How to be a prodigy (in two very difficult steps)

academic advice High School study skills
By Sean B.

You’ve probably heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  From an early age, he was known as a child genius.  Before the age of ten he could play multiple instruments, had composed many musical pieces, and had a little gift known as perfect pitch.  Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a musical pitch and be able to name it, on the spot.  It’s incredibly difficult.  Only about one in 10,000 people have this gift.  Mozart could hear a glass breaking in a different room and be able to name it on the spot— “That’s an F sharp.”   

A psychologist named Sakakibara decided to see if he could train ordinary kids to be little Mozarts, so he developed a training regimen.  He taught 24 kids between the age of 2 and 6 to practice for several minutes a day for up to 18 months.  The goal was to see how many children could develop perfect pitch.  How many of the 24 kids, given a great training program, could gain a prodigy-like ear?  Take a guess.

That’s right. All 24.  

K. Anders Ericsson describes this study in his seminal book PEAK. Ericsson is the world’s expert on experts.  He has spent decades studying how people become excellent at everything from ballet to violin to chess.  You may have read about his research, second-hand, in places like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein.  Ericsson may know more than anybody on earth about one of the fundamental questions in the study of learning: how do people become world-class performers at an early age, even as children?  

The answer is simple.  According to Ericsson, “The right sort of practice carried out over a sufficient period of time leads to improvement.  Nothing else.” 

So, yes.  You, too, can become a prodigy.  It just takes two very difficult steps.  

#1 Find how to practice.  

You must figure out the best way to practice.  In a field like chess or swimming, there are proven practice techniques, so the best thing to do is find a coach who knows the right techniques.  In a field like poetry or improvisational comedy, where such techniques are less known, you need to track down the best performers, discover how they practiced to get that way, and then imitate their practice routines.   

To practice well, you must have clear, obvious goals.  You must be focused and be able to get immediate feedback.  And the practice has to be outside of your comfort zone, stretching you into territory that is difficult or even frustrating.   

#2 Practice.

Once you figure out how to practice….practice!  Potential, Ericsson argues, is built, not reached.  That means that in most domains, there isn’t a limit to human performance.  Most people just reach a point they feel is “good enough” and give up trying to improve.  In some domains, to become world-class will take 10,000 hours of the right kind of hard, disciplined, well-coached practice.  In other domains, it may take much more.  

What’s the good news?  According to Ericsson, you, too, can become a prodigy.  Ericsson argues that Mozart wasn’t different from any of us.  He just spent his entire childhood being coached by his music teacher father for hours every day.  The bad news is that to be a prodigy requires many hours of focused, uncomfortable practice.  

But limits?  Maybe they are mostly, as they say, mental.  You, too, can become excellent at just about anything.  Just find out how to practice— and start.  Whether it is calculus, horseback riding, or winning sushi-eating contests, there are techniques you can use to go far beyond anything you thought was possible. 


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English GRE MD/PhD admissions GMAT LSAT chemistry strategy math writing physics ACT biology language learning graduate admissions law school admissions test anxiety MBA admissions homework help creative writing interview prep AP exams MD study schedules summer activities history academic advice career advice philosophy premed personal statements secondary applications computer science organic chemistry ESL PSAT economics grammar admissions coaching law statistics & probability psychology SSAT covid-19 legal studies 1L CARS logic games Spanish USMLE calculus dental admissions parents reading comprehension research Latin engineering verbal reasoning Common Application DAT excel political science French Linguistics Tutoring Approaches chinese mathematics DO MBA coursework Social Advocacy academic integrity case coaching classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics medical school skills supplements IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs PhD admissions algebra athletics biochemistry business business skills careers data science letters of recommendation mental health mentorship social sciences software engineering test prep trigonometry work and activities 2L 3L Academic Interest Anki EMT English literature FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Italian Pythagorean Theorem STEM Sentence Correction Zoom algorithms amino acids analysis essay architecture art history artificial intelligence astrophysics cantonese capital markets cell biology central limit theorem chemical engineering chromatography climate change clinical experience cold emails constitutional law curriculum dental school distance learning enrichment european history finance first generation student fun facts functions gap year harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern international students internships investing investment banking logic mandarin chinese mba meiosis mitosis music music theory neurology operating systems phrase structure rules plagiarism poetry pre-dental presentations proofs pseudocode quantitative reasoning school selection simple linear regression sociology software study abroad teaching tech industry transfer typology units virtual interviews writing circles