Monday, August 24, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Talent

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to acquire new skills.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Well, we need a better answer than that! This series of posts is an attempt to provide a more thoughtful response to this question.

In the previous article in this series, I explored the Ability to Change. In this post, I explore how talent (or the lack thereof) helps or hinders my training.

my practice puzzle talent

What is Talent?
The word “talent” is rooted in 19th century evolutionary theory and was considered to be an innate ability to excel in a particular domain. This is how I used to think of talent. In more recent years, talent has acquired the added meaning of a learned and practiced skill. This expanded meaning has created a nature-nurture debate with some interesting insights for internal gongfu practice.

Talent: Innate or Acquired or Some of Each?
Scholars who study talent and expert-performance in domains as diverse as academics, music, athletics, and games provide a range of definitions from an innate ability to a learned and practiced skill. This model depicts where the various perspectives could be placed on a continuum from Innate Talent to Acquired Talent.

(from Talent — Innate or acquired? Theoretical considerations and their implications for talent management.  
Human Resource Management Review. Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 305-321)

After doing research for this article and comparing this research to my personal observations and experience, I would say that those who achieve expert-performance in the domain of internal gongfu have both an innate talent and a commitment to deliberate practice (intentionally repeating a structured activity for the purpose of improving performance). I propose my description of innate talent later in this post.

Key Points about Developing Expert Performance
I found it interesting that research in these various domains could be equally applicable to the domain of internal gongfu. Here are nine key points from the Expert Performance perspective that I believe are relevant to an internal gongfu practice.
  • Those who reach the highest levels began training in early childhood and then spent most of their lives training.
  • Early achievement is not the sole determiner of expert performance later in life.
  • Those intent on improving their performance through deliberate practice can also achieve expert-performance.
  • Even if two different individuals have access to the same training, there will be differences in performance of the acquired skill.
  • The key problem is identifying and tailoring the training tasks that will lead to the desired performance goal.
  • Simply following the assigned task is not enough. Attention is needed to identify and resolve habituated responses.
  • Duration of practice cannot predict whether expert performance can be achieved.
  • The “Ten Year Rule” is an observation that expert performance tends to emerge after ten years of deliberate practice. Even those considered “talented” only achieve expert-performance after ten years of training. For most people though, it takes much longer.
  • Many people don’t achieve expert-performance due to a lack of sustained commitment to deliberate practice for the necessary ten years or more. Obviously, motivation is a fundamental attribute.
Talent Levels
Although the following graph is speaking to the number of individuals participating in different levels of competition, I think it is a visual way to represent the community of internal gongfu practitioners; the higher the level of skill, the fewer the practitioners at that level.

The various levels defined here invite a response to the perennial internal gongfu question: How are the various “levels” defined? What performance characteristics mark one practitioner's skill as more developed or refined than another's? Can practitioners be grouped by their talent level?

(from The Road to Excellence, Chapter 1, The Acquisition of Expert Performance)

The Problem with Defining Talent for Internal Gongfu
The study of talent and expert performance in the domain of internal gongfu would face a number of challenges:
  • There are relatively few individuals worldwide who have achieved the highest levels.
  • The various styles each have their own definition of expert-performance.
  • The qualities that constitute expert performance are unnoticeable to the untrained spectator.
  • Differing words and phrases are used to describe the same movement characteristic.
  • The recognition of talent is more or less restricted to those who have achieved some degree of skill.

Unlike the studied domains of academics, music, athletics, and games where spectators and experts alike are able to distinguish the talented from the talentless, in the domain of internal gongfu we are presented with a classic Catch 22; the circumstance denies a solution.

How then do we recognize talent in internal gongfu? What qualities are possessed by practitioners who progress quickly and achieve expert-performance and what qualities are possessed by those who do not?

Application to Internal Gongfu
From my experience and observations, I would propose that in the context of internal gongfu “innate talent” is a natural ability to perceive kinesthetic sensations and the experience of these sensations evokes an emotion of joy or pleasure. When applied to an internal gongfu practice, this “innate talent” is the foundational skill and the associated emotion of that experience enhances motivation.

Depending on your theoretical position as to why this natural ability remained in some and was partially diminished or totally disabled in others, from the perspective of someone who does not have this ability, it seems fair to frame this ability as an “innate talent”.

Deliberate practice (zhan zhuang and other qigongs) provides a context in which this innate talent can be applied. Deliberate practice mobilizes this innate talent for a specific purpose.

Someone who experiences deliberate practice as a pleasurable and fun activity will want to “practice” as much as possible for the pure enjoyment of it. Someone with a similar innate talent but who does not experience deliberate practice as fun or pleasurable may not be motivated by the fun of it but by some other motivation. Both of these practitioners are likely to achieve expert-performance.

On the other hand, for practitioners like myself who do not have this innate talent, the initial focus of practice (which may span a decade or more) is to develop this “innate” talent. In this case, deliberate practice may or may not be fun and may be perceived simply as a requirement to achieve expert-performance.

Without the experience of the joy of practicing, motivation is likely rooted in other personal factors. Whether these personal factors are strong enough and enduring enough to carry the practitioner (myself included) through years or decades of practice to expert-performance, is an open question.

In Closing
Before writing this article, I had never considered the ideas I explored here. I had thought that practicing zhan zhuang and other qigongs would allow me to demonstrate expert-performance within a few short years. I never considered the possibility that I did not have the innate talent to achieve this goal in this timeframe.

Looking back, I’d have to say that my previous lack of this perspective neither helped nor hindered my practice. That said, I do think that I was misleading myself by thinking that I was “almost there” when in fact I wasn’t. To use an analogy, I thought that I was ready to learn how to drive a car when in fact, I first had to build the car.

It was only through my experience and observation of some school brothers that achieved results within a few years and some, like myself who did not, that I began to wonder how people with the same training had such different rates of progress. It had to be something innate to the individual.

And so from a semi-theoretical point of view, I’d say that those without this innate talent will discover that this hinders their practice and those with this innate talent will discover that this supports their practice.

This series will continue with each article filling in one of the puzzle pieces until the entire puzzle is complete. We’ll wrap up by considering how this puzzle can be interpreted in an Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix and finally we’ll look at the role of the Source and Level of Instruction.

References, Additional Reading
The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. Psychological Review, Vol 100, No. 3, 1993, pp. 363-406.

Giftedness Viewed from the Expert-Performance Perspective. K. Anders Ericsson, Kiruthiga Nandagopal, Roy W. Roring. Journal for the Education of the Gifted. Vol. 28, No. 3/4, 2005, pp. 287–311.

Talent — Innate or acquired? Theoretical considerations and their implications for talent management. M. Christina Meyers a,⁎, Marianne van Woerkom a, Nicky Dries b. Human Resource Management Review, Volume 23, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 305-321

The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games. Edited by K. Anders Ericsson. Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis Group. New York and London. 1996, 2014

Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport. Edited by Joseph Baker, Stephen Cobley, Jörg Schorer, Nick Wattie. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

Previous post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Ability to Change

Next post in this series: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Commitment

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