Once a World Champion Martial Artist, Now a Surgeon

In All, Blog by Robert Pool1 Comment

One of the first things you learn in studying expert performers and deliberate practice is just how difficult it is to truly excel in a given field. Out of every thousand people who learn to play the piano or start their own businesses or set out to write a novel, only a handful—maybe just one or two—ever develop their skills to the point where they stand out from the crowd. As the old saying goes, If it were easy, anyone could do it.

So, given this rarity of expertise, it has always fascinated me how often an expert in one area turns out to have a highly developed skill in some other, unrelated field. Einstein, for instance, was an accomplished violinist. More generally, it is widely believed (although I know of no studies proving it) that expert mathematicians and physicists are, as a group, much more likely than the general population to be excellent musicians. And if you talk to enough people who are among the best in their fields (something I’ve been doing a lot of over the past few years), you will come across quite a few of them who are experts in more than just one thing.

Why should this be? Is there something about becoming very good at one skill that makes it easier to develop skill in a completely different area? I think this is a fascinating—and potentially very important question—but as far as I know, it is one with no clear scientific answer, so I take every chance I get to dig into the lives of these multi-subject experts.

Mara Schenker, M.D.

Which is why I recently found myself talking with Mara Schenker. Dr. Schenker is an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Emory University, but in an earlier phase of her life she was a world champion in taekwondo, and we spoke at length about her experiences in developing expertise in these two very different fields.

First, a little background: The usual explanation for why some people excel in two different areas relies on the idea of innate talent—i.e., that a person who is good at something must have been born with a natural talent for that thing. Thus, the standard explanation for why top mathematicians are likely to also be good musicians is based on the assumption that mathematical talent and musical talent are somehow related. People who make this argument will generally offer some comment about how music is, at its core, very mathematical, and thus conclude that someone with a talent for math will also be more likely than normal to have a talent for music as well.

I find this argument exceptionally unconvincing. For one thing, the connection between doing math and doing music is quite tenuous. While someone who is well versed in mathematics may well enjoy studying and learning about the various mathematical aspects of music—and they certainly do exist—there is no reason to believe that understanding these aspects makes you a better musician. Indeed, there are many world-class musicians who know very little about math and who have never shown any particular aptitude for it.

Furthermore, such arguments would not seem to explain people like Mara Schenker who excel in two areas—such as surgery and taekwondo—that would seem to have very little in common.

But the main objection I have to such an explanation is that we know without a doubt that the world’s best mathematicians and musicians are at that level not because of some innate talent but because they spent many years of training to develop their capabilities. This is one of the key lessons that has come out of the study of expert performers. And once you understand that lesson, you approach the connection between expertise in mathematics and expertise in music (or expertise in any two different fields you like) from a very different direction. The question is no longer, Why are people with mathematical talent also likely to have musical talent? but rather, Why are people who put in the necessary years of practice to become good mathematicians (or whatever) more likely to put in the necessary years of practice to become good musicians (or whatever)?

I can think of a number of possible explanations. Perhaps some people are more likely than others to have the discipline or the focus to be successful in carrying out deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is hard work, and not everyone can keep it up for the length of time required to become truly good at something. Or perhaps the brains of people who enjoy the challenges involved in thinking deeply about mathematics also naturally get pleasure from listening to or playing music; thus such people would be both more likely to study math and to study music.

But the possibility that I’m most intrigued by is a sort of “priming” phenomenon: Perhaps people who have used deliberate practice to excel in one area understand better than others the power of deliberate practice to help them develop a particular skill and thus are more likely to use deliberate practice to develop another skill that they are interested in. If this were the case, you would expect expert mathematicians or expert physicists—or experts in many different areas—to do better than normal when tackling a new skill because they already know what it takes to develop a skill and they understand the importance of deliberate practice in becoming good.

Mara Schenker, black belt

I had these thoughts in mind as I was speaking with Dr. Schenker.

Inspired by the movie The Karate Kid, she started taking taekwondo when she was just four years old with a seven-week course for $79. She kept it up for the next twenty-two years. In high school and college she was training or teaching six hours a day, and she would never take a vacation of more than a week because she wasn’t willing to go any longer than that without training. While in college she won a world championship in taekwondo in a competition that involved scoring points with kicks, punches, and other strikes.

I found two things that she told me about her taekwondo particularly interesting. First, she is committed to excellence in everything she does. “Unless I can do something well, it’s not worth my time investment,” she said. Second, she attributed much of her success in taekwondo to the development of effective mental representations. While we usually think of taekwondo—or any other fighting sport—as mainly physical, there is a huge mental component as well, and this is where Schenker felt she excelled.

She described how she would go home after a day of taekwondo practice and lie awake at night going over various things in her head and thinking about how she could have done them better. She would mentally replay her sparring matches, examining what went well and what didn’t go so well, and deciding how she would do things differently the next time. She would do the same thing with her forms, the preset sequences of moves that martial artists perform to show their mastery of different techniques, looking for various ways to improve. Some of her thoughts were focused very specifically on improving in a particular area—mentally examining her hook kick in a search for weaknesses or thinking about what a right-legged opponent might do in certain situations.

At the time, she said, she had very little video to work with—her training and her matches were rarely recorded—but if she had had videotapes to review, she would have spent a lot of time on that. The goal was always to figure out what her deficiencies were and to find ways to improve them. The process worked, for she became the first world champion from her region in many years.

Mara Schenker, surgeon

Interestingly, years later Schenker found herself using a very similar technique to improve her surgical skills. At the end of each of her surgeries, she stands around with the x rays from the operation and talks to her residents or anyone else who will listen about what went well and what could have been done better. Later, if something happened that she didn’t anticipate or if she doesn’t think she did something particularly well, she will lie awake at night going over the surgery in her mind, envisioning what she should have done.

“If it’s a skill gap that I see,” Schenker told me, “I am very acutely aware of the gap. I can’t stop thinking about it. I plan my step-by-step approach to fixing it, and then I work really hard to execute that plan to make the gap go away, whether it’s reading more, dissecting more in the cadaver lab, practicing a technical skill set. I do this with very specific goals in mind.”

She also works hard to mentally prepare for each operation ahead of time, particularly when she expects that some problem may appear during the surgery. She develops a plan ahead of time—almost an algorithm, she said. If this happens, do that. If that happens, do this. The approach developed naturally, she said, from all the time she spent after surgeries thinking about what went wrong. Now, by being prepared for everything that she can control, she feels much better equipped to deal with the chaos that can appear when you cut into a human body.

Initially, she told me, she didn’t recognize the connection between how she approached the two very different fields in which she had become an expert, but at some point she realized what was going on: “This improvement plan [for surgery] is exactly what I did in my many years of taekwondo training.”

More to the point, her approaches to improving in the two areas closely followed the principles of deliberate practice: She practiced with the specific and focused intention of improving; she used feedback (her own identification of what went wrong and what could be done better) to identify areas in need of improvement; she came up with various methods designed to help her address those specific problem areas; and she developed increasingly accurate mental models of what she was doing, both as a way of guiding her training and of directing her performance, whether it was fighting in a taekwondo match or operating on an injured child.

After talking with Schenker, I’m afraid I was no closer than before to answering the question of whether becoming an expert in one area makes it easier or more likely to become an expert in another, unrelated area. She did, however, leave me with one interesting insight into the general topic of experts in multiple areas. For some reason—perhaps related to her drive to excel—Schenker naturally approached her taekwondo and, later, her surgery in a way that caused her to steadily improve. The desire to improve, coupled with her habit of regularly reviewing her performance, identifying shortcomings, and coming up with ways to strengthen herself in those areas, led her to steadily get better and never settle in at a point where she was just “good enough.” It is my guess that anyone with these qualities is likely to become extremely good at anything he or she takes on, and this is one way that we get people who are experts in multiple fields—it is their approach to improving, not any linked set of talents.

Schenker told me that she tries to pass on the lessons she has learned about improving to her residents. She tells incoming residents that they should buy our book Peak and read it, in hopes that they will develop the mindset that they can and will get better if only they work at it in the right way. Some of the residents, she said, are already wired for this sort of thinking, and it is easy to take those residents to the next level. She talks with them about the importance of learning from experience and of going into surgeries with a plan or an algorithm so that they are prepared for when things go wrong, and she watches as these residents grow and flourish.

But others do not find it so natural to improve themselves in this way. They can learn what medical school has to teach, but when they must take over responsibility for their own growth, they struggle. Most surgical programs are good at taking the residents who are engaged to the next level, Schenker said, but they are not so good at training the others, nor do they have a good way to get them out of the program.

Thus, Schenker hopes to figure out a way to teach deliberate practice to her trainees as an alternative to the usual passive training approach used by medical schools and teaching hospitals. “I want to make them very aware that they are in charge of their education.” If her residents can be trained to improve themselves through the sort of deliberate practice that she herself has always relied on, she said, there is no reason that they cannot continue to improve their skills indefinitely.


  1. Thank you, Love this Inspiration. Mara Schenker, a bold lady and Inspiration to ALL.
    Great Work by the Team ( Robert & Anders ) — I Pray Almighty Allah for both of you.
    You people deserve great respect. A great efforts particularly in this period of Tough Time – Challenges from Automation/Robotics. Human being do require special tools for learning, specially Multiple skills.
    I am an IT (software) trainer with 20 years of experience, I used to teach different subjects (programming, DBs, ERP …)
    and now big data, AI(Artificial Intelligence) some people used to criticise me ( this guy is just jack of all trades) and My humble response used to be — you didn’t recognise the true Human’s potential — You can be Master of few and jack of many …

    Thanks once again. Keep continue this GREAT Work.
    Peace and Mercy of Almighty be on both of you.

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