Thursday, October 22, 2009

More 10,000 hour rule

Two days ago I wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. Then I read a blog post by masters track world champion Larry Nolan discussing the fact that it had taken him 10 years of hard core cycling to reach the top. QED.

It is interesting to note that the 10,000 hour rule appears to apply to any physiological endeavor, be it abstract reasoning, mathematics, computer programming, playing an instrument, or engaging in something purely physical such as cycling. At first it may seem counter-intuitive that such diverse pursuits, ranging from almost-exclusively "mental" to "part mental and part physical," to almost exclusively "physical" behave so similarly. But that is entirely to be expected. All these are in fact bodily adaptations.

The brain is as much part of the body as any other organ. Contrary to what you may think, brain activity ("the mind") is no different from other bodily activities ("running"). Both require a synergy between the actions of billions of cells. The fact that such "diverse" processes behave identically is in fact quite reassuring and to us. It is an indication that there might be some truth to the 10,000 hour rule.

Let's look at some other ways to formulate the 10,000 hour rule that may make it more intuitive. The formulation in the book "Outliers" has one big problem: it focuses on exceptional circumstances. It also has another big problem but more about that later.

It is obvious to us that while it may 10,000 hours for someone to become "world class," not everyone who spends 10,000 on a given activity will in fact become a world champion. It does take innate ability to become a champion, and most who would try to spend 10,000 hours on a random venture would never become world-class. So you may ask, what is the value of the 10,000 hour rule?

Here is another way to look at the rule. When you engage in an activity you can expect to improve for at least the first 10,000 hours that you spend on it. Does that make more sense? I.e. humans have a very long learning curve and they can keep improving for a very long time. We take about 10 years to learn a language for example. Or we could turn the rule around and say that once you diligently spent 10,000 hours on something you are very unlikely to improve any further. I.e. you are at the top of your game now.

Note that 10,000 is a convenient number. It is not to be taken literally of course. It gives us a range, a ball park figure. We can say it takes 10,000 hours give or take a few thousand. Or we can say that it takes more than a couple thousand, but far less than 50-100,000. And that is a good thing, given our lifespan.

Note that 10,000 is remarkably close to the time it takes humans to grow up and become adults. That too is not surprising because an adult is a person at the top of their game. Growing up is, after all, the quintessential physiological process.

It should therefore come as no surprise that they key theme of the book "Outliers" is flawed. What the author is trying to prove in that book is that genetic or inborn traits are not what determine our success as individuals.

And part of that is certainly true. It does make a difference where or when you are born. That is what evolution is all about. Changing traits continuously to adapt to the changing environment.

What is flawed is the idea that some sort of independent dedication and hard work are needed to cash in on genetics. As if such behaviors are unrelated to your genes. As if dedication and hard work are attributes of a person that exist in a vacuum. Maybe they are part of your "soul?"

That is nonsense of course. If anything is important in evolution and natural selection, it is precisely that, behavior. Much like physical traits such as a big brain, a big heart, or big lungs, a tendency to work hard, or be dedicated to achievement is a genetic trait.

And so are great interpersonal skills, another trait the author deems outside of genetics. Surely one has to learn to interact with others. But to say that there is no genetic basis to how well you will end up doing that is the same as saying there is no genetic basis to how well one will end up running.

8.75 mile run in the hills (same as last Wednesday) in ultralights.

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