2013-08-13

Quality Practice

We've all heard it in some form or another, the idea that mastering a skill requires 10,000 hours of practice. But, in Outside Magazine, David Epstein claims that the idea is mostly something humans cooked-up to satisfy their belief that anyone can achieve great things if they put in sufficient hard work:
We fit narrative to what we can see. We can’t see our genes. All we can see are the things we can come up with so we fit narratives whether we can see all the evidence or not. For my training partner at Columbia and me, I now know that I have genes that make me a higher responder to training. I could see that my teammate—who unlike me was pegged as naturally talented—would start the season in way better shape, but with training I would surpass him. People would tell me how tough I am. And he was told he had a lot of talent, but had he had psychological problems or something. No, we were doing the exact same training. But you fit a narrative to what you can see. There’s this twins study I found where two twins were separated at birth and found out about each other as adults and they were both obsessive about being neat and clean. One of them said in an interview that his adoptive mother was really neat, so he learned from her. The other said his adoptive mother was a slob and he never wanted to be like her. Ok, so maybe it’s actually that there’s a genetic inclination to behave that way and they fit it to a narrative that works that way, and it happens a lot in sports.
Epstein claims that the critical factor is genetics.

Readers may already know this about me, but I do not place a heavy weight on the factor of genetics. The reason I don't is because I place a heavy weight on the cognitive aspect of training. That is to say, the key difference between a moderate talent and a brilliant talent is not genes or practice-in-general, but rather quality practice.

Video Game Master
I had the good fortune of growing up during the heyday of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System. Video game controllers are a lot different these days, but in the old days, it was a simple analog pad paired with two buttons. Well, at a certain point, I figured out that if I held my finger in a certain position while flexing every muscle in my arm until it shook, I could tap a single button maybe a dozen times per second.

Obviously, there was no genetic component to this - there are no video games in nature. Neither was it a feat of physical superiority; anyone could do what I did. It also wasn't a matter of practicing tapping the NES controller buttons to a metronome, and gradually increasing my speed. It was nothing more than figuring out how to shake my finger really fast in the general proximity of the buttons.

Anyone can do this, but they first have to figure out what I mean when I say "flexing my muscles until my whole arm shook." That's the best way I can describe it. It's a simple technique, but one that must be understood in order to be performed.

Now here's the important part. I was really good at video games when I was young, and a large part of my success came down to my ability to press buttons faster than average. Thanks to my button-tapping technique, 20 hours of video game play counted more for me than it did for any kid who hadn't figured out how to do it. So it wasn't practice, and it wasn't genetics; it was practice combined with effective technique.

A Young Runner
The next time I can remember stumbling upon something similar was when it finally dawned on me how to pace myself as a distance runner. I got interested in running at around the age 7, but I didn't really figure out how to run like a runner until a few years later. Here's how it happened.

I had spent a lot of time watching my older sister's track team run races. One male runner on the team was particularly fast, and I remember noting that he had a rather unique gait. He was captivating for a 7-year-old to watch because, not only did he win races, he won them with this very loose, relaxed, and fluid stride.

One day, while my family was inside a local school for an extra-curricular function, I decided to go outside and run some laps around the building; blow off some energy and whatnot. As I was running, I remember my mind wandering to the strange gait of that runner I had seen. Like any child emulating his sports heroes, I started pretending that I was that runner, and in doing so, tried to copy his gait. I don't know if I got it exactly right, but I suddenly found myself running in a much more relaxed way.

In short, how to run suddenly clicked.

The vast majority of distance runners, especially casual runners active on their local community fun run scene, never figure out how to run with a smooth, relaxed, efficient running stride. I figured it out at maybe age 8 or 9. Some might argue that this was genetics at play, but that's not how I remember it. I very clearly remember attempting to emulate someone else's successful running form and learning from it, cognitively.

The impact of this on the rest of my running career cannot be under-stated. One who learns early on in life how to perform an act with good technique will benefit many orders of magnitude more than someone who only learns good form later on in life. All those hours I spent running made me a better runner than my peers because I wasn't just practicing, I was engaged in quality practice.

And of course, it doesn't stop at form. Motivated by early success, I became more attentive to other running techniques, like how to push through pain, how to adjust the length of my stride according to different slopes and terrain, and so on.

Again, what must be stressed is that it wasn't merely hours of practice, but how beneficial each hour of practice was because I understood (intellectually) how to apply myself during that practice time.

Conclusion
Naturally, this idea extends far beyond video games and running. The same principle applies to any skill: art, music, social interaction, writing, cooking, whatever.

Human beings do have certain limitations in terms of genetic dispositions. Someone whose legs are physically shorter than another person's will be forced to apply different kinetic techniques to running, or dancing, or jumping, than someone with longer legs. And that's just one example. There are certain and obvious physical limitations of this kind that have an impact on how human beings perform.

However, it has been my experience that a great many such factors can be completely overcome by a person who has the cognitive ability to learn how to practice and thus benefit more from every hour of practice spent with that knowledge. And this, to me, is the difference between a rare talent and a mediocre one.