Why “Gladwell’s” 10,000 rule is just plain wrong. – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


The battle over nature versus nurture in expert performance is a never-ending one.  It seems as we have shifted back and forth between seemingly extreme views of deterministic gene views and Gladwell popularized 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Of course no one believes it is an either/or question, even if they frame their stance that way, and we are arguing over how far towards nature or nurture  to go. The problem though, with the popularization of gene-centric views in the 90’s and then deliberate practice in the 2000’s, we’re simply perpetuating a myth.

It sounds good, especially as a coach, to tell a kid that if he simply practices deliberately for 10,000 hours that will determine his performance. Okay, perhaps it’s not 10k hours exactly, but the message is clear that if one practices more then “talent is a myth”, and that person can overcome their “talent” and reach expertise. It’s a wonderful myth to grasp onto and sell. It speaks to the human ideals of hard work paying off and the determining factor of success. It’s human nature to hate the idea that someone can simply be successful because they hit the genetic lottery and had a good bit of luck. Who wants to be the parent that says, “if you work really hard you can be a really fast runner, but probably not as good as Bobby even though he only runs 40mpw and you run 100mpw.” Put simply, it sucks to deliver that message. The beauty is though that we don’t know. We don’t know someone’s genetic potential or how they respond to training/learning.

How I spent my 10,000 hours
All of that being said, where these 10k hours, talent myth, etc. kill me is they sell false hope.  If you put in your 10k hours of deliberate practice and fail, then whose fault is it? Yours. Which is partially true of course, but if you fall short and don’t become an ‘expert’ did you fail? Did you not deliberately practice enough? I’d argue that you probably got closer to your max potential than even some experts. Let’s look at a very personal example.

I’ve got a running log that tracks every run from 11/1/2001 to 5/12/2012. I put in 44,000 miles during that time. That ranges from when I was a Junior in HS until I was 27 years old. That’s an average of 11.5miles per day and that includes days when I was hurt/sick/missed weeks because of surgery and so forth so if we counted only running days it puts it at 12 or higher. Add in my freshman and sophomore year plus all the strength, biomechanics, and extra work and you’re looking at easily over 10,000 hours of training.

But wait there’s more. My best performances during that 11 year stretch didn’t occur when I hit mastery. It occurred in 2003, a mere 3.5years into my actual running career. Or put into running terms it occurred at mile 4,913 into the 44,000mi journey. Of course I didn’t have my freshman and sophomore year recorded, so it’s more like mile ~9,000 in a 48,000mi journey, but you get the point.

Was I not deliberate enough? Did I really try during those first 4,913 miles and then cruise through the next 39,087 miles just for fun?

Like Gladwell, we can turn to research for a partial answer.

The Devils in the Details

In a recently published issue of the journal “Intelligence” there were numerous studies, analysis, and pieces on the 10,000hr rule. In particular, one study by David Hambrick and colleagues entitled “Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert”, sought out to “test Ericsson’s claim that ‘individual differences in ultimate performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice.” As a refresher, Ericsson was the original researcher who developed and then publicized the concepts, which then took off with Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, and numerous others who jumped on the bandwagon with their own spin.

In there research Hambrick reanalyzed 12 studies looking at expert performance in chess and music. Similar to Ericsson’s original work, they simply looked at hours of deliberate practice for each and compared it to performance levels along their development. In the chess studies, they found that deliberate practice explained 34% of the variance in performance, and therefore 66% unexplained. Looking at the individual numbers is even more staggering. There were some people who had over 20,000 hours of deliberate practice yet never went beyond Intermediate, the lowest of the three levels (intermediate, expert, and master). Perhaps most striking, was the range of “masters” was 832 hours to 24,284hrs to reach mastery.

When looking at Music, the results were very similar. 29.9% of the variance in performance was explained by amount of deliberate practice.

The whole study is worth a read as it delves into intelligence, personality, and other factors related to reaching “expertise.” However, the take away to me is simply common sense. Does practice make you better? Of course it does, but it isn’t the be all end all.  And you know what, neither is genetics.

With recent improvements in our understanding in epigenetics and how genes and environment interact, it’s become clear that there is no clear line or distinction between nature and nurture. They interact, intertwine, and are on a delicate balance of interplay
throughout your life. As Ackerman put it in a research study in “Intelligence”

“Extreme positions on this controversy are fundamentally silly — both nature and nurture are necessary determinants of expert/elite performance, but neither alone represents a sufficient causal factor.”

In the end, I take Dave Epstein’s view in his book, The Sports Gene, which, pardon me if I’m wrong Dave, I believe to be: It’s a little of both and guess what they interact, a lot, seemingly more than we previously thought.  Or in other words, it’s a complicated mess. You can have a talent physiologically or psychologically. Some people’s talent shows up when they start (The kind of kid who can run a 4:30 mile out of PE), while others shows up with their response to certain training (The kid who runs 5:00 until he starts training and shoots down to 4:20). In the end, talent and training are interconnected.

Instead of telling everyone they can be an expert with deliberate practice, let’s just say, you never will find out where your ceiling is without a lot of work. And to me, that’s what the journey is about. When I look back at those 44,000 miles run and talk to me athletes about it, I’m not bitter that I failed to meet expertise, instead I’m glad I can stand there and tell my athletes that the journey in testing and hopefully findings ones limits is well worth it.

By the way, I was a talent of trainability kid. I was a good but not great miler in 8th grade, running 5:10 for mile and 60sec for the 400m. But it wasn’t until I jumped into running every day my freshman year in HS when I dropped to 4:21 and 51 as a 15yr old.

We each have our talents and limits. Find yours. On both sides.


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