Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it

A lot of the literature in psychology, especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most part it is a thinly veiled sales pitch or click bait.

Inspiration or perspiration?

I’ve gone through the non-click bait writing/research on the matter and noticed some interesting patterns.

First, I will define success as being in the top 1% of something: swimming, earning money, cutting out adenoids… whatever floats your boat.

It appears that in the majority of cases, someone’s success in a particular field is mostly related to experience and practice, not to innate ability.

I’ve been very fortunate to have gone to school with some incredibly talented people. As we were growing up, I watched their motivations change: some people would get by on raw talent, after all school was never designed to be difficult, while some, who were mediocre to start, became unbeatable.

This observation of mine is echoed in the literature. Even if one’s first attempts at something are poor, it is bears no relationship to the overall outcome. Obviously, there are some factors at play, but they tend to be obvious: like, to be a jockey or a ballerina you simply have to be light.

However, when the mission is a little more intangible, such as becoming a good writer or being good at maths, the impact of practice greatly outweighs that of talent. This dynamic is also congruent with the idea that a mindset of believing in one’s improvement is fundamental to motivation (as distinct from the belief that one’s ability is fixed which ultimately leads to learned helplessness).

how to get good at anything

Aptitude tests show aptitude, not outcomes

Consider aptitude tests. I would argue that they need to be scrapped as they predict nothing at all. Research doesn’t support the assertion behind aptitude tests, namely that the X-factor is present in a person before they put in the work required in a particular field. I also want to prevent anyone from conflating the ideas of practice outweighing talent vs nurture being more important than nature, but I will come to that later.

I like to observe people. I especially keep a mental chart for anyone who I flag as having a high IQ or a high EQ. All of these people consistently make bad decisions in their respective fields of prowess when they aren’t paying enough attention. My musings are once again congruent with available data: SAT scores explain 9% of the variance in first year college grades.

Interest is far more important than aptitude.

Even if you have the aptitude, you still need to focus on what it is exactly you are doing to actually perform well. For example, I did well in my (what you would call equivalent to) SAT’s and in first year of college. But not in fourth year: I was only around 75% centile. Why? I lost interest, didn’t like it, stopped paying as much attention and didn’t put in as much time into the specific subject.

do aptitude tests matter when choosing career

What is the relationship between accomplishment and practice?

Can you max out your practice? Sort of: you can reach 100% in a test, but in reality practice always leads to improvement. There is of course, such a thing as inappropriate practice: overtraining, staying up at night to study instead of sleeping, but you get the point.

Anders Ericsson did some great research in this area. He confirmed a few interesting things:

  • Improvement is subject to diminishing returns. In other words, one makes more progress in the first 1,000 hours practicing something than they do in their most recent 1,000 hours.
  • Interestingly, he found that these diminishing returns often create the illusion of a plateau, however, progress continues as evidenced by a ton of studies.

is it important to like your career

What is deliberate practice?

Ericsson uses the term deliberate practice to differentiate junk hours from practice that will actually make a difference in one’s level of achievement, and this is how he defines it:

1. Focus your attention on the work with the intention to improve.

2. Your practice should be targeted to your current level of skill. 

3. After you attempt something, you should get to immediate, informative feedback until you have complete clarity in relation to what you did right and what you did wrong.

If practice is all I need, how do I motivate myself to practice?

All of this sounds very laborious: having to chip away at something, constantly look for feedback and address endless mistakes. There is only one way to avoid this hell: to like what you are doing. They say that if you pick a job you like doing, you won’t have worked a day in your life. It is sort of true.

My parents’ generation nearly all switched jobs. My parents, being Russian, were in their 30s when the USSR collapsed and so were forced to find a new way to make it. My generation is also constantly changing jobs. I know so many young doctors, nurses, solicitors, accountants who end up changing their field of work: however, they aren’t forced by harsh economic perturbations. They are forced by the discrepancy between what they were taught would be good for them as a career versus what is it actually like.

Aptitude tests and risk-averse parents had aspiring accountants believe they will be good at their job. They are good at it, but they soon realise they are ambivalent about it.

And it is hard to get up early in the morning 5 days a week when you are ambivalent. This is the reason so many people who were so “promising” end up having lacklustre careers: if you don’t like doing what you’re doing, you’re not going to find it easy to practice and if you don’t find it easy to practice, the competition will quickly leave you behind.

I recall taking a deep breath in and out to simply refocus as I was writing a note in a patient’s chart towards the end of a 14 hour shift in the emergency department, the last 9 of those without any breaks. The nurse sitting beside me took this to be a sigh of desperation and said: “It’s just another half hour until you’re finished.” Clearly, this nurse has been in a place where she was literally counting the minutes until she can go home. She was being supportive and relating to an experience she thought I was having. I was just tired. The way she said it was: “I know how much you don’t want to be here; I feel the same”. I bet there was a time when she was really excited about her work. She is good at her job. But she will never get better. And because lack of progress causes tremendous unhappiness in and of itself, she is likely to leave that job.

practice beats talent

What if I like something that I can’t turn into a career?

I think that that’s just a story we tell ourselves. Wearing a suit and going to work 5 days a week isn’t a career. Or maybe it is, but in that case we don’t all need a career. It’s hard for me to guess what people need, but I hypothesise that people need meaningful impact. And in this case, it is possible to make an impact doing virtually anything. Is it possible to make a living out of it? I would argue that it is. It requires some creativity, but with the internet people have been able to find their tribe much more easily. By listening to the audience, it will soon become obvious how to make what you are good at extremely useful to people – and monetise it. You don’t have to be an entrepreneur, you can be a freelancer, or even an employee. As for security, I also believe that that’s more of a story. Corporations collapse, technology makes professions irrelevant, cheaper labour elsewhere leads to job losses… Employment is far riskier that it is made out. 

The point is that it is being good that sells.

If you manage to get amazing at something odd (break-dancing, why not), you are at least as likely to sell it as if you’re mediocre at something for which there is a lot of demand (accounting). I will let you judge the level of happiness attained through these two routes for yourself.

It’s not all that simple of course. If you’re relying on being the best at something, you need to constantly put in the practice or create systems around you that will allow you t grow, e.g. creating things that last like organisations and leveraging other people. If you are relying on being mediocre where there is high demand, you will probably get away with it for the rest of your less-than-happy life.

What if I don’t know what I like?

You do, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself because it may lead to a lot of uncomfortable conclusions.

I’ve always liked writing, but I was always told it is a road to nowhere. Of what use is writing? When you’re 17, you listen to adults and trust them. Having said this, I liked science just as much. However, my interest in science was encouraged, but my interest in writing wasn’t.

It can also feel like it’s a very individualistic thing to say: “I like X”, X being piano, fashion, philosophy, whatever. We’re taught that it’s not about liking things, it’s about finding a good solid field where you can be successful. Whatever that means. So saying “I like X” is immediately contrary. There is an implicit “it doesn’t matter what you like, the choice you make it about your future! This isn’t a game!”

This kind of attitude plants a lot of doubt of course: what if X is just an infatuation? What if in 3 years’ time I am sick of painting and all I want is to start a family which is far easier to do if I become an accountant? It’s a risk, I guess, but I’ve never met anyone who really liked something and actually got sick of it. They may have been repeatedly rejected, something bad may have happened that became associated with X – but I’ve never met anyone who just lost their passion from first principles.

It can even cause guilt: doing something that you like feels like it isn’t work and is therefore not valuable. The insight here is that it feels like work to most people. 

It’s also important to remember that we like things we are good at. It’s therefore good to at least try and differentiate between positive feedback and genuine interest.


How are accomplished people’s brains different?

Isabelle Gauthier and Michael Tarr created a new field of study: Greebles. These are a family of 3-D structures, they are made up, none of the participants of their studies knew anything about them and had to learn from scratch.

As the participants practiced identifying and classifying these ridiculous Greebles, Gauthier and Tarr observed the developments in their brains using fMRI. When participants were first learning about Greebles, a huge portion of their brains was active. As they practiced more and more, fewer regions showed activity, but they ones that remained active became more active. Greebles are a nice example, but there are a number of studies like this that all point that brain activation gets more precise and efficient.

The meaning of meaningful glances

I also like to observe experienced doctors. Every morning, a senior physician would do a round and be presented with the case details of the patients who were admitted through the emergency department overnight. A lot of these presentations are really vague, that’s just the nature of the activity. The experienced senior physicians have a way of narrowing it down effortlessly: and most of the time they are correct. There is one minor detail that I noticed: they tend to fixate on something for a few seconds before they pronounce their verdict on the working diagnosis. It’s like they aren’t really here. The transient but significant fixation is especially juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of the emergency department.

It turns out that that’s a thing that experts do. Studies of eye-tracking movements of by Joan Vickers call it the quiet eye.‹ Ordinarily, our eyes jump from one object to another, about 3 times per second. The movements are controlled without our conscious involvement. As we focus on a task, these movements become more deliberate. Especially accomplished people tend to stop their eye movements for as much as a whole second as they are about to act (or make a decision). Once again, we are looking at precision and efficiency: limiting the information input to be able to focus on what is relevant. This seems to be the real skill behind being accomplished at something (incidentally, it is also the skill that is directly trained though mindfulness meditation). 

Having reviewed the mechanics of being good at something, it is obvious that it comes at an obvious cost. By going in for the kill each time, the accomplished performer is likely to miss something in plain sight simply because their optimised equation didn’t factor it in. There is valuable flexibility in being a novice.

You may also like:

Paul Graham: What Doesn’t Seem Like Work?

FT: How a ‘no-plan’ plan launched a career at Facebook

43 thoughts on “Want to be great at something? You simply need to like it”

  1. You are oh, so spot on. I have yet to read anyone offering a valid definition of “innate talent,” nor am I holding my breath waiting for one. As a coach of athletes, I recognize there are physical attributes that impact one’s potential at any endeavor (don’t expect an asthmatic to become a tuba player or a humongous adult to become a jockey). After those physical attributes, it is a matter of the speed at which people can learn and deliver some success, so they can equate effort with outcome. Most of the people who use the word talent in my sport, archery, are generally referring to a young person who has learned more than expected for their age, or someone who has established a very high level of skill. I tend to think this is due to a cultural insistence on “god-given talents,” as opposed to any deep thinking.

    So, as a coach my job is to get them on the path of quickest learning to see if they like the work and can accept the outcomes. The truly great almost always like practice, no matter how boring it might seem to an outsider, because those athletes can sense a connection between the activities they are doing now with an expected outcome later, and they are able to set aside those outcomes and concentrate in the present to maximize the effectiveness of their practice.

    Thanks for a wonderful post.

    On Sun, Apr 9, 2017 at 9:48 AM, Thinking Clearly wrote:

    > Dr Martina Feyzrakhmanova posted: “A lot of the literature in psychology, > especially the type read by people not trying to get a Ph.D., is focused on > success. How to be successful. What do successful people do. You know. It > gets quite tiring after a while, especially because for the most p” >


    1. Archery! Love it. Yeah, it’s hard on the child too when they get all these half competent messages!

      Boredom is inevitable to some extent, but I think it is minimised when someone likes what they are doing for the sake of it.


  2. Incredible article. Incredible incite and personal shares from your own learns on the subject. I look forward to your posts each week. Potential isn’t innate all the time. It can be learned.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There is no innate talent…just preferential biological and cognitive opportunities? If you’re genetics cause you to be 7′ tall, with proper training, interest, and internal motivation, you might be a great basketball player. This rationale applies to everything, science, finance, medicine and the likes.

    NO ONE other than you can determine if you’re the best you possible, and you’re internal drive dictates how close you come to attaining that?


  4. I agree completely with this post. It’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned when it came to me overcoming my dislike for physical activity. Even as an active duty U.S. Marine, I hated running and physical training. I dreaded it; perhaps, even feared it. Why? Because I was short with short legs and it was hard for me. After I turned 49 and I lost a lot of weight, I decided that I needed to add fitness to my routine to strengthen my heart. On my second or third run, I made the conscious decision to enjoy my runs. I reasoned with myself, “If you can’t love it, at least you can like it and it will be more pleasurable and less punishment.” It turned out to be the most important decision I’ve made about fitness. I now truly enjoy running and I look forward to my runs. Sure, there are days when I rely on discipline to push myself to run, but after each and every run, I feel better, accomplished, and happy. Even on this morning’s run, I ended up running farther than I set out for, and enjoyed it the entire time. Attitude is everything. Setting my mind to it has made the difference between success and failure. I have two legs that work well. They never performed as well for me because my desire to do so wasn’t there. Once I focused on the positive aspects and made myself to enjoy it, I am reaching new successes in running I never thought possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hello from an I-N-F-J who hated memorization more than he hated the Devil and sin… and memorizing geometry theorems and lines from the play and …. And I thought it was over and over and said I would never do it to my students until I did it to them–and then had a post grad course in which we had to identify, from the quoted line, play, speaker, significance. I hated that Shakespeare class. Yet, to this day, Othello is my favorite play. I never played an instrument in school; I studied, Latin, Greek, and German. And memorized. And practiced. And practiced. Then, I studied for the MCAT. (I would be a late entrant.) Forget that. My MMPI and other tests scores indicated I should be a Shakespeare scholar or Greek teacher . (Kidding.) But I knew from my biology scores that my memory would never be my helper. So, I took away what I could from my liberal education, taught school for 49 years, and remembered what Pythagoras taught me in 8th grade: 127 feet from third base to 1st base over the pitcher’s mound (in U.S. baseball). THAT I have never forgotten. I really got PUMPED from your essay/blog here. Thanks for letting me reflect and share. :o)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An enjoyable post Martina, extremely comprehensive! I found myself thinking “personally” rather than “academically” as I read it. Starting with my chemistry teacher when I was 15 years old telling me I would never be any good at it, but I so loved the elegance of the periodic table that I memorised it and could fire off sequences, groups, valencies, atomic numbers, and more. Nine years later I had a PhD. Then I stopped liking it! Back to university, trained as a psychologist and specialised in organisation psychology, set up my own consultancy and loved every day. Retired and focused on widening my mountaineering skill to become a competent ice climber and with the physical endurance to climb some big Himalayan peaks. Every example here was driven by liking or not liking something, followed by loads and loads of perspiration. But there was masses of achievement drive too, entwined by the fear of failure which was a big factor. So, I introduce another concept, McClelland’s Need For Achievement, N-Ach.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I very much buy into N-Ach, though I sometimes wonder if it is a little narcissistic.

      That’s very interesting that you shifted away from Chemistry after your PhD. What do you think contributed to that?

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂


      1. I’ve always thought I just stopped liking it after such intensity of the PhD. But on further reflection I think I felt completely fulfilled after a heck of a journey from a poor and uneducated background family. But N-Ach was still burning so ….. now let’s go and climb another peak, fresh challenge etc.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. James, my mother didn’t understand any of my career decisions, but she did understand the commitment and perspiration I had put into getting the PhD and tried hard to understand how I had acquired discipline, systematisation, logic, curiosity, which in turn made me one heck of an Organisation Psychologist!

        Liked by 2 people

      3. But going back to your original premise, I know that my “like” for chemistry vanished. The PhD knocked the stuffing out of me and in a UK heavy industrial environment I saw greater interest and more opportunities in a service type of environment. No call for scientists, but a growing human resource profession which I entered. The degrees in psychology were done in parallel but still driven by a need “to be the best”.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. No, but my wife who did her PhD same time as me did ….. post doc fellowship then lecturer. I was always an “industrial” person, and to add an extra factor, I left school at 16 and started work in local Ironworks laboratory attending college and studying part time. Degree at 22, now working for the massive British Steel Corporation who sponsored me on full salary to go full time to university and do the PhD! On completion I returned to them with job offers galore across the corporation, I tried to return to research, then production management……. hopeless. I was given an opportunity to sample very wide HR work, full spectrum and the rest is history!


  7. Absolutely! When hiring, I place more importance on the candidate’s attitude. I stand by my belief that while technical knowledge is important, attitude and passion play a bigger role in determining success.

    And yes, we do tend to do well in what we like and I think we also like what we are good at. Practice makes it easier when there is passion. Talent (?) is a good start but definitely passion, determination, discipline and practice make the difference. My husband and his cousin’s cousin (pro-golfer Schwartzel played a lot of golf together growing up). Hubby also took a whole year to focus on golf but eventually he stopped. Charl continued. Hubby was even better than a scratch player but the attitude wasn’t right for the sport.

    I do like Accounting / Finance / Commerce so although I am not crazy about the specific environment where I work, I still go to work and enjoy what I do. if I have to choose though, and money isn’t an issue, I’d stay at home (or go somewhere) and write creatively. I might still keep my own Cashbook, Income Statement and Balance Sheet because I do like it but writing beats Accounting. But yes, I couldn’t even study Journalism because my mother said Journalism would not earn me good money… yet, there are some wealthy journalists! 🙂

    Thank you for this post! I am encouraged to follow my passion even part time (because there are bills to pay).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All your skills are heuristics which means AI will do it better than you can real soon. Achievement when racing against machines is like saying you are the best loser in a game of Chess or Go.


      1. I am sure that my staff would love to be managed or led by an AI as it will surely have the capacity to be compassionate and considerate where necessary. Accountants never get to senior positions responsible for other positions held by human beings. Oh, indeed, you know the person, the best loser in the game of chess or go, neither one the person plays, most probably, either literally or figuratively. I bet an AI can also write its memoir or fiction. Awesome!


  8. I have to tell a story here that isn’t so relevant to their discussion. I worked at a hospital while on college. A most handsome, single, eligible bachelor surgeon, after all those years of study and practice and surgery…became a Trappist monk…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I disagree with this completely. Its all about talent and the definition of great here is defined so loosely. Most of us will never be great. Life is full of intrinsic and extrinsic constraints.

    Its all about speed and acceleration. This is why AI will make us obsolete in a few years.


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