Can a magic number define your expertise or really make you an expert at anything?
A 1993 psychology paper, by the psychologist Anders Ericsson of the Florida State University, first introduced this widely touted idea that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at anything.
This theory was pushed into the social and scientific sphere again with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers claiming that anyone can master a skill if they put in 10,000 hours of practice.
Despite imminent skepticism from the scientific community, there was a general rise of hope in the masses that if they really tried hard and put on that many hours of practice they can be exceptionally good at something, even masters of a skill they desired. There is even a Macklemore song about it.
However, being exceptional at a skill is often attributed not only to the genetic talents passed down to the child but also to the environmental factors.
Whether it be musical ability, skill with numbers or artistic talent, there are a multitude of factors involved and if the skills are nurtured, remarkable genes can result in equally remarkable talent.
Gladwell’s theory encapsulates the idea that talent can be learned and through an extended practice of a skill and intense training it can be earned as well. No pain no gain, they say.
Let’s trace the idea.
Can 10,000 hours of practice really bring out the best in you and is enough to help you master your chosen field of interest?
- 1 SO WHAT IS THE ACTUAL THEORY?
- 2 INSPIRATION FROM ERICSSON’S ORIGINAL THEORY
- 3 IS MALCOLM GLADWELL’S OUTLIERS JUST A BUNCH OF LIES?
- 4 SORRY! JUST PRACTICE WON’T TURN YOU INTO THE BEATLES
- 5 ERICSSON AND MALCOM GLADWELL’S WEAK DEFENSE IN FACE OF CRITICISM
- 6 WHERE DOES THE THEORY OF ‘NATURAL TALENT AND GENETIC ABILITY’ STAND?
- 7 IF PRACTICE ISN’T THE ANSWER, THEN WHAT IS?
- 8 FINAL THOUGHTS
SO WHAT IS THE ACTUAL THEORY?
According to the actual theory, if you put in 10,000 hours of practice into a skill, it is a surefire way to become an expert.
This concept has wormed its way into social consciousness due to the fact that it simplifies the mysticism of achieving greatness with easily definable steps.
People have now generalized the fact from Ericsson’s and Gladwell’s works into extrapolating that talent can be learned as well as earned through intense practice.
Dedicated practice in your chosen field can be the precursor to success and the secret to bringing out the best in your innate abilities.
Gladwell and Ericsson both insisted on deliberate practice and to reach the threshold of 10,000 hours, it would require 90 minutes each day for approximately 20 years, which might explain an average child learning a piano might never reach concert level.
Additionally, the 10,000-hour mark is not such a “skill tipping point” according to Gladwell who states that skills are developed gradually and evolved with practice.
There is a variance in the range of time periods, where different individuals reach a peak of proficiency, in their chosen field.
However, the theory’s tainted result might be due to the domain dependency which is better explained in Frans Johansson’s book, “The Click Moment”, in which the author explains that deliberate practice can be proven successful in domains with a stable structure and predefined steps.
For example, Richard Branson started with a record business, but ventured well beyond music and is now launching rockets into space.
Take Sex Pistols for instance, who rocked the stage of the world with their music even though Sid Vicious was a poor excuse of a bass player.
Brooke Macnamara, the lead author of the Princeton study, states:
“There is no doubt that deliberate practice is important, from both a statistical and a theoretical perspective. It is just less important than has been argued. For scientists, the important question now is, what else matters?”
INSPIRATION FROM ERICSSON’S ORIGINAL THEORY
Gladwell’s inspiration came from K. Anders Ericsson, whose theory validates the points that if sufficient practice is applied to any particular skill, anyone can achieve proficiency level, equivalent to a classical musician on the top of their field.
Ericsson’s key study was based on the violinists of the Berlin Academy of Music, in which most musicians begin their musical training by the age five with varying number of hours for practice and by age eight the practice times start diverging.
According to the researchers, by the age of twenty, some expert performers have an average of 10,000 hours of practice or even more while good performers totaled hours amount to 8,000 and lesser-abled performers can account their performance hours to just 4,000.
Ericsson and his fellow psychologist found similar patterns in expert and amateur pianists.
An amateur pianist, by the age of 20, has put in more than 2,000 hours of practice while professionals had put in considerably more effort with their hours of practicing amounting to more than 10,000. The study clearly states,
“The maximal level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically as a function of extended experience, but the level of performance can be increased even by highly experienced individuals as a result of deliberate efforts to improve.”
The 10,000-hour rule is further consolidated by the claim,
“Our basic assumption is that the amount of time an individual is engaged in deliberate practice activities is monotonically related to that individual’s acquired performance. It follows from this assumption that individuals should attempt to maximize the amount of time they spend on deliberate practice to reach expert performance.”
IS MALCOLM GLADWELL’S OUTLIERS JUST A BUNCH OF LIES?
According to Gladwell, this magical formula of practicing 10,000 hours is the key to success in any field and all sportsmen, computer programmers, and performers have more or less put in more than 10,000 hours of practice, which eventually allowed them to become shining stars in their fields as compared to their less diligent counterparts.
For example, he extrapolates the success of the Beatles with the extended opportunity afforded them to play in clubs and bars in Hamburg, Germany, which gave them plenty of time to hone their skills.
Gladwell also cites Bill Gates, who in contrast to his contemporaries was given access to a computer at an early age of 13, in 1968, which gave him an excellent foundation to become the co-founder of the software giant Microsoft.
While others his age were playing soccer, he was putting in hours of practice, which gave him a prominent head start to become beacon head in programming and building his company at such a young age.
However, it may seem like an unattainable goal to achieve because most experts who are best in their fields have accumulated an average of 10,000 of practice hours as opposed to a total, while winners of international musical competitions have put in more than 25,000 hours of dedicated practice.
Moreover, if the area of expertise is less competitive, it is much more likely that you will succeed, which is strengthened by the findings by Ericsson and his colleagues, who stated that college students can reach expertise in memorizing digits with just 500-1,000 hours of practice.
And while deliberate practice might be a big contributor to success, it cannot be the whole story.
It is still a bone of contention between psychologists that no matter the amount of practice, the absence of proper motivation can become a hindrance in the acquisition of expertise in any field, may it be mathematics, physics, sports, arts or music.
The question is, what makes other people slightly more motivated than others their age and what pushes them to do well in the first place?
Even when two people, with the same amount of practice hours are observed and studies, there are still disparities that cannot be explained.
What if the seductive notion of the 10,000 rule is all wrong? Some might argue that excellence is only reserved for a selected group of individuals and they are the real winners of the genetic lottery that has skimmed past us.
Gladwell’s book doesn’t qualify with the activities requiring deliberate practice.
The questions isn’t of how many hours of practice you put in, but rather if people are born with a particular set of skills and have enough motivation and spare time to realize their dream in pursuit of a single goal.
That is the point of difference from Ericsson’s study that observed British musicians and found that the top performers in the field are not fast learners, even when they are compared to the average performers in their field.
The psychologists studied various musician groups for hours and found that most of them improved or learned at the same rate. The only disparity was that top performers practiced for more hours.
Further studies explained their excellence as the fact that most top performers possessed an early natural gift for music or had the distinct advantage of being taught at home by parents or private tuitions.
Similar observations were recorded when child prodigies in art and music were studied. At first glance, they might have seemed to be blessed with natural raw talent, but closer inspection revealed a different story.
For example, Rudiger Gamm, a German mathematician who assisted in finding the quotient of two primes up to 60 decimals was dubbed a “Walking Miracle” by science magazines, but it is now revealed that he devoted his life to the study of numbers and practiced no less than four hours every day relentlessly until he mastered the number facts and the procedures behind them.
Deviating from the core principles of Ericsson’s study is the reason Tim Ferris mocks the 10,000 hour rule.
SORRY! JUST PRACTICE WON’T TURN YOU INTO THE BEATLES
When they say practice makes perfect, it is not always the essence or replacement for talent, which is inherent. Scientists have remained quite skeptical in face of Gladwell’s theory.
A recent group of psychologists, from 5 reputable universities, has rebuffed the claim as well as Gladwell’s wisdom. According to the authors,
“leaving the majority of the reliable variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors.”
According to the study, several levels of varying deliberate practice only accounts for one third of excellence in the performance levels recounted in musicians and chess players.
It also depends on the age that you start practicing, personality, intelligence or another X factor, which leaves us with the idea that while practice is great, it won’t suddenly instill in you a natural born talent where there was none.
“Practice only accounts for one third of excellence in performance levels.”
The team of psychologists analyzed data from previous studies, spanning chess competitions with 1,083 participants in total and 8 studies with 628 musicians to find the correlation between success and practice.
What they found, left Gladwell’s study in the dust.
Huge disparities were found in the way grand musicians and chess grandmasters practiced.
For example, it took 26 years for one chess player to reach a level of expertise that another reached in just two years.
It is quite clear, that there is so much more at work than just mere practice and the sheer number of hours it takes. The scientific journal Intelligence published their study as well as their claim,
“The majority of the reliable variance unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors.”, “The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”
Researchers found a 12% difference in the performance, through 88 deliberate studies of several domains. What’s shocking is that the domain made a huge difference.
For example, while practice made 26% difference in games, in education, it accounts for just a measly 4%.
This cross examination of six previous studies strengthened the claims that excellence is reliant on two factors, genetic ability and natural talent.
ERICSSON AND MALCOM GLADWELL’S WEAK DEFENSE IN FACE OF CRITICISM
Anders Ericsson, the psychologist that Gladwell cited in his infamous paper has publicly disagreed with these new findings by arguing that the critics have focused their studies on too many beginners and not many experts in their fields. According to him,
“My review rejects the assumption that data on large samples of beginners can be extrapolated to samples of elite and expert performers”.
He also published a revised paper to reaffirm his believes on how the masses perceive the concept all wrong and the study is focused on what the current performance of a trainee is and what it could be after sufficient training.
He also elaborated in his new study the unknown variable of heritability related to expert performers, meaning that where expert performers are concerned, cognitive ability is not correlative with performance.
Ericsson himself, among many others, have found several inaccuracies where Gladwell’s book is concerned and he has faced a lot of backlash over claims mentioned in his book.
Sports Illustrated author David Epstein went as far as to publish a new book called, “The Sports Gene” in which he disapproves of Gladwell’s theory.
Business Insider went as far as to state that Gladwell’s theory is destroyed by Epstein’s book. Gladwell however defended his claims by stating,
“Epstein has written a wonderful book. But I wonder if, in his zeal to stake out a provocative claim on this one matter, he has built himself a straw man.”
Gladwell, you see, applied the 10,000 rule to activities that required cognitive thoughts and not those of swimmers and runners.
According to him, the critics cannot refute his claims or invalidate the 10,000 hours rule, as in fields, demanding cognitive thoughts, natural ability is unheard of and the rules work better for activities and instances where there is a specific number of instances and possibilities that can be mastered and expertise attained in a given amount of time.
WHERE DOES THE THEORY OF ‘NATURAL TALENT AND GENETIC ABILITY’ STAND?
The truth about talent is often attributed to preordained genius or innate abilities, which is what the Theory of Natural Talent and Genetic Ability is all about.
The idea behind it is that heredity and genetics are the only explanations for physical attributes but our mathematical, musical, sporting and scientific prowess, which gives us precedence over others.
In short, our excellence in a domain hinges on our genetic inheritance.
This concept is in stark contrast to Gladwell’s theory.
We use the word talent to rationalize and understand this idea that brilliant musicians, scientists, mathematicians are born with a distinct advantage of a superior DNA with excellence encoded in them since birth.
While supporters of Gladwell and Ericsson harp about the notions of deliberate practice and extended hours of hard work to achieve excellence, it cannot be ignored that people are born with natural and innate ability to do well than others in their field and achieve excellence with less practice than their counterparts.
Chrissie Wellington, for instance, was a four-time Ironman Triathlete, who competed professionally when she was 30 and won her very first world championship just a year later.
According to Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist, natural talent allows a person to get more bang for their buck or help them get better faster and improve their expertise in a record amount of time.
According to Matt Ridly,
“Genes are the mechanisms of experience.”
Which means that talent is a gradual development through a stabilized interaction of environment and genes, where talent and practice are complimentary if not at all at odds.
IF PRACTICE ISN’T THE ANSWER, THEN WHAT IS?
There has been an ongoing debate over the quantity of practice over the quality.
Attaining exceptional mastery in any field can be attributed to not just practice or innate ability or talent, but also to certain learning strategies and tactics that can help you tide over the average counterpart in your field and become a proficient master of a specific domain.
While deliberate practice is a precursor to excellence, it is important to set specific and definable goals, facilitate swift and accurate feedback in an orderly progression and also create an environment that not only permits progress but expedites it. Here are some more ways that can facilitate expertise.
1. Acquiring Extensive Knowledge And Research
Accumulating necessary information to achieve any desired objective is what swift skill acquisition is all about. It will tell you exactly how to reach your goal and what you need to reach it.
Tracking your progress and measuring yourself with the received feedback can provide an exceptional way to adapt yourself to changes required for better results.
2. Baby Steps Of Learning And Observation
Learning a skill can become easy with information gathering and observation, which can facilitate your innate ability.
Learning about a subject or a skill can help your chances of mastering it and general observation is always helpful in the form of demonstrations or workshops.
3. Creating Short Term Goals For Self
It is much more sensible to create goals you know you can achieve.
Realistic goals have a better chance of being achieved than setting up high expectations and then disappointing yourself.
Achievable goals can be broken down into steps and small steps can be taken to gradually ascend to the top.
4. Teaching Others
Lectures, reading, audio-visual aids, demonstrations, group discussions, practice comes second only to teaching others which is termed as a participatory teaching method.
Teaching others improves your own proficiency level, which gives you the necessary motivation as well as responsibility to master a subject before you can teach it to others.
It is often a great idea to research claims of any study or scientific research before adopting their findings in a closed-eye haze.
It is a stark reality that no amount of practice can help you in any sports field if your body and fitness level is not up to the mark and 10,000 hours to pile up on top of natural talent to hone a skill is just overkill.
The combination of natural ability and time however is not a guarantee of expertise but development of deliberate practice as a concept.
And while it may be your best bet on mastering a skill, burning yourself out with extended periods of practice can do more harm than good.
It is always a good idea to focus your energies on the quality of your focus on learning skills rather than the quantity of hours that you put in.