Smooth ice is paradise for those who dance with expertise.
The positive psychology concept ‘flow’ proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi is based on the idea of fulfilling skilled activity. Flow is a mental state inwhich a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Synonyms of ‘flow’ include: to be on the ball, in the moment, present, in the zone, wired in, in the groove, or owning.
How do we gain the high levels of skill or expertise that are required for experience of flow – whether in sports, the arts, music, science or business. How do we ‘get in the zone’ and get the most out of our work and activities?
More mundanely, how do we perform at high levels?
Practice and Performance
Psychologists researching this question have found out that a big part of the answer is practice — lots and lots of practice. In a famous early study, Ericsson and his colleagues asked violin students at a music academy to estimate the amount of time they set aside for practice, and when they started playing. Those students who had been identified as the ‘best’ players by the academy, had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours. ‘Good’ players had accumulated just under 8,000 hours, while the least skilled came in at under 5,000 hours.
So imagine you decided to take up the guitar NOW, and practiced 5 hours a week. How long would it take you to get really good at something according to this study? 2000 weeks – or 38 years!! This would drop to 19 years for 10 hours per week, and 9.5 years for 20 hours per week! That takes dedication – the kind of sustained practice we usually only see with professional athletes, academics and professionals.
Malcolm Gladwell, summarizing Dr Ericsson’s research in his famous book ‘Outliers’, states that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” General intellectual ability – a persons IQ – he argues is not that important:
Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.
In his book “Talent Is Overrated,” Geoff Colvin, argues along similar lines that IQ is not critical to high levels of skilled performance:
IQ is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, IQ predicts little or nothing about performance.
IQ and performance
This ‘practice makes perfect’ conception of what enables us to be in the zone at the highest levels of performance is now being augmented by recent research showing that IQ (a measure of intelligence) matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.
The study that broke waves here was one done with intellectually gifted children – those who scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13 – directed by the researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow at the Vanderbilt University. (SAT scores correlate highly with IQ. The psychologist Howard Gardner has called the SAT a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) What Lubinski and Benbow found was that participants who were in the 99.9 percentile for intellectual ability (the ‘profoundly gifted’) were between 3-5 times more likely than those who scored in the 99.1 percentile to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish a journal article or literary work. Here a super high level of intellectual ability gave an impressive real world advantage.
The work of the psychologists David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, in addition, has shown that working memory capacity, the key component of IQ targeted by the IQ Mindware training applications, predicts performance in a wide variety of complex skills. In one study, they recorded both the practice habits and working memory capacity of pianists. The pianists were then asked to sight read pieces of music without preparation, and scores on this were recorded. The most important factor determining how well a pianist performed in their sight-reading performance was amount of practice. But working memory capacity made a sizeable contribution too. As they explain:
… if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.
The take home is that working memory capacity and IQ level impact performance levels – impact our ability to ‘get in the zone’ and enjoy exercising our skills. IQ impacts the performance levels we can achieve with practice. Practice alone doesn’t make perfect. Practice and IQ makes perfect! Geoff Golving was wrong. IQ predicts quite a bit about performance. Increase your IQ and you can increase the performance levels of your well-practiced skills.