Monday, November 28, 2011

The 10,000 Hours Misconception: Practice vs. Talent

Professors David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz wrote a good article in the New York Times this weekend about the "10,000 hours" concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell.   Actually, the idea of experts achieving world class status through 10,000 hours of practice comes from the excellent work of Florida State University Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues.  They have studied how world class violinists, chess players, athletes, and the like engage in deliberate practice to enhance their skills.  Ericsson has found that top people in these fields tend to engage in at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice during their formative years.

Some people have interpreted this work to mean that talent doesn't matter much, that somehow one can become world class simply through hard work.   Here is how Hambrick and Meinz counter that conventional wisdom:

Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields — and not just up to a point.  Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage. 

Hambrick and Meinz go on to explain that the high achievers that they studied tend to have a very high level of working memory capacity.   That attribute tends to matter, above and beyond how much one practices.  For example, when they studied pianists who had practiced the same amount of hours, they found that those with higher working memory capacity tended to perform better.   The scholars don't dispute that deliberate practice matters.  They simply remind us that talent still matters... a great deal. 

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