Effort and Potential
Almost everybody has heard of “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” which says it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. I actually read the original study (PDF) last year.
But I’ve often wondered about the limits of this theory. Does there exist people who simply will never master something, no matter how much they practice?
I wondered this quite a bit when trying to teach my late mother how to use her computer. We managed to get basic things, sure, but I found myself wondering if I could make my mother an expert computer user, or even a programmer, if I had to. Would she have the temerity for it? The ability to think abstractly and in analogy? That just wasn’t the way my mother’s mind worked.
And what of people who just, well, aren’t smart? We hate to talk in terms of pure, genetic intelligence, but it’s silly to pretend this doesn’t exist. Some people are just born smarter than other people. Somehow, it’s acceptable to say someone is “naturally athletic” (and thus imply the opposite – some people are not naturally athletic), but it’s rude, even sinister, to say some people are just not naturally intelligent.
Uncomfortable or not, it’s sadly true. There are people who are just not gifted with good memory, advanced reasoning, abstract thought, pattern recognition, etc. These are the things that make up what we’d call “intelligence.” They exist in people in varying degrees – some people have a lot of them, some people have very little.
At the very lower ends of the intelligence scale are people for whom life is going to be difficult. These are people that can have the biggest hearts in the world, the most willpower, and a genuine desire to better their circumstances, but there’s an upper limit to what they might be able to accomplish. For them, holding down a job stocking shelves at Walmart might be a huge victory. (And, sure, there are people who suffer from actual mental disabilities, but hovering right above this group are people who might not have a diagnosable mental defect, but who clearly just aren’t all there.)
Do I think these people can absolutely better their circumstances through hard work and persistence? Yes, absolutely. Are they ever going to become college professors or make a six figure income? Probably not. Is applying the 10,000 rule going to allow them to become an expert at anything they choose? Nope.
(It feels elitist even writing this. But don’t shoot the messenger.)
A study this year called The 10,000 Hour Rule into question: Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions
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.
So, what is the rest of the difference? Likely some form of natural ability.
Malcolm Gladwell popularized The 10,000 Hour Rule in his book Outliers. But even he has since said that he was misunderstood. In a Reddit AMA, he said this:
The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.
So, practice only amplifies natural ability, which has to exist first.
This article in Slate essentially echos the same point, and puts a political spin on it: The 10,000 Hour Rule Is Wrong and Perpetuates a Cruel Myth
Societal inequality is thus justified on the grounds that anyone who is willing to put in the requisite time and effort can succeed and should be rewarded with a good life, whereas those who struggle to make ends meet are to blame for their situations and should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. If we acknowledge that people differ in what they have to contribute, then we have an argument for a society in which all human beings are entitled to a life that includes access to decent housing, health care, and education, simply because they are human. Our abilities might not be identical, and our needs surely differ, but our basic human rights are universal.
Essentially, if we blame everyone for their situation – as if their current circumstances are based solely on their effort and nothing else – then we can justify economic and social inequality. If we acknowledge that people are successful in some degree because they were gifted with great genes, then it gets tougher.
As with everything, there’s a fine line. It’d be wonderful if we could easily determine to what percentage someone is living up their potential, where we consider “potential” to be the highest possible circumstance they could achieve with the natural gifts they’ve been given. Then this would be easy – someone living up to 100% of their potential is to be admired no matter what that potential looks like on an absolute scale. Someone at 10% of their potential is to be scorned, even if Mommy and Daddy paid for Harvard and a Mercedes.
In the end, are we looking for results, or genuine effort (meaning effort in an absolutely honest attempt to get better, not just effort to make it look like you’re trying hard)? In my mind, genuine effort is the correct yardstick. I have great admiration for someone who has overcome any limitation over which they had no control – be it intelligence, athletic ability, childhood upbringing, physical catastrophe of some kind – and achieved some level of success in spite of that.
But this isn’t easy to measure. You don’t know everyone’s story, so I have no idea that the weathered lady riding the bus is actually doing phenomenally well despite the fact that she was sexually abused as a child, has never been naturally intelligent, and had a husband who ran off leaving her with three kids to feed.
Instead, we admire the idiot in the sharp suit and BMW, not knowing that he dropped out of three colleges, got the BMW for Christmas from his parents last year, and is managing to hide a thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habit because his Daddy gave him a cushy job in the family business to essentially just occupy an office for eight hours a day.
Eight hours a day means he should master being a lazy douchebag in about five years.
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