10,000 hours may gain you little if you have no talent

By Razib Khan | May 20, 2013 1:49 pm

Mozart, born that way, trained that way

A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell made the “10,000 hour rule” famous in his book Outliers. In practice (e.g., discussions with people day to day or on this blog) the rule gets translated into the inference “practice is what matters.” When talking about genetics this often implicitly also entails that “genes don’t matter.” I’m not saying that this is necessarily what Gladwell’s own exposition taken literally would suggest, but ideas have a way of evolving once they’re outside of the pages of a book.

My own response is that this sort of rhetorical device is silly. In domains of virtuosity the intersection of innate talent and conscientiousness are often critical. That’s because for outstanding excellence gains on the extreme margin of performance are critical. There are many born with talent, and those who hone and refine that talent will have an edge over those who do not exhibit the same work ethic. But the converse is that there are those born without talent for whom 10,000 hours of invested effort is lunacy.

A piece in Time reports on follow up research which seems to question the 10,000 hour rule. Reading the article one thing that I am struck by is the fact that scholar whom Gladwell originally relied upon to formulate the rule seems like a environmental maximalist. For example:

Ericsson doesn’t deny that genetic limitations, such as those on height and body size, can constrain expert performance in areas like athletics — and his research has shown this. However, he believes there is no good evidence so far that proves that genetic factors related to intelligence or other brain attributes matter when it comes to less physically-driven pursuits.

Update your priors appropriately when evaluating research. In any case the updated findings suggest that practice time can explain ~1/3 of the variance in outcomes for chess and music. This is obviously not trivial, and an important finding in and of itself. But, it does suggest that there is a lot more going on at these elite levels than simply perseverance.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Behavior Genetics
  • http://twitter.com/RashidSaif_R Rashid Saif

    Some fields are so difficult that underpopulation provides cover for those without innate talent. I’ve made it far as a talentless hack of a mathematician

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    “All I know is that no one is better than anyone else, and everyone is the best at everything.” – Seymour Skinner

  • http://www.culdesachero.blogspot.com/ The Cul-De-Sac Hero

    Pete Best was a so-so drummer who got dumped for a more talented drummer named Ringo who probably had similar experience. Gladwell still likes to use The Beatles as an example.

  • http://twitter.com/margotlorena Lorena

    never heard of the 10000 hour rule. but I think it is idiotic.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    As already noted in the Times piece, extreme propensity to persistent training is likely to have a genetic factor, too.

    And my personal experience (sorry Razib, I know that you generally can’t stand anecdotal data, but it may still be important 😉 ) tells me that people for whom it took longer than anticipated to achieve a certain level of skill will frequently underestimate the time it took them to get there (for example by omitting earlier stages of training because “they weren’t fully focused yet” then).

  • Gregory Cochran

    I would guess that Malcolm Gladwell isn’t familiar with population genetics or quantitative genetics. Or car salesmen.

    • Emil Kirkegaard

      I dug up Gladwell’s IQ 120 threshold claim. He refers to Jensen’s 1980 book Bias in Mental Testing. Apparently, Gladwell didn’t read his own source (I did), because Jensen cites two different studies as showing that there is no such ability threshold. Consequently, I don’t hold Gladwell in high regard.

  • Jacob M

    Probably there are other factors besides direct practice of a skill and genetics. I’m sure a number of other environmental factors weigh in.

    For instance, a multi-instrumentalist with years of experience on various instruments will probably pick up a new one quicker than a complete novice.

  • JonFrum

    This is one of those goofy-on-the-face-of-it assertions that are a staple of bestsellers. Anyone with casual experience with musicians or athletes wouldn’t take the time out to debate it. The appeal to levelers is obvious, and I doubt most of them seriously believe it in any case.

    I was listening to jazz music on Pandora the other day, and read about the featured trumpet player. He was giving his first horn at 14, and was gigging at 17. As a former sax player, I can assure you that this is mind-boggling. Some kids just pick it up – it comes easy to them, and thus they see the value of practice. Others can practice ten hours/day and come out five years late with little improvement.

  • Patrick Wyman

    Not that I fully buy Gladwell’s argument, but I think you’re misrepresenting it a bit. What Gladwell is trying to explain is the variance in performance at elite levels, not between the elite and the general population. His basic postulate, as I understood it, is that practice and repetition are what separates the ultra-successful from the larger group with the necessary “talent” – which implies genetics and environmental factors, among others – to succeed in a given field.

    Again, there are aspects to Gladwell’s argument that are problematic. I find it to be a useful idea to think with, however, especially in the context of examining athletic performance. I’ve played with the concept in an article I wrote as a factor to help explain the demographic profile of combat sports champions in the context of a larger group of fighters, for example.

  • Emil Kirkegaard

    Back to extreme environmentalism are we?

    “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor,
    lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief,
    regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations,
    and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it,
    but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it
    for many thousands of years.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_B._Watson

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.nydorf Charles Nydorf

    In my experience drill has only a temporary benefit. Much more effective is obsessive round-the-clock fascination with a subject.

  • Coemgen

    I thought Gladwell’s finding, that NHL players from Canada tend to have birthdays in certain months, pretty compelling.

  • http://twitter.com/reiver Charles


    “In domains of virtuosity the intersection of innate talent and conscientiousness are often critical.”

    I’d imagine something like task commitment would matter too:

    As a side note, task commitment seems a lot like obsessive-compulsive behavior.

    (I tend to conflate the two together. The difference between the two, in my mind, being the connotations people associate with then.)


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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