Tuesday, September 10, 2019

10,000 Hours Did Not Quite Replicate.

I listened to a podcast interviewing David Epstein, author of Range, that came out earlier this year. He mentioned that the original 1993 study of violinists and pianists excelling on the basis of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice before age 20 has recently failed to replicate. Both the NYTimes and The Guardian overstate his conclusion in their headlines, but listening to him myself, Epstein did state pretty strongly that the 10,000 hours research is not established and should not be considered to be demonstrated. He leans more to genetic causes, which is unsurprising from the author of the bestselling The Sports Gene, and to including “practice variability,” such as playing different sports (or with a different ball or on a different size court); or in other fields, reading outside your area of expertise, or interacting with people who aren’t like you. I saw a similarity to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility, especially hormesis.
I decided decades ago that it was not necessary to be a massive generalist to have your brain work properly, but that it is an advantage to have at least one endeavor that is quite different from your career or main focus. A mathematician who also has a fascination with Civil War studies is not diluting his mathematical abilities, but enhancing them.  I didn’t have the reasoning behind that quite right, I now think, though the principle does hold.  I thought in terms of activating and developing various parts of one’s brain, which is why I was so intrigued with the Graduation 2010 project in Daviess County, KY.  That may still turn out to be so, but has not been demonstrated.  What does seem to be happening is that the individual has a greater library of analogies and strategies to draw from when a problem grows difficult. I suspect there is a limit to this.  In fact, as a massive generalist myself, I can assure that there is a limit. Yet a full library of analogies can be quite useful.

And notice, the violinists who practiced less still practiced a whole lot.  That’s worth remembering.  One of the best had practiced “only” 4,000 hours before age 20, but that’s still equivalent to working full-time at it for two years. Malcolm Gladwell and others may be wrong that there is something magical about 10,000 hours, and certainly wrong that anyone who practices 10,000 hours would become an expert, but those who excel do seem to have a heckuva lot of deliberate practice.
Unsurprisingly, the people who did the original study do not feel this undermines their work in the least. Intriguingly, one of them believes in a variant of the stress model, that the intensity of practice is a physiological stressor that calls forth the expression of dormant DNA, while the other thought that practice was the most important, but not only factor.  I don’t know how strongly they stated things in 1993, and if Gladwell overstated their conclusions then.


Christopher B said...

They may not have stated them strongly but I'm sure their conclusions were popularly overstated back then, too. It seems to me that the mid-1990s was about the peak of the Blank Slate plus Personal Empowerment era with a lot of emphasis on "If you can dream it, you can do it" and "Be all you can be" (The Army adopted that slogan in 1980, and used it to 2001). After another generation of little to no movement in test scores and life outcomes, people started looking for another explanation and hit on systemic discrimination as the foil of personal empowerment, because it just can't be true that people aren't Blank Slates and genetics places some limits on people's physical and cognitive development.

In the comments on the cross post of 'Talent Vs. Practice' at Chicago Boys one poster took great umbrage at the concept, even though his comments almost entirely reflected your observations! It dawned on me later his actual argument, expressed only tangentially to the benefit of practice, was really with the idea that there was an identifiable top 1% in any field. He was invested in the idea that the Finger of God had touched Tiger, and Lebron, and Yo Yo Ma in the womb but that everyone else developed their skills through practice.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I noticed the same thing about the argument there. Thanks