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The Fading Of The Gladwell Era: 10,000-Hours Of Practice Won't Nullify Genetic Factors
Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise. I wrote a column (for a different publication) espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.
David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule -- and much of “Outliers” along with it.
The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro -- even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016.
Epstein’s book suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.
If 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary and sufficient for world-class performance, Epstein asks, why do some people reach the master level in chess after 3,000 hours while others require 23,000? The average number of hours needed for many pros may be about 10,000, but it varies widely.[More]
The comments on the 44-year-old former OMB boss's sudden insight are pretty funny:
jaycal33 1 hour ago
The fact genes are a necessary part of athletic success (along with practice) is so obvious that it is amazing anybody writes a book claiming otherwise, that book receives publicity and people buy it, that book is reviewed in the press etc.
Really, the popular discourse in the media is really quite dumb.
VivaSam 4 hours ago
Did we leave this Orszag eff-up in charge of something?
I hope not.
Somebody run, go check and make sure he's not in charge of something over in DC.
roquenuevo 7 hours ago
10,000 hours and genes, talent or genius, these are necessary and sufficient. If you have the talent, you still need the 10,000 hours; if you don't, the 10,000 hours are simply practicing the first mediocre hour 10,000 times... Seems simple enough to me. But not to the "vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration."
The reason for the variation is genetic, Epstein says.
Okay, that's an improvement, but the former head of OMB is still hazy. Stars do mostly have more than 10,000 hours of practice, and it's surprisingly hard to come up with exceptions. For example, Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon, was an intermittently overwhelming Division I college basketball player within 3 years of first trying basketball, but he was also a lot better after a dozen years of playing. The crafty Olajuwon who won NBA titles in 1994 and 1995 would never have lost the 1983 NCAA Final by letting NC State's airball get dunked in front of him at the buzzer.)
But, nonstars mostly have less than 10,000 hours of practice because somebody figures out that the potential of the nonstar is limited enough that it would be stupid for the wanna-be to waste 10,000 hours on this field.
As a commenter at Bloomberg says:
The 10,000 hour experts are a self selected group. Who spends 10,000 hours perfecting some skill? It is someone whose first 1,000 hours of practice convince him and/or others that he is capable of greater improvement with even more practice. His second 1,000 hours of practice provide additional confirmation. The ones who don't have the innate talent to develop recognize this after their initial practicing demonstrates a lack of improvement and drop out. Who really imagines that the reason their dog can't learn calculus is that he isn't willing to practice?
|Rightfielder of champion teams|
For example, as a boy I probably spent a thousand hours or so fielding balls I'd bounced off walls or that my dad threw to me on our front lawn. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was an adequate little league third baseman.
In contrast, I was a terrible outfielder because I never learned to judge the flight of flyballs. In part, that was because I got very little practice at catching flyballs. That required two people, one of whom could hit fungoes (which my dad wasn't particularly good at), and a big expanse of turf. If I was Ken Griffey Jr., I'm sure lots of coaches would have volunteered to hit me flyballs. But, with me, it was obvious to coaches within one minute that I was never going to be their star centerfielder -- I was slow and bad at judging flyballs. A thousand hours of practice with me would no doubt have made me a decent judge of flyballs, but I'd still lack natural judgement and still be slow. Moreover, I didn't want to practice catching flyballs for a 1000 hours: you have to do it at a park in public, so it was embarrassing and depressing. So, coaches just stuck me out in right field, until I could convince them that I was much less worse in the infield than in the outfield.
The Gladwellian Answer is that we must re-engineer society to lessen these unfair inequalities. Just because Ernie Sailer wasn't as good at hitting fungoes to his son as Ken Griffey Sr. was, and just because when his father wasn't available, Steve Sailer didn't have coaches volunteering to hit him fungoes the way Ken Griffey Jr. did, why should Steve Sailer be denied his 10,000 hours of baseball practice?
For some reason, the ability to evaluate middlebrow abstractions like the 10000 Hour Rule by the humble lessons of daily life is strikingly lacking in people who get paid to opine.