Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Practice makes (one third) perfect, the other two thirds require talent

It has become part of popular wisdom that expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. Some sages further imply that if you have the discipline to put in those ten thousand hours you can achieve success in any calling. This notion fits in nicely with the general nostrum that “you can be anything you want to be”.

The basis for this work (Ericsson, 1993) was to identify student musicians of high, middling and low achievements and ask them to look back at their careers to estimate how long they had practiced. The same approach was used to look at chess players. The results were written up to suggest that the hours of practice were the main causal variable. Other possible causal variables were not investigated in significant depth.

However, there were one or two problems with this notion. First, there was plentiful evidence that very many people tried to practice for many hours, and then gave up. In my own case, when I gave up trying to learn to play the piano after several years, my class mates who had been listening against their will on the other side of the wall while doing their homework were universally grateful. My fruitless hunt for the correct note had been pure torture for them. I had the wish, but not the wherewithal.  Second, if you study those who are forced to practice by pushy parents (generally lauded by journalists for having trained their children to excel in chess) you find two things: the best chess playing children in the family have studied for much longer (one standard deviation more) but they have spent many more hours in practice than grandmasters who have no difficulty beating them soundly in chess competitions. Forced drill and endless practice pays relatively meagre results, while talent and substantial practice soar ahead.

David Z. Hambrick et al. (2013) Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? http://dx.doi.org.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/10.1016/j.intell.2013.04.001

The authors have taken a more open-minded approach to the subject. They have looked at practice in student musicians and chess players, and their best estimate is that practice accounts for one third of the variance. The other two thirds are up for grabs. It is likely, but not directly measured, that talent contributes to the remaining two thirds. There is plentiful data showing that good musicians and chess players are much brighter than average, and we know from more mundane activities in the Army that intelligence is associated with learning things faster and with performing to a higher level, particularly when the task becomes more complicated and when you have to apply general principles rather than follow a checklist. Linda Gottfredson has assembled a lot of data on the importance of g in everyday life. http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/reprints/1997whygmatters.pdf

Have a look at the Hambrick et al. paper, which also includes discussions about the contribution of personality  (not much, once you have measured hours of practice) and genes directly involved in particular skills.

Bottom line from the authors: 

1)The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.

2)Ten thousand hours are not required. Some chess players take 26 years of practice to make Master level, while others achieve that in less than 2 years.

Now, about your piano playing….. please consider your neighbours.

1 comment:

  1. When I was a laddy we all played football and then, at fourteen, the school decided to take up rugby, a code involving more intricate rules and much more specialist tasks than football (bar, perhaps, the goalkeeper).

    It was stunning to see how much more quickly the top-of-the-class boys picked up the new game (bar one poor fellow whose eyesight was so poor he couldn't play either). It helped that the clever buggers were on average bigger and better co-ordinated (at least so I suspected) but the striking difference was in speed of learning. By the time we were in our final year, the three boys who were outstanding at maths were captain and vice-captain of rugby, and poor-eyesight guy.