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Practice, not talent, is the key to success

Most top athletes are finely tuned machines, spending their lives trying to perfect their craft and looking to gain every possible physical and mental advantage over their opponents. They exemplify the credo that hard work leads to rewards.

Most top athletes are finely tuned machines, spending their lives trying to perfect their craft and looking to gain every possible physical and mental advantage over their opponents. They exemplify the credo that hard work leads to rewards.

Just look at Tiger Woods’ daily routine, as posted on his web site. He starts the day with an hour of cardio exercise and an hour-and-a-half of weight training. This is followed by at least four hours of golf and another half an hour of weight training.

Since he was a little child, he has always practised his golf game. But even when he was the best athlete in the sport, he practised hard to improve his game. When we see him play, he seems the picture of effortless perfection, a joy to behold, hiding the enormous effort that went into his performance.

Michael Jordan was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. From the time he was a child, he was very competitive. He wanted to win every game he played. So he practised hard to improve. While he had prodigious talent, it was hard work that made him a legend.

When he first joined the National Basketball Association (NBA), his jump shot was not perfect. So he spent his off season shooting hundreds of jumpers a day until it was just right and could go “swoosh” through the hoops.

His defensive skills also needed work. He studied his opponents and then practised hard to turn his weakness into his strength. His coach Phil Jackson wrote that Jordan’s success was due to his “humility to know he had to work constantly to be the best”.

In football, Lionel Messi is an example of dedication to craft. He went through Barcelona’s youth system, overcame a growth hormone deficiency and practised incessantly so that he can run with the ball seemingly glued to his foot.

The saying “practice makes perfect” is true not just in sports, but also in most other fields of human endeavour. Mr Anders Ericsson, in a series of articles, popularised the concept that practice, not talent, is the main ingredient for success. Many studies that looked at highly successful individuals show intelligence alone is not a good predictor of success.

Success is the consequence of practice and repetition. There are no shortcuts. It is based on pushing oneself to do better and better.

Winston Churchill all through his life had a speech defect where he had trouble with the letter “s”. When he went to visit a specialist he was told that practice and perseverance was the solution. Churchill took the advice to heart and is known for his legendary practice of speeches. The result was the extraordinary persuasive power of his speeches. Another example of practice makes perfect.


Innate talent only gets you so far. Beyond that, it is hard work. Almost everyone who has achieved greatness in their fields worked hard above and beyond others. Many people believe that you need at least 10,000 hours of practice to become truly great. In his book Outliers, Mr Malcolm Gladwell talks about the lives of many successful individuals and how at least part of their success was due to practice, in keeping with the 10,000-hour rule.

Repetition and practice work not only for motor skills, but for all forms of memory and learning. Scenario training such as fire drills and emergency safety procedures are a very useful form of practice to prepare individuals for a rare event. Case studies can also be used to learn how to handle a range of circumstances. This allows the practice of thinking and making judgments, not just training for specific skills.

Simulators are now commonly used for practice. Everyone knows about flight simulators, but they are used in many other fields, from factories to medical and surgical training.

At SingHealth, our medical school training uses simulators to help students learn how to diagnose illness and perform procedures. There are even those that guide students on delivering babies, as well as mock operating rooms and intensive care units.

Full-scale simulation of events can be done repeatedly until trainees become proficient in handling them. Coupled with periodic training and repetition, the skills and ability to handle complex situations are maintained. These systems can also be a vehicle to build teams that can work together to handle unexpected situations.

Today’s technology and simulators have made practice easier and also built expertise to handle rare events.

About the Author:

K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.

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