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Who's in the Video

Wendy Wood

Wendy Wood is a social psychologist whose research addresses the ways that habits guide behavior - and why they are so difficult to break - as well as evolutionary accounts[…]
In Partnership With
John Templeton Foundation

When you start learning a new skill, you have to make conscious decisions and exert continuous willpower to practice and improve.

Only over time does a skill become automatic and transform into a habit that can be performed at a high level.

While practice is important to becoming elite at any particular skill, there are also many other factors at play, such as innate talent and opportunity.

WENDY WOOD: There are some people who differentiate between habits and skills, I don't. With a skill, you typically have ways of improving the performance over time. So, you want there to be a good habit basis for a skill. And obviously when you start something new, you have to be making decisions and exerting willpower. Only over time will you start to automate- it can take thousands of repetitions before you can do it, habitually, automatically in a high-level, very accomplished way. 

I think that when you start out learning a skill, that you're often starting out doing it thoughtfully in a very deliberate way. But over time that conscious thought becomes much less important. All you have to do is pick up the tennis racket and hold it, and you know what to do with the ball. There's not a whole lot of conscious deliberation that has to be automatic. I got to talk to a professional cellist about what it's like to play a piece of music in front of an audience. 

I mean, the melodies are beautiful, they carry you along, but there's still so much to remember. And it turns out they set cues throughout a piece. So they will practice a piece in segments, and then if someone coughs in the audience, there's some disruption, some other musician forgets where they are, they can go back to that cue; that they can then just pick up from and continue. And it's beautifully seamless. Malcolm Gladwell has a book out arguing that, with enough practice, we can all be successful at a high level in almost any domain. He's right, that practice is beneficial, but geez- it takes a whole lot more. 

As an athlete, you need a certain set of physical abilities. To be a great musician, you need other kinds of capabilities. You can get a whole lot better at skills if you keep practicing them. But whether you will be able to reach high-level, elite status, that's less certain because that's a combination of innate skills, certain types of training, opportunities, who you get to work with. I mean, all of these things matter, and it's not just based on practice. Our second self-our habits develop as a consequence, as a function of the opportunities that we have. Of the choices that we have in our lives.