The 8-year-old juggling a soccer ball and the 48-year-old jogging by, with Japanese lessons ringing from her earbuds, have something fundamental in common: At some level, both are wondering whether their investment of time and effort is worth it.
How good can I get? How much time will it take? Is it possible I’m a natural at this (for once)? What’s the percentage in this, exactly?
Scientists have long argued over the relative contributions of practice and native talent to the development of elite performance. This debate swings back and forth every century, it seems, but a paper in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science illustrates where the discussion now stands and hints — more tantalizingly, for people who just want to do their best — at where the research will go next.
The value-of-practice debate has reached a stalemate. In a landmark 1993 study of musicians, a research team led by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist now at Florida State University, found that practice time explained almost all the difference (about 80 percent) between elite performers and committed amateurs. The finding rippled quickly through the popular culture, perhaps most visibly as the apparent inspiration for the “10,000-hour rule” in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling “Outliers” — a rough average of the amount of practice time required for expert performance.
The new paper, the most comprehensive review of relevant research to date, comes to a different conclusion. Compiling results from 88 studies across a wide range of skills, it estimates that practice time explains about 20 percent to 25 percent of the difference in performance in music, sports and games like chess. In academics, the number is much lower — 4 percent — in part because it’s hard to assess the effect of previous knowledge, the authors wrote.
“We found that, yes, practice is important, and of course it’s absolutely necessary to achieve expertise,” said Zach Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University and a co-author of the paper, with Brooke Macnamara, now at Case Western Reserve University, and Frederick Oswald of Rice University. “But it’s not as important as many people have been saying” compared to inborn gifts.
One of those people, Dr. Ericsson, had by last week already written his critique of the new review. He points out that the paper uses a definition of practice that includes a variety of related activities, including playing music or sports for fun or playing in a group.
But his own studies focused on what he calls deliberate practice: one-on-one lessons in which an instructor pushes a student continually, gives immediate feedback and focuses on weak spots.
“If you throw all these kinds of practice into one big soup, of course you are going to reduce the effect of deliberate practice,” he said in a telephone interview.
Outliers: The Story of Success
The Talent Code
Talent is Overrated
The Sports Gene
The Success Equation
Malcolm Gladwell: COMPLEXITY AND THE TEN-THOUSAND-HOUR RULE
Dan Coyle and David Epstein on the Bryan Callen show
Related excerpt from the recent Robert Sapolsky interview I posted:
What I’ve been thinking might actually be going on is that adolescence is something unavoidable that emerges not because it’s so cool and adaptive, but because the adaptive thing is wait a long, long time before you have fully wired up your frontal cortex. Why might that be the case? Alright, so we’re born with our genome, the combination of your mother and father’s genes, that wind up in that first fertilized egg and that’s it. That’s your genetic legacy. Every cell in your body is destined to have that exact same genome. That turns out not to be true in all sorts of interesting ways, but what that also means is that when you’re thinking about what genes have to do with the brain behavior, by definition critically, if the frontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop it’s the part of the brain least shaped by genes, and most sculpted by the environment and experience. And I think basically the only way you can have a species that is as complex and socially resilient and socially context dependent and all those amazing things we do, the only way you can pull that off is to have a frontal cortex whose development just bears the imprint of everything you experienced along the way—in effect, that’s been freed from whatever extent the genes are deterministic, which is not very. I think ironically what the evolution of the frontal cortex has been about is genetic evolution to free it as much as possible from the straight jacket of genes.