Over the last week I have had a very stimulating conversation with a renowned physician and pathologist, Oliver Stanton, and Anders Ericsson, author of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) paper, “The making of an Expert.” * The HBR article centers on the old question, “Are gifted people — or those who succeed in a field — born or made?” This has been the question that farm employers have asked over the years. “Can I train my weaker employees by putting them alongside the best to bring them up to the level of these outstanding employees?”

Anders Ericsson, et al, suggests that indeed there are differences in giftedness, but that for the most part experts and gifted performers are made, not born. In their paper they introduce three concepts that I wish to share here: 1) the importance of deliberate practice, 2) the avoidance of creeping intuition and 3) the value of providing excellent coaches.

Anders has found that behind excellence there is almost always a lot of practice. He uses the expression deliberate practice because it is one thing to rehearse what one has already conquered, but deliberate practice involves working on those areas that do not come so effortlessly. For those truly seeking to excel, the paper recommends two hours per day of such focused practice. Many incorrectly come to think that these gifts just fall into people’s laps.

One sportsman explained that people perceive him as a natural golfer, but what they do not see are the endless hours of practice that often yielded bloody hands. Many interesting examples are given from the fields of sport, literature, music and chess. Practice is especially productive under the eyes of the right coach, they argue persuasively. I would add that deliberate practice through introspection and self-learning is an important complement to having an excellent coach.

The second concept, creeping intuition, is the refusal of those who excel to automatically classify new information as something they have already seen before. Individuals who avoid the creeping intuition trap do not allow themselves to think they have already learned what there is to learn. Such successful individuals are constantly trying to improve and think of new possibilities. They do not fall into a rut.

Let us return to the question, “Are gifted people born or made?” Is it enough for farm workers — and others in agriculture — to get the right training? Without a doubt, better and more focused training will be of great help.

Three decades ago I worked with a number of junior colleges and helped them introduce welding and mechanics training for farm workers. We used an individualized training method which permitted participants to learn and progress at their own pace and become so outstanding — despite their limited formal education — that one of the long time college instructors declared that these workers as a whole had outperformed his previous students.

I have been conducting quality control studies along with a number of colleagues in Chile. The results will permit us to help individuals to focus, through deliberate practice, on the type of plant or fruit defects that are difficult to identify — at both the group and individual level. These same principles may be applied in dairy and other animal operations. In addition, I have been conducting other studies on perfecting piece-rate pay for crew workers, so they will be motivated to perform to their maximum capabilities.

My own perspective on the topic of giftedness, productivity and excellence goes along these lines: There are great differences in individual productivity at the farm and these follow a normal distribution curve. My studies show that the best crew worker is typically capable of working four to eight times faster than the worst in the same crew. Oliver Stanton shared data with me from his own pathology lab that confirms these numbers outside of agriculture. Differences in capability and productivity include ability to discern issues of quality, not just faster work. I am a great believer in job sample tests for all applicants, from veterinarians, to nutritionists, from farm managers to crew leaders, from irrigators to farm workers. Each one of these jobs requires a different subset of skills which can be tested before the individuals are hired or placed into a particular position.

The S curve is often used to explain how people learn. The beginning of the S is flat, followed by a steep line and culminating once again with a flat line. At first the learning is slow, then it accelerates, and finally the learning tapers off again.

It is helpful to think of a number of connected S curves, one on top of another. A breakthrough is another word for saying that a person moved from one S curve to the next. Some breakthroughs are so creative that once we have been shown the way, we may easily follow down that path. I suspect that the people who break through to some of these higher levels have avoided the creeping intuition syndrome that Anders Ericsson speaks about.

Years ago I read about a young man who took temporary employment. His boss had him remove cement from pipes in order to reuse them. The youth knew he was falling way behind and would not do well in this arduous and time-consuming task. Suddenly, instead of hitting the concrete on the pipe, he felt inspired to hit the pipe itself. This job was transformed from a formidable challenge to an easy one. The pipes started flying and he was soon done. When his boss returned and saw him sitting, he assumed this was one more youth who had not stuck it out and had quit. Instead, he found the young man had completed the whole task in one morning. This is certainly a breakthrough that permitted the young man to greatly succeed, and one that others could also imitate and learn from.

Some tasks are simple enough that the basic S curve may take a few minutes to conquer. Farm foremen tell me, that for the most part, three days are sufficient to see if inexperienced pickers and pruners will master these skills and work above a set standard. This is not to say they stop learning after three days. One gifted worker explained that while he is pruning a vine he already is making pruning decisions for the next.

There are other agricultural jobs that require months, years or decades to truly master. Many jobs, such as learning to be a truly effective manager, are complex enough that a lifetime is not sufficient to master the necessary skills. The art of dressage (equestrian sport) is conquered by very few people — even with the help of Olympic level riders and coaches.

I like the formula: productivity = ability x motivation.

By productivity (or excellence) I mean a combination of speed, quality, and discernment. Ability is what a person can do. Motivation is what a person will do. If either ability or motivation comes close to zero, then productivity will be near a flat line. If motivation is very low, it matters little how much potential a person may have. You probably know people who have extraordinary aptitude, but their lives have not amounted to much (in terms of developing these talents). If talent in an area is very low, it also matters little how much motivation and desire to improve a person may have. I like to use myself as an example here. I would love to be able to sing well, but I joke that I got rich because people paid me not to sing.

I have come to the conclusion that each one of us is born with specific inherent potential gifts. In order for these gifts to flourish we must be exposed to the appropriate activity. I hate to think of what would have happened if Johann Sebastian Bach had not been born to the home and epoch that he was born to. I wonder how many people have hidden talents that are just as powerful but go undiscovered or, worse, do not surface from lack of deliberate practice. Some may give up too soon, supposing that if they were really good at something success would be quickly manifested. Other factors also come into play, of course, such as availability of an appropriate coach or limited time to spend on developing talents. I suspect that lack of deliberate practice is a much more serious setback than a lack of inherent gifts. Relatively few people seem committed enough to wish to tackle learning that requires extensive dedication. Once we choose an area or field to improve in, however, I feel each one of us has a different inherent potential in terms of how far we can succeed.

Many skills, abilities and gifts can be measured over time and have been shown to be quite a constant. This is true of IQ tests and it is also true of pruning tests. I have given brief pruning tests (46 minutes) to farm workers at the beginning of the season. Then I have compared the test results to their on-the-job performance and obtained very high correlation coefficients (thus showing that the test was predictive of on-the-job performance).

I would expect that for tasks that require a relatively short learning curve, each person has a very real upper potential limit to contend with. Once a person reaches close to their top performance, additional improvement requires much more effort. Olympic 100-meter runners spend years training to shave of a few seconds from their best times. A fraction of a second normally makes the difference between a gold and silver medalist — or not medaling at all.

Theoretical upper limits exist for almost any activity we are interested in perfecting. I say theoretical, as some activities or jobs — such as a farm manager — would require more than a lifetime to perfect. These upper limits are more artificial and self-imposed. As a result we are nowhere close to hitting our potential upper limit. We can easily continue to make huge improvements throughout our lives, regardless of our inherent management abilities. Of course, someone with more inherent management skills, who is also willing to dedicate the necessary effort, will simply improve faster. We cannot downplay the role of inherent ability, however.

Farm employers often tell me, “Give me someone with the right attitude over someone with a lot of skill.” I contend that this is not an either/or proposition. I say, “Give me a person with the right attitude — a passion for learning — who also has inherent talent.”

Yes, providing the gifted and outstanding pruner to coach his or her co-workers has the potential to help the rest of the crew. Even with the best help, if the crew workers are paid using a properly designed piece-rate pay, the worst pruner is unlikely to ever prune half the speed of the fastest one. A validated job sample test is an excellent investment because it helps us detect and hire people who are good for the job and reject those who would have failed at the same. True, even a valid test is not perfect — although it beats the interview any day — in that 1) a few will excel on the test yet do poorly on the job, and 2) a few that failed the test would have excelled on the job. So for me, the answer to the question, “Are gifted people born or made?” has to be a resounding, it takes both.

And now it is your turn to give me your opinions.

* Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely, July-August 2007. Ericsson is also the editor of the book Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments (Cambridge University Press, 576 pp, 2009).