The idea is so simple and so clear that everyone has been trying to make it more complicated. And, everyone has been trying to gain glory and fame by refuting it, definitively.
The idea is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Gladwell argued that in order to excel at an activity you need to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That is, you have to put in the time and the effort. You are not going to excel at anything without hard work, without very hard work.
The 10,000 rule affirms the work ethic. It says that perspiration trumps inspiration. But it does not say and does not imply that anyone can excel at anything he wants just because he puts in a lot of time. It does not say that someone who has no athletic talent is going to become Babe Ruth by spending 10,000 hours hitting baseballs.
Talent is necessary but not sufficient. Hard work is necessary but not sufficient. The rule says that, however good your neural pathways, you are not going to be able to compete at a high level if you do not work on it. And note, the caveat… you need to put make a deliberate effort. Just spending the time will not work if you are not using it efficiently.
True, great athletes sometimes slack off. When then do, it catches up to them eventually. But truly great athletes often have the best work ethic. They are always training. They might not be training very much more than anyone else, but they are doing the most effective training. Those who want to debunk the 10,000 rule ought to consider that coaching matters. So does frame of mind, lifestyle and the rest.
New York Magazine commented on a study that seems to debunk the Gladwell rule:
It comes in the form of a new meta-analysis lead-authored by Case Western Reserve University psychologist Brooke Macnamara, whose team analyzed the practice and performance of 2,765 athletes through 34 different studies. Macnamara and her colleagues found that on average, deliberate practice accounted for 18 percent of the difference in performance. This is good news for the weekend warrior: If you’re playing in a summer basketball league with your friends from work, putting in extra practice hours could make a big difference. But, as Macnamara said in an interview with Scientific American, that practice “stops differentiating who’s good and who’s great” once you get to a certain level. For elite athletes, deliberate practice explained just a one-percent difference. Ericsson, who also talked with Scientific American, said that the new study doesn’t use the same definition of deliberate practice that his research employs, where a coach is monitoring the practitioner closely at all times.
Think about it: in the best of circumstances, ignoring the quality of the coaching, deliberate practice only accounts for 18% of the performance differential.
Here I am somewhat at a loss. If your times in swimming become 18% percent better, would that not matter a great deal? Isn't the difference between first and second place a lot less than 18%?
No one is watching the Olympic games this year, but everyone ought to know that the difference between winning and losing is often measured in microseconds. Any competitive athlete would do everything in his power to become 18% percent better. Would it not matter if your golf score is 18% better? How much would it matter to a professional?
While it is true that there is more to it than a mere 10,000 hours, once you talk about “deliberate” practice, you are adding considerations about talent and perseverance, about a work ethic.
Moreover, if you do not have the talent to perform well you are not likely to be able to stick to a strict training regimen. No one spends that much time trying to perfect a skill he does not have.