Talent and the ten thousand hour rule

15 Jul

The ten thousand hour rule has established itself in the popular mind. However, the claim that practice is the only factor separating novices from experts is controversial. Today’s New York Times reports on a meta-analysis that asserts the central importance of talent:

“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.”

Here is the abstract:

“More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”


4 Responses to “Talent and the ten thousand hour rule”

  1. yogibattle July 15, 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    I’m glad you are addressing this. I think Malcolm Gladwell came up with this oversimplified number to sell more of his books, which are entertaining, thought provoking fluffery. There is a TED talk stating in only takes 20 hours to learn something (I think you posted it a long time ago.) From personal experience, 10k hours just gets your foot in the door to yoga. Other disciplines may be able to accommodate this model, but I agree with the study’s author that it has much more to do with personal aptitude. Thanks for the post Peakmemory! I always enjoy your entries.

    Here is a link to that TED talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MgBikgcWnY

  2. Tomas July 16, 2014 at 8:59 pm #

    I think the conclusions of this study as reported by the authors in the media are absolute baloney – the study does not support the “central importance of talent”.

    For example, based on some extremely dodgy statistics, they conclude that only 1% of difference in performance in “professions” is down to practice (and insinuate that the rest must be due to talent).

    One of the “professions” this was based on was aircraft piloting. The underlying investigation studied how good pilots were at reacting to extraordinary emergencies – the kind of emergency that is so unpredictable that you can’t train for it. Unsurprisingly, they found that training and flying hours was not much use for dealing with these situations – by definition they are impossible to practice.

    That does NOT mean that the variation in pilot performance was down to talent – it could just as easily be dumb luck who does well and who doesn’t. The study had no measures of talent and no way of identifying who was “talented” and who wasn’t.

    It also does NOT mean that pilot training is pointless, and that you might as well send up pilots without training them at all. All it is saying is that there are some things you can’t train for.

    The study is interesting, but the way it has been reported in the media is deeply misleading.


  1. The five hour rule | peakmemory - November 23, 2015

    […] As I have pointed out before, there is reason to be skeptical of oversimplified versions of the ten thousand hour rule. Talent is a real phenomenon and it does contribute to performance. Having said that, I think we can learn a lot from studying the intense training regimes of high performers. The lessons learned may have  broad applicability for education. […]

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