A couple nights ago in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco my wife, Tae, and I had the gloriously uplifting experience of listening to a solo recital of Lang Lang, the 26-year-old Chinese pianist and music world phenomenon. It was an awe-inspiring performance by an incredibly skilled artist whose technical ability is unsurpassed and whose dramatic flair and showmanship generates an electric charge in the audience.
After the performance, we had the opportunity to attend a reception for Lang Lang, and I couldn't resist asking him a few questions about my current obsession, the role of practice in talent development. Part of the conversation went like this:
Jim: When did you start playing the piano?
Lang: At 2 ½ years old.
Jim: How many hours a day did you practice?
Lang: For the first 15 years, 8 hours a day.
Jim: And now?
Lang: 3 hours a day.
Jim: Every day?
Lang's response confirms what I've reported in prior blogs. Research by K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues concludes that it's deliberate practice that produces great performers, not simply their raw talent.
Recently two popular writers have published books that discuss Ericsson's research. One is by Geoff Colvin — Talent Is Overrated — and the other — Outliers — is from bestselling author, Malcolm Gladwell. Colvin's is the more practical of the two, but Gladwell tells a great story, and he adds some intriguing research on the importance of context. What we learn from them both is that many longstanding assumptions about giftedness and talent are substantially incomplete and can even be unnecessarily limiting. I urge you to read both books.
A recent blog by Michael McKinney on LeadingBlog also discusses these books, and you'll appreciate his summary of what you can do to apply lessons from the research on expertise to talent development in your organization. Check it out.
Back to Lang Lang for a moment. His statement that he practiced 8 hours a day for the first 15 years, and now practices 3 hours per day, makes me to curious to know how many hours a day organizational leaders practice their craft. Whenever I've asked audiences this question in my more recent speeches, the answers I've gotten have been roughly....."Zero." That is not exactly the route to a great performance, is it?
If leaders don't practice 3 hours per day, can we expect the kind of virtuosity we experience from Lang Lang? Of course not. By his standards, most leaders are amateurs. While it may not be realistic to expect the majority of our leaders to practice as Lang Lang does, I'm convinced we should expect more than zero. What do you think?
Posted by Jim Kouzes