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.