CHAPTER 6. Continuous Improvement There are several reasons which justify passionate commitment to the piano . . . not the least is it unmasks the wretched canard “prime of life”—for one gets better and better.
Russell Sherman (look for Sherman book: this seems wrong: quoted in Rosen, 2002: p. 90)
I find that I am never happy with the way I dance. . . . [O]f course, the audience doesn’t always realize it. It’s you—that’s the worst one—you, yourself.
It’s the searching, this discipline that keeps alive a part that you dance.
Alicia Alonso (quoted in Newman, 1982: p. 98)
To become the Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, who, though partially blind, was able to rise to the top of her profession, one has to be driven to achieve great heights, and – at least for many who excel in their fields – this drive is ongoing. Indeed, it may very well be that it is this desire for continuous improvement, more so than talent, that turns a novice into an expert (Ericsson and Smith, 1991). One hears stories about child prodigies, about (for example) how Mozart with hardly any understanding of the process, was able to compose symphonies, or about, say, the golfer Sam Snead, who was basically born with the ability to swing a golf club. Yet once one investigates such accounts, somewhat different pictures often emerge. Mozart, no doubt, had amazing musical gifts, but his first symphony, composed at the age of eight, was achieved after years of strenuous musical instruction by his father, in whose hand the composition was written. And although Snead has been referred to as “the best natural player ever” (e.g., Ericsson et al., 2007c), he sees it rather differently: “People always said I had a natural swing. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did” (interviewed by Yocum, 2002). Certainly nature plays a role, but for those who truly excel, nature is almost invariably coupled with a vast amount of hard work.
Are there ever exceptions to the idea that becoming really good at something requires effort? Perhaps, but, as I stipulated in Chapter 3, if there are individuals who reach great heights without practicing their craft with the intent of improving, they fall outside my purview; though such individuals may reasonably be called “experts,” they do not count as experts in my stipulated sense of the term. Moreover, experts for me are those who have not only been driven to improve but are also still intent on getting better and better. In this chapter, I want to discuss what this ongoing desire to improve – what in Japanese is called kaizen – suggests about the role of the mind in expert in action. In Japan, the idea of kaizen is typically associated with a business model of ongoing improvement, aimed at such things as making production plants more efficient and manufacturing more cost effective. My concern, however, is with the drive to improve at an individual level, with, as the tennis player Steffi Graf put it, “always…striving to show the best that I could” (interviewed by Dickson, 2009).