What Does It Take to Get Really Good at Something?

By Kathleen Cushman

CHICAGO, IL—What does it take to get really good at something? Are people experts because they are born with talent—or do they get to be expert by practice?

The question goes to the heart of achievement in every field, in school and in careers. So WKCD recently asked three classes of Chicago public high school students to set about exploring the answers through interviews and photographs.

The students looked for ordinary adults who had special mastery in a field, and asked them questions about how they gained their skills. They transcribed their recorded interviews and then turned them into first-person narratives.

One eleventh-grade student, an aspiring drummer himself, quoted from his interview with a church organist, who told of seeking critiques from other musicians: “They have been through it. They know what it takes. So they can be an honest critic, and actually take you into step-by-step critique.” A basketball player interviewed her coach, who talked about his own experience in high school basketball: “Oddly enough, we would sit down and talk basketball for the most part, prior to playing—talking about how to recognize different situations when they come up.”

And because many students also have expert skills, they also talked to us about that. What inspired them to put in the time and effort to acquire them? Could they see any connections between their out-of-school interests and their academic skills? “You need a hater, and you need a motivator,” a 16-year-old girl declared as the ingredients to mastery. “A hater, that’s the person that puts you down, assuming you can’t do it, and you try to prove them wrong. And your motivator, that’s who supports you, and so you do your best to try to make them proud.”

WKCD’s “Practice Project” took place in spring 2008, with support from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. Here we present:


We welcome your feedback about the project, and inquiries about WKCD workshops and presentations for educators—write to us at



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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator