Is Life a Talent Contest?

The nature vs. nurture debate continues. Vox has a new article by Joseph Stromberg discussing results of a study that purports to discount the so-called 10,000 hours paradigm, promoted by Malcolm Gladwell, among others. That paradigm suggests that expert performance at almost anything requires about 10,000 hours of systematic practice. Stromberg's article has a photo of Argentine futbol star Lionel Messi, with a caption that claims he didn't get as far as he has just by practicing a lot.

My gut response is, tru dat, but he didn't get to where he is without practicing a lot, probably much more than 10,000 hours. The study is a meta analysis, looking at 88 other studies that looked at effects of practice time, and found that relatively small percentages of success in various endeavors could be explained by practice time with perhaps 25% in games, 21% in music, 18% in sports, to almost zero in professions. In most cases, practice times are "as remembered" but correlation was even lower when actual practice logs were available.

The original study is behind a pay wall, but I have to say that I have a whole lot of reservations. The traditional professions all require long hours of study, almost certainly 10,000 hours or more, just to get in the door. So if you compare members of these professions, you are comparing people who already meet the so-called "expert standard". There simply are not any MDs who put in only 200 or even 1000 hours of study and practice. Sprinters may be born that way, but no professional athlete in most sports got to the top level without practice and lots of it.

So if you compare those at the highest levels of achievement there will be very few who have not met the ten thousand hour standard, or close to it, and remaining differences are likely due to talent and other circumstances. I would be very reluctant to concede that the study in question proves anything except that hours of practice are not the only thing affecting performance - which is pretty darn obvious to start with.


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