Posted by Steve Magness
A decade or so ago, if you asked the top scientists what separated top athlete’s, the answer would be simple, genetics. Fast forward to today and the answer seemingly has shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum, hard work. Two books that came out a year ago, Outliers and The Talent Code, have pushed this shift in thinking. The basic premise of both books was that while talent may play a role, it turns out that circumstance and hard work are the deciding factor. In Outliers, Malclom Gladwell made the case that greats in a variety of activities, from classical musicians to the Beatles, all achieved their greatness not because they were more talented, but because they simply put in more work. The so called 10,000 hour rule has become the latest en vogue thing to cite. The 10,000 hour rule basically states that it takes around that time to master a particular skill. With the rise of both books I saw track coaches at both clinics and in personal conversations start quoting this as if it was the Holy Grail. I’ve witnessed some try and convert that to mileage figures to show that we need X amount of mileage for X time to reach mastery. Stop. Think. And don’t assign this “rule” more importance than it deserves. It’s a rule of thumb, a rough guess, a rough observation that simply states that it takes a while to master a skill, which should be obvious. It’s not a law.
Both books’ ideas caught on because it’s central to the American conscious. The classic American dream basically states that if we work hard enough, anything is possible. Who wants to be told that their gifts and talents are predetermined by genetics like in the 90’s anyways?
The problem is that we've oversimplified genetics and talent. Talent has almost become a negative word. It’s often used in the context that if someone is talented they don’t work hard, as in “oh, he’s just really talented,” to explain a persons success. People want to buy completely into Gladwell and the Talent Code because it tells them that they can do anything with hard work. Sorry, you’re wrong. Hard work is a key ingredient, but it has to be combined “talent” to reach outlier status. Is the purpose of this post to discourage you from working hard? No, the idea should be that it takes hard work to reach YOUR limits. It’s impossible to know you’re ceiling, but if you work hard and don’t quiet reach you’re goal, it’s most likely because you didn’t work hard enough.
Accompanying the rise in the Gladwell concept has been a realization by Scientists that there aren’t special genes that explain our talent. People assumed that there’d be a gene explaining each of our special gifts, just like there are certain genes for determining hair color. Leading running researcher’s certainly thought that an endurance gene separated the Kenyans from the rest. “A decade ago, when Pitsiladis began to study elite athletes, his medical students would ask why East Africans dominate distance running, to which he would reflexively respond that their secret is in their genes. ‘But after 10 years of work,’ he says, ‘I have to say that this is a socioeconomic phenomenon we're looking at.’" (from: "Sports Genes" by David Epstein, Sports Illustrated). Read the mass media or even some of the research and you’ll see that the focus is on finding an “endurance” or “speed” gene.
Which brings me to my main point. We tend to use a reductionist approach to genetics searching for one magical gene that tells who is going to be an endurance champion. I'm sorry, this is not hair color. Endurance performance relies on a wide range of factors influences by numerous genes. Our bodies didn't evolve to run/win races. Endurance is a byproduct of evolving for other causes (i.e. hunting food, travelling, food supply). It's this combination that makes up endurance performance. And this is reflected in the study of genetics. Certain genes have been found that influence fat fuel usage ability, fiber type expression, and EPO levels. Why anyone thinks there is one gene that separates us and the African's is beyond me yet they use this as evidence that there are no genetic differences between good and bad endurance athletes. The problem isn’t in the research being conducted, it’s in the manipulation and interpretation.
Think of it in running terms. We can’t even name the exact characteristics that make up a great runner. The traditional triumvirate of VO2max, Running Economy, and Lactate Threshold do a worse job than simply increasing the speed of the treadmill until the runner falls off. There are so many different variables that go into running success that it’s laughable to think that we’ll find one great gene to explain it all. Maybe we would if our sole trigger in evolving was to win a race, but unfortunately that wasn’t the reason.
So what’s the point of all of this? We like to have things work in black and white or a simple yes or no answer. It doesn’t. Hard work plays a role, genetics plays a role, and environment plays a role. Once again, there is no magic bullet to tell us what our potential is. Don’t fall into the trap of a simple yes or no answer. Remember that these things work in cycles, 10 yearsw ago genetics was king, now it's all about hard work. It is not as simple as saying hard work will rule the day or that genetics determines everything. And to me, that’s more intriguing then the idea that only hard work and 10,000hrs of good practice is what separates us from being great. If it were that simple, then what would the fun be in that? I’d know how much good deliberate work I needed to put in and I’d get it done.
Instead, we are left with uncertainty. Not knowing our genetic or training ceiling allows for us to dare to be great. We may never know if we’ll get there, but when we finish whatever it is that we are striving for excellence in, we can look back and say we took a chance. We went for it and tried to find the limits of our talent and hard work ability. It’s about the journey of figuring out where our own personal limits lie.