Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Talent > Practice

One of the most inane ideas to get a lot of press coverage over the past decade was the assertion that anybody can get good at anything with 10,000 hours of practice.

To that I say, nuts. Talent matters.

No amount of practice would make me a good singer, mathematician, draftsman, or politician. I've been playing basketball regularly for 40 years, and I am still awful. I was better when I was younger, fitter, and had less experience.

And now comes some real data to back up what everyone already knew about talent and practice: talent matters much more.
A new meta analysis in Perspectives in Psychological Science looked at 33 studies on the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic achievement, and found that practice just doesn't matter that much.

More precisely, the analysis found, practice can account for 18 percent of the difference in athletic success. Put another way, if we compare batting averages between two baseball players, the amount of time the players spent in the batting cage would only account for 18 percent of the reason why one player's average is better than the other.
At the elite level, they find that differences in the amount of time spent practicing account for only 1% of the difference in ability. No surprise there; Michael Jordan worked hard, but not notably harder than the average professional athlete. All elite athletes work hard, but very few of them are Michael Jordan or Lionel Messi.

Yes, there are studies that show people who are good at things have practiced a lot more than people who are bad at them. It does take practice to master any complex activity. But I think the main reason highly accomplished people have practiced more is that they realize early on that they are good and have the potential to be even better, which is a terrific incentive to practice. I have a relative who was a professional dancer for years, in a modern dance troupe, and she was picked out by her teachers as having real potential when she was only four years old. By the time she was 18 she had put in a lot of hours, but that was because she was talented, not the other way around.


G. Verloren said...

There seems to be a strange resistance among many people to the notion that perhaps not all men are created equal.

Treating people as equals despite their differences is, in my mind, one of the highest virtues and the duty of all decent people, but the fact remains that we are not all equal, and do not all live and operate in the same ways. The most obvious cases are the most extreme - a blind person experiences the world in a way most sighted people will never understand unless they make an effort to step into their shoes to walk a proverbial mile. But even subtle and slight differences matter - even things as minor as our dominant hands, or the particular calibration of our taste buds - and in general I feel we don't do a good enough job recognizing and respecting people's inherent differences.

Practice is important for establishing competance, no one can deny that. A person without talent for a task can, with practice, become at least basically proficient in it. For example, I'm an awful artist and my penmanship is fairly poor as well, but I'm certain if I practiced more I could make decent improvements and reach a modest level of aptitude. But at the same time, I realize I'm never, ever going to be more than modest - I simply don't have the knack for art-by-hand, and it would be unrealistic to expect to reach levels of true skill.

And I'm fine with that. There are other things which I'm better at, which I have more natural talent for, that I enjoy more, and which I actually want to improve in. And there's only so much time to spend on improving oneself, so why devote ten thousand hours to becoming a modest artist when I could instead spend it on furthering my actual talents and interests?

That's of course not to say you should -never- bother practicing something new or different that you don't feel you have a talent for. There's absolutely no shame in taking the time to become "merely modest" at something if you truly enjoy it or get something of value out of it. Despite my lack of talent, I think I'd like to some day take up painting in the style of Bob Ross - nothing fancy, nothing "great", just simple pictures that are only meant to please myself, and which I can enjoy the time I spend painting them as a form of relaxation and perhaps even introspection. If your focus isn't competition or pushing the limits, but merely self fulfillment and enjoying something different, then any goal can be worthwhile, talent or no.

szopen said...

"There seems to be a strange resistance among many people to the notion that perhaps not all men are created equal."

Try to mention that "g" is mostly heritable in a room full of progressives :)