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Do We Really Need 10,000 Hours to Achieve Mastery?

(Warning, long post)

By now you've probably heard about the 10,000 hours theory popularized by Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers. According to Anders Ericsson's work on expertise, to attain mastery in something (such as playing bass) you'd need the equivalent of 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. (Three hours a day for ten years) This message, like many disseminated by Gladwell, has reached audiences far and wide. The Freakonomics team of Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt even uses this theory to propose an explanation for why so many all-star soccer players are born in the first few months of the year (age cutoffs).

But Ross Tucker and Johnathan Dugas of Sports Scientists took at a different look at Ericsson's data in the context of athletic performance.
"Let me start out by saying that culture, training, diet, opportunity are all crucial to producing sporting champions or elite performances.  But the problem with the debate as it stands is the relative dismissal of physiological factors like genes, and also the extremely oversimplified view that "it's all about the training", or that science suggests genes don't matter.  My purpose with these posts is thus not to dismiss the role of training, culture or belief, but rather to balance out the argument with the facts.

And in so doing, to give an indication of just how complex it really is - the only certainty is that whoever says that success is due to one or two things is wrong."
Tucker and Dugas point out a huge omission in Anders Ericsson's work; the 10,000 hours theory talks only about averages without regard of variance. Even though the average practice time needed is 10,000 hours, it's possible to get that average by having one person practice 17,000 hours and another practice only 3,000 hours. That's a few practice years worth of difference.

Concerning a study of high-performing darts players by Duffy and Ericsson, Tucker and Dugas note that practice alone doesn't tell the whole story:
What is most interesting about this is that 10 years of practice explained 25% of variability, while 15 years explains 28%.  So clearly, the more you practice, the more you can explain performance.  That's not surprising, but the question is this:  How many hours of practice would it take to explain "most" of performance as a result of practice?  Look at the quote in the figure above, where Ericsson writes that "the development of expert performance will be primarily constrained by individuals' engagement in deliberate practice" (Ericsson, 2009).  Well, 28% is not "primarily constrained" and even though more practice explains more of performance, there is clearly a lot missing from this practice argument.
Tucker and Dugas propose a different theory that is equally valid using Ericsson's data:
Ericsson concludes that these children just accumulate more training time and that this explains performance.  The difference between the "best experts" and the "least accomplished players" is the training time.

But what if it is exactly the other way around?  Let's take two children at nine years old.  Do they have the same ability to play on first exposure?  Ericsson's model says yes, and that the difference comes later, when one child practices more, gets better teaching.  But what if the difference is present from the very first note, the first exposure to the activity?  The parents of a child who shows some ability encourage further practice, they invest in teaching and training, and this child, by virtue of the fact that he/she has more ability to begin with, accumulates more practice.  

But the child who has little innate ability makes the violin sound like the death march of stray cats, and their parents do not encourage more play.  In fact, they discourage it - the "go play outside" syndrome takes over, and the child is never exposed to teaching or practice.  His trajectory is set precisely because he has less innate ability.
Same data with a wildly different conclusion. For anyone who has taught before, it's very obvious that some students have more innate talent and drive than others.

Clearly, practice will always be important to success. You can't pick up a Squier at a garage sale and become Frank Zappa over the weekend. That'd be crazy (awesome). But denying that people have differing levels of innate talent is as silly as denying that tall people exist.

In fact, I even saw a tall person last week!

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