Friday, November 21, 2003

Genius - Inspiration or Perspiration? 

I’m an avid listener to BBC Radio 3 (the BBC’s classical/serious music station). A few years ago when I was in a different job, I used to drive to work and homeward journeys would be accompanied by a daily topical music magazine programme – news and guests from the current music scene linked with short pieces of music.

On one occasion, the studio guest – I can’t remember now who it was – was talking about some research that had been carried out to try and understand the sources of musical genius. The study was based on students at the Royal Academy of Music – on the basis I guess that if you’ve got that far although you may not be a genius you’re pretty darn good - and involved analysing their backgrounds, skills, personal characteristics and any other factors the researchers imagined might have a bearing on the source of their ability. It was several years ago now and I can’t remember all of the factors they looked into, but they included things like family background – was either parent a musician, age when they started playing – did you have to be a child prodigy, intellectual capacity – did they all have IQs of 130+, physical traits such as long fingers, and so on.

The researchers found that all started with a level of basic competence – but not necessarily a high level; more of an absence of lack of competence. If you could sing in tune or play a recorder, that was about all that was necessary to start work on. Other than that, they found no common factor in any of the individual characteristics or environmental influences. But they did isolate just one element that all students seemed to have in common. No matter what their age, or when they started learning, they had all done something like 10,000 hours of practice in their lives. In round figures, that’s getting on for 3 hours a day, every single day for 10 years. And that, of the areas researched, was the only common factor.

It comes as no surprise that practice is so important, but what is perhaps unexpected – and encouraging – is that no other source of genius was found. Admittedly the research wasn’t exhaustive – they didn’t for example go as far as trying to isolate a musical genius gene – but I find it encouraging on two counts. Firstly – and this is as challenging it is encouraging – it rather nullifies the excuse of not having that particular talent or gift. Sure, they all had a basic level of competence to start with but the indicators were that anyone starting with that basic competence could, with sufficient dedication, achieve a standard sufficient to gain entry into one of the country’s top music colleges.

Secondly, it reinforces the notion that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration (or however the quote goes). 3 hours practice every day for 10 years represents a considerable commitment, and levels of determination and self-discipline well above the norm. Extrapolating the thinking a little, I believe that to gain the benefit of the practice one also has to have a clear vision of the standard one is aiming for, and to have a ruthless streak in one’s own self-evaluation against that standard. I think it’s also reasonable to suggest that to keep up with that degree of commitment requires a strong self-belief.

You might guess where this is heading. Transferring the thinking over from music to writing, it implies don’t have to be “gifted” to be a writer. A basic ability to string a few words together is all you need to begin with, then it’s a case of building on that with practice, commitment and self-discipline.

This, at any rate, is what I’ll be telling myself.

It reminds me of another quote (sorry, I can’t remember the source):
“Most people over-estimate what they can do in a week but under-estimate what they can achieve in a year”.

Back to current posts