JOHN Mighton was not a born genius, in fact he was just an ordinary kid, who barely passed calculus in a first year university course and received disappointing marks in creative writing. Today, Mighton is an award-winning playwright, an author, the brain behind the pioneering knot and graph theory in mathematics and an internationally-recognised math teacher.
Mighton attributes his success to years of rigorous training and holding a strong passion for what he does.
“People with expert abilities are generally made, not born and often their abilities arise out of a great deal of repetitive practice and imitation and copying of other peoples’ styles and ideas,” he said.
“For instance, chess masters repeatedly play small sets of moves, memorise thousands of positions and obsessively study the games of the masters.”
Mighton first studied philosophy at university, but his interest in writing and math reignited in the 1980s. “I read Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home, and saw how she turned herself into a writer through sheer determination,” he said.
At that point, Mighton went through rigorous self-training until he became proficient in writing poetry. His secret was to “break a task down into a series of steps” and practice until he became perfect. He followed the same strategy with math and years later pursued a PhD in mathematics from the University of Toronto.
Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and his colleagues studied expert performances in soccer, surgery, piano playing, software design, writing, chess and other pursuits. Their findings proved that expert performers are nearly always made, not born. It is only when a task is repeated many times to perfection that people excel. However, the concept of deliberate practice emphasised by Ericsson, involves more than just repeating a task; it includes setting goals, obtaining necessary feedback, correcting past mistakes, and focussing on the process as well as the outcome.
Continued practice increases the production of myelin around our nerve fibres, explains Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code. Myelin is an insulated sheath that wraps nerve fibres and enhances signal strength, accuracy and speed. In turn, our sensory responses become more proficient and our thoughts more fluent.
“The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimises the circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become,” wrote Coyle.
Coyle’s findings also suggest that targeting the root cause of a problem by repetitious practice is effective because that’s the only way myelin will wrap around a circuit. “... the best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option; it’s a biological requirement,” he wrote.
Since wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires a lot of time and energy, people must love what they do, otherwise they will never work hard enough to be great, according to Coyle.
Dr Nasrullah Manji, a Harvard graduate and a gastroenterologist in the US, says that his passion for the life sciences coupled with hard work helped him reach his mark in life. “Any success comes with having the ability to use your skills and talents. And that only happens when you work really hard at it,” he said. He gave me the example of Michael Jordan, a former professional basket ball player, who practiced for hours a day to reach his pinnacle of success.
He believes high achievers usually possess a burning desire to go over and beyond the bare minimum in life and they often ask themselves the following question: “How can I design a better mouse trap? — How can I make this better?”
Patricia Lovett-Reid, senior vice-president at TD Waterhouse Canada Inc., an author and host of Money Talk, a personal finance show that runs on Business News Network in Canada, is another shining star who attributes her success to sheer determination, hard work and a passion for what she does. Lovett-Reid reached up a corporate ladder without having a university degree and being a single parent in her mid 30s.
Like Manji, Lovett-Reid is of the opinion that people must have the internal flame, that ‘can-do’ attitude in order to succeed. “There’s got to be something inside you that forces you to say: I’m going to do it,” she said. “Sometimes we have self-limiting beliefs about ourselves ... and when we get out of our own way, the sky is the limit.”
When asked whether she believes in the phrase, practice makes perfect, she said: “I don’t believe in perfection, in fact perfection I think is delusional to some extent, but I do believe the more effort you put behind it, the better you will be at it. That takes time — that takes energy.”
She says it takes a certain amount of courage to follow one’s passions. “I often think about it [life] like a screenplay. If you think about a screenplay every once in a while there are pivotal moments where you can see the play can go in either direction and I think that’s the same way in life — it could go in either direction and it takes a lot of courage to not go down the safest path but to follow what you really believe in,” she said.
Though Lovett-Reid cautions that people should have a back-up plan in life — just in case Plan ‘A’ does not pan out, they at least have the option to resort to Plan ‘B’.
But is passion alone enough? Some kids can have passion oozing out of them, but unconducive school and home environments can hinder their self-confidence and affect their academic performance and in turn their chances of being successful. So what role can teachers and parents play to ensure passion is developed and nurtured in children?
Lovett-Reid says that children are by-products of their environments and it’s important that parents encourage kids to do their best — as that’s what really matters at the end of the day. “Every single day we’ve said to our children as they walked out the door: ‘We love you, have a great day, remember you don’t have to be the best, you sure have to do your best,’” she said.
According to Mighton, parents and teachers need to understand the psychological needs of children. “We believe guidance destroys creativity and understanding, but the research in cognition proves the opposite,” he said. “To teach someone you need to access what they know and don’t know and later fill in those remaining gaps.”
In 1998, Mighton created (JUMP) — a free tutoring service in Toronto to help children achieve their full potential in the subject. His teaching principles focus on the same methods he’d used to teach himself; a teaching approach which involves breaking problems down into levels.
“When a student can succeed at something, I eventually create problems that look much harder but they are only simple extensions of the same idea,” he said. “So when a child successfully completes this harder problem, he is ecstatic.” By understanding children’s psychology, Mighton not only stimulates and challenges children, but also boosts their self-esteem.
Mighton’s first miracle student was close to failing grade eight math, a weakness reinforced by his teacher. But under the influence of Mighton’s teachings, the boy was later offered a scholarship at the University of Waterloo and pursued a PhD at another university.
Mary Renck Jalongo in an article entitled, “Beyond benchmarks and scores: reasserting the role of motivation and interest in children’s academic achievement,” published in the Childhood Education publication in 2007, wrote: “If we want [children] to use their minds well, it is reasonable to help them understand how their minds function.”
Jalongo also points out how positive emotions often lead the way and they influence motivation, interest and ultimately, academic achievement — just as much as cognitive ability. A child needs to feel positive emotions such as happiness, excitement and a sense of challenge when he or she is learning, according to Jalongo.
But some critics may still argue that genes ultimately determine academic achievement and in turn talent and success. Surely, innate intelligence acquired through genes plays a role. But the question that still remains vague is: how much of a role do genes really play?
Young Mozart, for instance, displayed all the characteristics of a child prodigy. He successfully transcribed music after hearing it only once. But let’s not forget that the young musician also compulsively practiced. By his sixth birthday, Mozart had practiced 3,500 hours of music under the guidance of his mentor father, estimates Dr Michael Howe in his book Genius Explained.
Ample research suggests that passion, persistence and patience are all important ingredients to unleash talent. The findings above suggest that the learner must be self-motivated and have a desire to get better. And parents and teachers must act as strong supports along the way.
Mighton, in his book The End of Ignorance: Multiplying Our Human Potential wrote: “Like the chemical solution that changes colour with the addition of a single drop of reagent or the ant colony that begins to forage for food with the arrival of a few ants, the brain can acquire new abilities that emerge suddenly and dramatically from a series of small conceptual advances.”
The writer is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org