Why "Gladwell's" 10,000 rule is just plain wrong.

The battle over nature versus nurture in expert performance is a never-ending one.  It seems as we have shifted back and froth between seemingly extreme views of deterministic gene views and Gladwell popularized 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Of course no one believes it is an either/or question, even if they frame their stance that way, and we are arguing over how far towards nature or nurture  to go. The problem though, with the popularization of gene-centric views in the 90’s and then deliberate practice in the 2000’s, we’re simply perpetuating a myth.

It sounds good, especially as a coach, to tell a kid that if he simply practices deliberately for 10,000 hours that will determine his performance. Okay, perhaps it’s not 10k hours exactly, but the message is clear that if one practices more then “talent is a myth”, and that person can overcome their “talent” and reach expertise. It’s a wonderful myth to grasp onto and sell. It speaks to the human ideals of hard work paying off and the determining factor of success. It’s human nature to hate the idea that someone can simply be successful because they hit the genetic lottery and had a good bit of luck. Who wants to be the parent that says, “if you work really hard you can be a really fast runner, but probably not as good as Bobby even though he only runs 40mpw and you run 100mpw.” Put simply, it sucks to deliver that message. The beauty is though that we don’t know. We don’t know someone’s genetic potential or how they respond to training/learning.


How I spent my 10,000 hours
         All of that being said, where these 10k hours, talent myth, etc. kill me is they sell false hope.  If you put in your 10k hours of deliberate practice and fail, then whose fault is it? Yours. Which is partially true of course, but if you fall short and don’t become an ‘expert’ did you fail? Did you not deliberately practice enough? I’d argue that you probably got closer to your max potential than even some experts. Let’s look at a very personal example.

I’ve got a running log that tracks every run from 11/1/2001 to 5/12/2012. I put in 44,000 miles during that time. That ranges from when I was a Junior in HS until I was 27 years old. That’s an average of 11.5miles per day and that includes days when I was hurt/sick/missed weeks because of surgery and so forth so if we counted only running days it puts it at 12 or higher. Add in my freshman and sophomore year plus all the strength, biomechanics, and extra work and you’re looking at easily over 10,000 hours of training.  

But wait there’s more. My best performances during that 11 year stretch didn’t occur when I hit mastery. It occurred in 2003, a mere 3.5years into my actual running career. Or put into running terms it occurred at mile 4,913 into the 44,000mi journey. Of course I didn’t have my freshman and sophomore year recorded, so it’s more like mile ~9,000 in a 48,000mi journey, but you get the point.

Was I not deliberate enough? Did I really try during those first 4,913 miles and then cruise through the next 39,087 miles just for fun?

Like Gladwell, we can turn to research for a partial answer.

The Devils in the Details

In a recently published issue of the journal “Intelligence” there were numerous studies, analysis, and pieces on the 10,000hr rule. In particular, one study by David Hambrick and colleagues entitled “Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert”, sought out to “test Ericsson’s claim that ‘individual differences in ultimate performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice.” As a refresher, Ericsson was the original researcher who developed and then publicized the concepts, which then took off with Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, and numerous others who jumped on the bandwagon with their own spin.

            In there research Hambrick reanalyzed 12 studies looking at expert performance in chess and music. Similar to Ericsson’s original work, they simply looked at hours of deliberate practice for each and compared it to performance levels along their development. In the chess studies, they found that deliberate practice explained 34% of the variance in performance, and therefore 66% unexplained. Looking at the individual numbers is even more staggering. There were some people who had over 20,000 hours of deliberate practice yet never went beyond Intermediate, the lowest of the three levels (intermediate, expert, and master). Perhaps most striking, was the range of “masters” was 832 hours to 24,284hrs to reach mastery.

When looking at Music, the results were very similar. 29.9% of the variance in performance was explained by amount of deliberate practice.

The whole study is worth a read as it delves into intelligence, personality, and other factors related to reaching “expertise.” However, the take away to me is simply common sense. Does practice make you better? Of course it does, but it isn’t the be all end all.  And you know what, neither is genetics.

With recent improvements in our understanding in epigenetics and how genes and environment interact, it’s become clear that there is no clear line or distinction between nature and nurture. They interact, intertwine, and are on a delicate balance of interplay throughout your life.
As Ackerman put it in a research study in “Intelligence”

Extreme positions on this controversy are fundamentally silly — both nature and nurture are necessary determinants of expert/elite performance, but neither alone represents a sufficient causal factor.”

In the end, I take Dave Epstein’s view in his book, The Sports Gene, which, pardon me if I’m wrong Dave, I believe to be: It’s a little of both and guess what they interact, a lot, seemingly more than we previously thought.  Or in other words, it’s a complicated mess. You can have a talent physiologically or psychologically. Some people’s talent shows up when they start (The kind of kid who can run a 4:30 mile out of PE), while others shows up with their response to certain training (The kid who runs 5:00 until he starts training and shoots down to 4:20). In the end, talent and training are interconnected.

Instead of telling everyone they can be an expert with deliberate practice, let’s just say, you never will find out where your ceiling is without a lot of work. And to me, that’s what the journey is about. When I look back at those 44,000 miles run and talk to me athletes about it, I’m not bitter that I failed to meet expertise, instead I’m glad I can stand there and tell my athletes that the journey in testing and hopefully findings ones limits is well worth it.

By the way, I was a talent of trainability kid. I was a good but not great miler in 8th grade, running 5:10 for mile and 60sec for the 400m. But it wasn’t until I jumped into running every day my freshman year in HS when I dropped to 4:21 and 51 as a 15yr old.


We each have our talents and limits. Find yours. On both sides.




3 comments:

  1. It's a complex discussion, but to implement practical rules, there are two important points.

    (1) There's an inverse relationship between intelligence plus transferable knowledge and the number of hours of deliberate practice after a certain bound (for argument's sake, the smartest person on Earth couldn't be a expert chess player after one hour of practice - where that bound is is individual to the task's complexity and level of mastery past experts of the task have attained). If you find more optimal methods to train, the more optimal your adaption to the task and the quicker you'll master it and less hours you need compared to others who follow sub-optimal methods. The worst method and slowest is to brute-force the task by repeatedly doing it. If all else is equal between two athletes except athlete A was a sprinter and athlete B was basketball player, and if you asked both to play a soccer match, you'd expect athlete B to perform better because basketball is a multi-agent contact game based upon the task of possessing an object and hitting into space better than your opponent and sprinting is a multi-agent non-contact game based upon the task of moving your body quicker through space better than your opponents; there are more transferable knowledge in basketball and soccer than there are, sprinting and soccer.

    (2) There is an exponential relationship between intelligence plus transferable knowledge plus deliberate practice and your genetic, physical, and/or mental limitations that you must maintain. There are limitations that could cap your mastery or prevent your competing at higher levels. An extreme case: If you're paralyzed, you're not going to compete at the Olympics in the 100m sprint or if you can, you probably have some dimension-bending technique to traverse that 100 meters of plane that is more optimal than Bolt's method. If you're 5 foot 2 and you want to be an NBA basketball professional, you have to be at least twice as intelligent and efficient comparable to the players who are closer to the NBA league average (6 foot 6 in 2008); it's a truism that you wouldn't exist as a 5 foot 2 NBA player with NBA league average intelligence and efficiency. Some limitations are more insidious in that they won't prevent you from doing the task but ultimately, you'll hit your local maximum that will hamstring and limit you from competing at the highest levels unless you can gain a competitive advantage in optimal methods et cetera and similar experts do not adapt (everything adapts eventually). Unfortunately, not all tasks are created equal: some tasks allow you to find more optimal methods and eke out statistically significant advantages and let you use your noggin'. and others, don't and in the cases that they don't, it's mostly genetics and number of training hours.


    That's just in general and practical terms. All tasks are different and strategy and execution will be weighted differently in each task. Chess will always be easier to pick-up and master than the 100m sprint because the 100m is weighted more toward execution than strategy and Chess, vice-versa and the body degrades faster than the mind.

    I think it's a stretch to apply your experience to '10,000' hours theory and invalidate it. Your performance of any task that involves trauma (however small) and risks severe trauma to the body will peak and eventually deteriorate over time. I mean, if you have ran for 2,000 hours, and fracture both your legs after 2,001 hours, your peak performance is more likely to have happened before the fractures and less likely after (but always possible).

    Like the blog, Steve, and I agree with your overall sentiment at the end that you should look for something that you don't have limits in. Minimize your limitations, train smart and work hard.

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  2. For track, the bounds for 800 on up are interesting. I know that Bolt was going to be fast for his events, assuming a healthy childhood, so practice adds fractionally but very specific attributes were needed in terms of genes to be world-class. Further out in distance, the work to create the big aerobic and anaerobic "cups," to borrow a Bob Bowman phrase, goes up. I haven't seen guesstimates on the minimum distance and total cumulative time needed to, say, just break 15 minutes for the 5k. From hearing the H.I.I.T. claims it seem like the total isn't too high, but I wonder...

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  3. I admit that it's been a while since I read the book and I sort of speed read it, but my understanding was that his point was that 10k hours is just one aspect of the equation and other factors have to be present for someone to be a success. One of these is to be at the right place at the right time, and not sure what the others were, but I have a feeling he wasn't really focusing on athletic performance.
    Other than than you're perfectly right that in a lot of sports it's really not going to matter how many hours you practice, if you ain't got the genes, you're just simply out of luck. I can practice 40,000 hours playing basketball, I will never even come close to being a Michael Jordan. If I don't have the right muscle fibers, I will never be a sprinter worth mentioning.
    But, following the previous: if I am the smartest kid on earth, with 10k hours I probably will become the unbeatable chess champion.

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