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Monday, July 7, 2014

10,000 Hours of Practice Does Not Guarantee Greatness

Business Insider:  New Study Destroys Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 Hour Rule, by Drake Baer:

OutliersThe 10,000 Hour Rule — closely associated with pop psych writer Malcolm Gladwell — may not be much of a rule at all. 

The principle holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field. When psychologists talk about deliberate practice, they mean practicing in a way that pushes your skill set as much as possible.

In Outliers, Gladwell contends that early access to getting 10,000 hours of practice allowed the Beatles to become the greatest band in history (thanks to playing all-night shows in Hamburg) and Bill Gates to become one of the richest dudes around (thanks to using a computer since his teen years). 

But a new Princeton study [Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis] tears that theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just a 12% difference in performance in various domains. What's really surprising is how much it depends on the domain: 

  • In games, practice made for a 26% difference
  • In music, it was a 21% difference
  • In sports, an 18% difference
  • In education, a 4% difference
  • In professions, just a 1% difference

Click MomentThe best explanation of the domain dependency is probably found in Frans Johansson's book The Click Moment.

In it, Johansson argues that deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. For example, in tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. 

But in less stable fields, like entrepreneurship and rock and roll, rules can go out the window:

  • Richard Branson started in the record business but quickly branched out into fields well beyond music: Virgin Group has 400 companies and is launching people into space.
  • Then there's a band like the Sex Pistols, who took the world by storm even though Sid Vicious could barely play his bass.

So mastery is more than a matter of practice.

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A difficult decision. Who is to be taken less seriously: Gladwell or Business Insider? Both are risible to anyone who pays attention to them. I'm going to go with Gladwell, though - his nonsense rivals Dr. Seuss, while BI is just a weakly-brewed imitator of BusinessWeek or CBS Marketwatch (and that's saying a lot, obviously).

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jul 7, 2014 10:32:07 AM

Time-to-master depends heavily on how complex a field is. Working hard, I mastered the nursing care of kids with leukemia in a few months even though my training was as an EMT. Becoming their doctor would have taken many years.

On the other hand, there was a emergency procedure those kids occasionally needed that I did often and those doctors didn't do at all. There I couldn't have acted faster and more smoothly. It was more like a reflex. But it was just one procedure not a multi-month treatment regime.

I never fastened onto his 10,000-hour rule anyway. It was too obviously wrong. Learning time depends on complexity and a native talent.

Posted by: Michael W. Perry | Jul 7, 2014 12:09:58 PM

Isn't the Business Insider article based on a Princeton study?

Posted by: PJ | Jul 7, 2014 12:19:30 PM

Umm, "In sports, an 18% difference." This is the difference between batting .300 and .354? That's worth maybe $3 million a year?

Posted by: steven sorell | Jul 7, 2014 1:48:45 PM

The flaw in this article is that the author and/or Princeton, equates "mastery" with "succuss." The Outliers book explicitly mentions that 10K hours is only one prerequisite to be an outlier amongst successful people. Natural talent/drive and timing (luck) were also necessary.

Posted by: Jeff | Jul 8, 2014 7:17:04 AM