My news feed recently included several articles about a new study of the importance of deliberate practice in developing talent. One headline read that “The 10,000 Hour Rule is Nonsense,” while another went with the milder “The 10,000 Hour Rule Is Not Real”.
But the article (available here as a PDF) doesn’t make nearly so strong a claim. Here’s the abstract:
More than 20 years ago, researchers proposed that individual differences in performance in such domains as music, sports, and games largely reflect individual differences in amount of deliberate practice, which was defined as engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain. This view is a frequent topic of popular- science writing—but is it supported by empirical evidence? To answer this question, we conducted a meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated. We found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.
Essentially, Ericsson and company were making what you could think of as a “strong” claim for deliberate practice: that it is more important than genetics or natural talent for determining greatness. There are any number of fields in which students today do work that was considered impossible a century ago, or even fifty years ago: divers routinely execute moves more complex than ones that were banned in the 1920s because they were considered too risky, Julliard violin students perform works that were considered technically impossible a century ago, and so on. Ericsson et al were arguing that genetics couldn’t be responsible for these improvements, because there hasn’t been time for evolution to have produced these improvements; therefore it must be something else, and that something else is deliberate practice.
This new metastudy isn’t arguing that deliberate practice is unimportant, but rather than it’s not determinative. In other words, the argument is over how much weight should be assigned to different factors, not whether Ericsson’s entire argument should be discarded or not.
It’s also worth noting that the authors mention Gladwell’s 10,000 rule exactly once, in passing; they’re not trying to debunk it. It’s unavoidable that a discussion of the Ericsson paper would include a Gladwell reference now, but it’s important to note that these are different hints, and not even Ericsson himself agrees that 10,000 hours is a magic number. (Indeed, Gladwell doesn’t really see it that way, at least when pressed.)