Practice and Genes
Practice and Genes
August 19, 2013
Most of you probably heard of a study that, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, indicates you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an “expert” at anything.
More recently, someone looked at the study and pointed out that 10,000 was an average. If you have the right genes, you might need far less practice, while other people might need far more. So the average of 10,000 hours is a fairly useless number. All we know for sure is that practice is a good thing.
Other writers have been pointing out that it also matters what you practice. If you practice the wrong stuff, it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it.
What you have read so far in this post is seen as ground-breaking thinking in the field of success. Allow me to list these shocking results:
1. Practicing the right things is important!
2. It helps to have the right genes!
I’ll add one more, um, insight? It goes like this: The only people who can put in long hours of the right type of practice are … drum roll please … PEOPLE WITH THE RIGHT GENES.
Oh, and also victims. If your parents made you practice the flute for 10,000 hours, and it wasn’t your thing, you aren’t an expert. You’re a victim.
Do you know why I don’t put in long hours training for a marathon? Is it a lack of focus and dedication?
No, although I don’t have any of that stuff either, at least for running.
The reason I’m not training for a marathon is that my body isn’t built for it. I’m a lifelong exerciser with 16% body fat. I try to work out seven days a week. But my genes just aren’t right for distance running. I’m built for sprinting. So for me, tennis makes more sense. I’ve played about 8,000 hours of tennis, according to my thumbnail calculation. I should crack the 10,000 hour mark by the time I’m seventy, at which point I expect to win Wimbledon. I hope to God I haven’t been practicing the wrong strokes this whole time.
Anyway, here’s my formula for becoming an expert:
1. Be born with the right genes. (luck)
2. Have opportunities that work well with your genes. (luck)
At best, becoming an expert is a process of moving from a game that’s wrong for you to one that fits your genes. That’s the part you can control, at least according to the common view of free will.
The diabolical element of the “expert” conversation is that it relies on an illusion. That illusion is generally referred to as willpower. The idea is that one can hunker down and do unpleasant things that need to be done if one has enough of this thing called willpower.
But willpower is like the horizon. You can see the horizon, define it, and even walk toward it. And yet a horizon exists as nothing but a concept. You can’t scoop up some horizon and put it on a basket.
Willpower is like that. We know what we mean when we speak of it, but it doesn’t exist. It is an illusion.
Let’s say you and I are sitting in a room with donuts in front of us. We both know donuts are bad for our health. Which one of us breaks down and eats a donut first?
Is it the one of us with the least willpower?
It’s the hungriest one.
Willpower is an illusion.
People become experts for the same reason most things happen: luck. You need the right genes and you need to be born into the right environment. The most important skill involved in success is knowing how and when to switch to a game with better odds for you.