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May 10

10,000 hours

I ran into a few references/mentions recently of The Dan Plan, a guy who is dedicating a few years of his life to “testing the 10,000 hours hypothesis”.  Specifically, he quit his job and is playing golf full-time trying to reach a professional level of play from a starting point of never having played before (http://thedanplan.com/about/).

It is an interesting project.  It moved me to write this note in an attempt to clarify what is meant by “testing the 10,000 hours hypothesis” because there are two sides to this.  The first is whether 10,000 hours is necessary.  I believe the first characterization of the 10,000 hour rule by K. Anders Ericsson was aimed at whether it was necessary — or whether a true ‘prodigy’ might achieve the level of being ‘internationally competitive” based on pure, natural talent  (I knew something about this idea from discussions at CMU, where I did my PhD a few years after he was a post-doc there, but I am working from memory here).

Evidence counter to the need for 10,000 hours would be spectacular achievement by very young, talented individuals.  However, I am not aware of good evidence of anybody reaching the level of ‘internationally competitive” without putting in the hours — even if they are very young.

The other aspect is whether 10,000 hours is sufficient and about this there are definitely differing opinions.  The main alternate hypothesis is that to reach the top level, you need 10,000 hours *and* you need some innate talent.  This would imply you could put in 10,000 hours and still not be internationally competitive.  However, nobody runs this study because who wants to spend 10,000 hours and then still be mediocre.

My old friend Fernand Gobet (also from CMU) was a professional chess player for many years before leaving chess for Psychology and strongly asserts that there is too much evidence for talent being important.  He is pretty sure expertise comes from 10,000 + talent (and should be skeptical of the DanPlan).

In real life, people who put in 10,000 hours are probably responding to a lot of encouragement from trainers, teachers, and coaches who might also be picking up signs of some additional innate talent.  This is probably good for training but bad for science because if you only reach 10,000 hours if you already have talent, the variables are confounded and we can’t test the hypothesis.

In addition, Ericsson has also pointed out that it’s almost certainly not just any old 10,000 hours, but probably requires what he calls “deliberate practice” — which means 10,000 hours practicing the “right” things.  Sadly, we also don’t really know exactly what this is, even for golf.  So if the DanPlan doesn’t make pro level at 10k hours, he might simply not have gotten the right coaching (or he was missing the talent, we’ll never know).

My own guess is that 10,000 hours will get you pretty far on it’s own (I’m a learning researcher after all).  But I’m sympathetic to the idea that talent kicks in somewhere.  Maybe it distinguishes among those in the top 0.1%?  Or 1%?  Or is it even top 10%?

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