great question.  So people…  You’re right.  People look at people we call geniuses, people who are at the very, very top of their field and think what do they have?  They must have some kind of quantity that all these other people don’t have and they must have been born with that because you can’t see what it is, so that’s what this researcher named Anders Erickson wanted to know, and it’s been now kind of made not only his own lifetime of study, but has kind of built this army of researchers to study what the invisible processes of our… of talent and of acquiring skills and going from mediocrity to being really good at stuff.  It turns out that it’s a kind of persistence and a way of embracing failure, which Erickson calls deliberate practice, so the idea is you push yourself slightly beyond your skill level and you want to fail.  You want to… comparing say a violinist who is practicing, it’s not just…  The idea is when you’re practicing you’re not just trying to reinforce what you already can do.  You are reinforcing what you already can do and then trying to do it faster or better or with more emotion or more dynamism or whatever you’re shooting for and you’re pushing yourself until you can’t… until you find a place where you can’t quite get there and then you work at that and you work at that and you work at that and it’s not the enjoyable.  Erickson really emphasizes it’s not the enjoyable part of practice.  You have to somehow, and the difference I think this is one of the keys and the difference of personalities between people who get good at stuff or get great at stuff is the people who get great at stuff really enjoy, not in a fun way, but they really find this kind of satisfaction in this constant pushing process.

Question: So people who achieve greatness enjoy failing and pushing themselves further?

David Shenk:  That’s right or they find a motivation in failing.  They wouldn’t necessarily say, “Well yeah, I love to fail.”  “I love to screw that up.”  But when they fail that’s when they get their motivation, and they’ll practice for another hour or another three hours and they’ll just come back the next day and they’ll say no, I want to get that better and then they get… they do get to that next level, but they’re not satisfied with that.  You’re never really satisfied, so philosophically it’s this challenge if you do want to become great at something to have that resilience to want to become great, to push yourself to failure, but to also find some sort of satisfaction in the process because you don’t want to be perpetually unhappy in your life.  You don’t want to spend 20 years getting to the point and never be happy because if you’re not happy in that process I guarantee you’re not going to be happy when you get there either.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen