In last weekend’s Sunday Letters essay, I discussed the stubborn idea that talent is born rather than made. In truth, it is more likely that apparently innate abilities and genetic endowments combined with environmental stimulation produce what we see as displays of exceptional talent and genius. In this week’s episode of Sunday Letters Podcast, I’m sharing the story of world champion high jumper Donald Thomas, as the late Anders Ericsson detailed in his book Peak.
Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book Outliers suggests that anybody can become an expert with enough practice. Gladwell, a journalist, says that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”. Sounds like the magic of getting people's attention rather than a maxim of human performance. In any event, Gladwell latched onto Ericsson's work and was selective about how he presented this apparent rule for success. In his book Peak, Ericsson was later critical of Gladwell, stating that "unfortunately, this rule, which is the only thing that many people today know about the effects of practice, is wrong in several ways." He went on to outline these errors. Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke MacNamara agrees, saying, “The [10,000-hour rule] idea has become entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification. When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors, and their interactions explains the performance differences in people.”
After extensive research, Ericsson's 1993 study of violinists and pianists titled "The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance" found that those with the most experience (practice) were better than those who had less experience. The average top-ranked violinist had clocked an average of 10,000 hours of practice by age 20. This finding refutes claims of natural talent and suggests that other factors like hard work are more important for success. In their repeat of Ericsson's study, MacNamara and Maitra found that the factors influencing success depend on the skill being learned: in chess, it could be working memory; in sport, it may be how efficiently a person uses oxygen. MacNamara says, “Once you get to the highly skilled groups, practice stops accounting for the difference. Everyone has practised a lot, and other factors are at play in determining who goes on to that super-elite level.”
MacNamara and her colleague Megha Maitra set out to repeat part of Ericsson's 1993 study to see whether they reached the same conclusions. The research team interviewed three groups of 13 violinists who were rated best, good, or less accomplished. Recording their testimony regarding their practice habits, the musicians were then asked to complete daily diaries of their activities for one week. The results showed that by the age of 20, while the less skilful violinists had an average of about 6,000 hours of practice, there was little to separate the good from the best musicians, each averaging around 11,000 hours. All told, the number of hours spent practising accounted for about twenty-five per cent of the skills difference across the three groups.