The 10,000hr rule and why talent and genes matter:

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.

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    1. Ken Schafer on July 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

      I have to commend you on another great post! You really pulled together a lot of important concepts here.

    2. David Csonka on July 21, 2010 at 7:00 pm

      I rue the day that I become fit enough that all of my friends dismiss my achievement by asserting that I was just born with "good genes".

    3. Barefoot Art on July 21, 2010 at 7:26 pm

      Great post…I would add that time spent *thinking* about an activity can be almost as important as time spent performing. There was a study a while back that showed near-equal performance between two groups of pianists playing a new piece: one group got to practice on a piano, the other was only allowed to visualize playing.

      So all that time reading running blogs and watching YouTube videos is actually well spent…right?

    4. Stian on September 5, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      Barefoot Art:

      Visualizing playing the piano is something very different from reading piano blogs and watching YouTube videos. When the connection between you and the piano starts to become second nature to you, you can go through the motions in your head and familiarize yourself with the piece that way. I have no idea whether it's "good practice" in the long term, though.

    5. Anonymous on June 16, 2011 at 10:33 am

      You can believe that hard work (alone) is key till you meet someone who is genetically gifted and get a bitch smack of reality.

      When you observe that they start at a level that it took you 2-5 years to get to there's no more BS anymore. Mama (esp) and Papa are still important.

      Having said that, there seems to be a growing belief in the importance of what Granpa/Granma may have done in their youth:
      Read: DNA Is Not Destiny,8599,1951968,00.html

    6. Tim on August 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm

      I think you’re right overall, but I really believe that hard work is way more important than talent. Talent might be a limiting factor, in particular in athletics, but in most other medium most will never reach their talent level, even with hard work.

      I’ve been playing guitar and music for nearly 20 years, I’ve busted my ass, put in 8 hour days for years. Still I get people saying, “I wish I had your talent”, I don’t believe it was talent that got me this far. My talent in this regard is only obsession with it. I can’t put the damn thing down. This has got me this far, still I think it will be at least another 50,000 hours before I ever come close to my potential with it (whatever potential is?).

      If I relied on talent, I wouldn’t even be able to play the thing at all right now. I think people sit around saying, “Oh, I wish that was me, if I only had your talent” I think it’s a complete cop out. They have no idea the work that was involved, and most would never be willing to put the work needed in, period.

      It seems to me that hard work, and starting early play a more important rule in athletics than talent. Certainly some are more prone to endurance or strength, or speed, but most could (at some point) excel in some athletic discipline. I started swimming competitively in high school, it took me 4 years to catch up at all to the people who had been doing it for years (many I never caught), but I also played sports my entire life. My improvements were dramatic every year, had I started at 5 or 6, like many, it would have been a major advantage to me. It eventually lead to me swimming well in college, but it was still early enough. Now, I’m getting into triathlons and no matter what someone my age, who never swam competitively earlier in life, does, they won’t catch me because of the time I had with it. This isn’t because of talent, I don’t believe, but the 5 to 7 hours of practice sessions a day in college and high school, and lots of coaching refining my technique (something my “talent” would never have figured out on its own).

      Maybe the books go too far, but if people are working harder, they will be more accomplished, they will reach more goals, they might even exceed them. Spend 4 hours a day painting for the next 7 years (approx 10,000 hours) and I guarantee you will see some amazing things happen, and I guarantee people will say “I wish I had your painting talent”. It’s this self defeating attitude that leaves many with nothing to show for themselves.

      Just my thoughts. Great blog!

    7. Anonymous on November 21, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      I'd highly recommend you to check out the work of K. Anders Ericcson rather than using Mr. Gladwell or any best seller author as your "scientific source". And just for future notice, check the original concepts before you make your conclusions based on biased skimming of data!

    8. Anonymous on August 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      Don't downplay genetics. It didn't take Arnold Schwarzenegger 10,000 hours to master bodybuilding. It didn't take Mike Tyson 10,000 hours to master boxing. It didn't take Paul Morphy 10,000 hours to master chess. A million hours won't be the answer either. Make an anatomy observation at the Olympics. Swimmers, wrestlers, weightlifters, sprinters, long distance runners, etc. all take a respective, characteristic build that training alone can't acheive. It's genetic.

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