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10,000 Hours of Practice? Would That ‘Twere So Simple

The human mind

I’ve written here before about Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Outliers, published in 2008. This year another book on talent, improvement, and mastery was published, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Anders Ericsson, importantly, is one of the pioneers and top experts in this area of psychology, and it was partly on Ericsson’s work that Gladwell make his conclusions.

Anders Ericsson

Anders Ericsson

Unfortunately, Ericsson says, Gladwell made some leaps that are misleading and, in some cases, inaccurate. The general principal that it takes a great deal of practice to become a world-class talent at something remains, and Ericsson reiterates that there aren’t exceptions, people who become masters without practice at things that require a lot of work for other people to learn. Phrases like “natural talent” contain an embedded error.

However, there are several important points where Ericsson disagrees with Gladwell’s conclusions–and since those conclusions were based on Ericsson’s work, these merit some attention! Here are some of the key points from Ericsson’s response:

  • 10,000 hours is an arbitrary number. The amount of time mastery takes will depend on who’s doing the practice, what kinds of practice they’re doing, who you compare them to, what thing they’re trying to master, what you consider “mastery,” and other factors.
  • There’s nothing in that research that implies that anyone can become a master at any chosen activity after putting in 10,000 hours–the research just shows that people who do achieve mastery put in a great deal of practice. However, there is compelling support for the idea that practically anyone can become excellent at practically anything: see “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?
  • The type of practice is crucial: it’s deliberate practice, and it has to be for the specific skill in question
  • There’s no limit to how good we can get with further practice, however. There’s not a point where we “achieve mastery” and can consider ourselves “done.”

You can read Ericsson’s more detailed response here, on The article is adapted from that new book I mentioned, Peak.

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The Tipping Point of a Habit

Self-motivation examples

A couple of posts ago I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, which digs into the ways phenomena go from puttering along to succeeding wildly, whether we’re talking about a book becoming a bestseller, a disease becoming an epidemic, or a big drop in violent crime. While Gladwell is specifically talking about social phenomena–how ideas and behaviors spread among people–it’s interesting to think about the possibility that tipping points may well apply to our own psychology, specifically in terms of a behavior transforming into a much more robust and consistent habit.

A quick disclaimer: the theory I’m putting out here is based on analogy, not research. It’s just an idea. If you believe Gladwell’s well-considered argument that making small changes like getting graffiti off subway cars and cracking down on people who demand money for squeegeeing car windows in traffic actually led to an enormous decrease in violent crime in New York City over a period of time, that doesn’t prove that making small changes in our own experience or thinking can tip a behavior into a habit.

Tipping points=easier habit formation?
And yet … much of the other material I’ve gathered for this site over the last few years does seem to support that idea. And if we really can think of habits as having tipping points, then that transforms our focus in terms of developing new habits. Instead of having to find huge resources to get ourselves to repeat a behavior over and over with great effort for months (see “How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?“), we might mainly need to find the tweaks we would need to make repeating that behavior a lot easier.

Don’t get me wrong: creating a good habit (or breaking a bad one) is going to require time, effort, and attention no matter how you slice it. It’s just a matter of how easy and enjoyable that time, effort, and attention is. If habits have tipping points, then there may be a much easier way to create them than we’ve been used to thinking.

How my exercise habit tipped
I won’t go into this too deeply all in today’s post, but the basic idea is that relatively small changes we can make to circumstances might make a big difference in how our habits develop–if they’re the right small changes. I’ll give one example of my own, of when regular exercise became a kind of devotion for me instead of a chore. What made the difference wasn’t better scheduling, improving my attitude, or renewing my commitment: it was taking my workouts out of my own hands.

I started studying Taekwondo about four years ago (see my articles “Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example” and “Black belt“). I had been used to getting myself out running regularly, which meant I always had to choose to run, find time to do it, choose how far I would go, and so on. Taekwondo was different: the times were set, and I had to show up for them or miss out. The length of the workout and the specific activities were also set. This one change–selecting a different exercise, which completely changed the context of my exercising–hugely simplified my problem of getting enough exercise, and my desire to get better at Taekwondo kept me coming back to class. Over time, all of this associated exercise powerfully for me with enjoyment, feeling good, and confidence. When I think of exercising now, these are the main things that come to mind, the mood boost and the pride I can take in what I’m doing. And even when I’m going running now or doing something other than Taekwondo, that kind of association draws me forward into exercise instead of repelling me, whereas thinking about the physical strain or being fat or the bad weather might be much more discouraging to someone who’s trying to exercise.

What was your tipping point?
I hope to write more on this topic in future. In the mean time, I’d be glad to hear from you: was there a tipping point for you in a key habit you’ve developed in your life? If so, what was it?

Photo by Captainspears23

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Who’s Changing Your Mood? The Yawning Example

The human mind

What went into making up the mood you’re in right now, or the mood you were in this morning, or the mood you’ll be in ten days from now? The logical answer might seem to be that our moods are determined by what happens to us–that if someone spilled coffee on you and you got a flat tire, you’d be in a bad mood, but if you came home to find out someone had left a present on your doorstep, you’d be in a good mood.

This is often true–we often react emotionally to our circumstances–but it’s also not uncommon for us to focus our attention on and be driven by other things. If someone spills coffee on me and I get a flat tire but I’m thinking about how marvelous my girlfriend is the whole time, my troubles might roll off me like marbles rolling off a VW Beetle, and I might be in a terrific mood. So it’s not so much our direct circumstances that affect our moods as how we think about our circumstances.

Contagious behavior
And that would be the main point of this post, as it has been of some other posts I’ve written (like “Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“), except that there’s another factor that changes moods, one that’s a little surprising. Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He uses the example of the lowly yawn.

Yawning is a surprisingly powerful act. Just because you read the word “yawning” in the previous two sentences–and the two additional “yawns” in this sentence–a good number of you will probably yawn within the next few minutes. Even as I’m writing this, I’ve yawned twice. If you’re reading this in a public place, and you’ve just yawned, chances are that a good proportion of everyone who saw you yawn is now yawning too, and a good proportion of the people watching the people who watched you yawn are now yawning as well, and on and on, in an ever-widening, yawning circle.

Out of curiosity, did you yawn when you saw the picture at the beginning of this post?

How your friends’ friends’ friends feel
Yawning isn’t the only thing that spreads from person to person easily. Moods and attitudes like depression, excitement, anxiety, and optimism also spread through groups. If your friends are feeling a particular way, you’re somewhat likely to feel that way too. The same is true of the way your friends’ friends feel, and even of the way your friends’ friends’ friends feel (though after that, the effect drops off into statistical insignificance). This effect is discussed in my article “How Are Your Friends’ Habits Changing You?,” and it’s a main topic of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Influencing our own moods

So what help is it to know this? Well, if we’re aware of the influence other people’s moods and actions can have on our own moods, we can take active steps to do something about it. For instance, the yawning example above may have caused you to think about being tired, especially if it actually made you yawn. I apologize for this, but the point seemed important enough to be worth it. So knowing that you may be getting influenced to feel more tired, you can consciously redirect your thoughts to non-tired things. What’s something exciting you’ll be doing later today, or later this week, or this year? Do you like coffee? Who’s the most energetic person you know? Can you picture that person doing something typically energetic? If you have the time, you might even try watching an energetic video, or starting a conversation with someone who has a lot of energy and goodwill to share. Another useful alternative is using music: see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

In other words, visualizing appropriate situations and exposing ourselves to the kinds of moods we want to create can turn the subtle forces that influence our moods in our favor, especially when those same forces have already causes an effect we don’t like. Becoming aware of our moods and what’s influencing those moods can give us new power to feel the way we want to feel.

Photo by HilaryQuinn

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Change My Attitude: The Power of Priming

States of mind

Like it or not, many of our decisions, actions, and opinions happen based on an instant response, without any careful thought. For example, we may see someone we don’t like and grimace for a microsecond before putting a more polite expression on our faces; miss momentary opportunities through being mired in depression or anger; or misjudge a person by their face or clothing.

These instant responses are the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. They’re also a part of our behavior that is extremely hard to change. For example, the vast majority of people of all races to take a test to judge racial bias based on how easily they sort faces into categories like “good” or “criminal” come out with at least a mild bias against blacks even when they are consciously and emphatically in support of racial equality. Even knowing this, and knowing how the test works, people taking the test are unable to overcome a bias that may have been ingrained, unfortunately, through hundreds or thousands of cultural channels.

But there is one way to change things for some test takers: thinking about admirable black people, current or historical, tends to cause test-takers’ racial bias to disappear. Thinking about Martin Luther King begins to put all black people into a positive light.

This effect isn’t limited to racial bias. Some other examples of priming experiments:

  • People who answered trivial pursuit questions after thinking about what it would be like to be a college professor did 13% better than people who were asked to think about traditionally non-brainy subjects–that’s the equivalent of getting more than a full grade better on a test, just from a few minutes of mental preparation!
  • Being unknowingly exposed to a number of words that described age tended to make subjects in one study walk more slowly.
  • People primed with ideas about patience would wait for any length of time for people to finish a conversation instead of butting in.

The power of priming, then, is in being able to change our unconscious, immediate, ingrained reactions. If these studies mean what they seem to imply, then if you’re going to a party hoping to make a romantic connection, you’ll be at an advantage if you spend time thinking about romantically successful people. If you’re afraid your future in-laws from rural Appalachia won’t like you, listen to some champion fiddlers and avoid watching reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re going to run a race, try reading something about Jesse Owens first.

The power of priming may not be dramatic, but it’s significant, and priming affects the knee-jerk responses we usually can’t do anything about.

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What Do Divorce and Malpractice Suits Have in Common?

The human mind

What do divorces and malpractice suits have in common?

My current reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about the power and perils of responding from the gut. Early in the book he examines some clever research into divorce and some other clever research into malpractice suits, which together help illustrate one surprising principle.

The divorce research is something I’ve heard about and been fascinated by before. John Gottman, a research psychologist at the University of Washington, has developed methods for analyzing a brief conversation between a married couple on any subject that has been a recent difficulty for them. Gottman’s researchers, incredibly, can predict with 95% accuracy whether or not the couple will still be together in 15 years–without knowing their history, common interests, finances, love life, how long they’ve been together, family relationships, or anything else.

The malpractice research is just as fascinating. You might imagine that the doctors who get sued most for malpractice would be the ones who make the most mistakes, yet this turns out not to be the case at all. The biggest predictor of malpractice suits is a bad relationship with the patient. That is, doctors get sued much less for screwing up than they do for being disliked!

The common element between these two kinds of relationships–between spouses on the one hand and doctors and patients on the other–is respect, or lack of it.

How to predict divorce
Gottman’s researchers are trained in SPAFF (specific affect) coding, which involves recording a person’s attitude or emotions on a second-by-second basis. Using cues like word choice, tone of voice, expression, and body language, they record how a subject seems to be responding moment by moment throughout a conversation. The biggest indicators of divorce are what Gottman calls “the Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And it’s contempt (and its close relative disgust) that is the most powerful and reliable signal of a doomed marriage.

To put it another way, as long as both partners feel as though they’re getting a reasonable amount of respect–that their spouses are not looking down on them but rather holding them in some esteem–the marriage will tend very strongly to do well. As fond as I am of the Beatles, it appears that all you need is not so much love as it is respect. (With that said, I highly recommend love as well.)

How not to get sued
Getting back to doctors, it turns out that people tend to sue doctors when they feel those doctors look down on them, have little regard for them, or treat them poorly. Acting superior, ignoring the patient, trying to rush through with the minimum amount of contact, or dismissing patients’ concerns are all dangerous behavior in this respect. Statistically, if you are a doctor and you have made a terrible error but have treated the patient kindly and respectfully, you’re much less likely to be sued than a colleague who has made only a minor error but who has alienated the patient.

I won’t go into how Gladwell shows respect applying to car salesmen and their customers, but by now you can probably guess how that works.

Using respect for personal benefit
All of this gives me one simple, clear principle to apply in my own life: the single most important thing I can do to improve my relationship with other people–whether they’re friends, coworkers, customers, family, service providers, police officers, strangers I run into on the street, or anyone else–is to try to find things about them I respect and let that respect show. Whether I want to be married to the person in question or just want to help ensure they don’t sue me (or both), the lesson seems to be the same. Relationships being as complicated as they are, simple principles for making them better are a heck of a boon.

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman

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Practice versus Deliberate Practice

Strategies and goals

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell says, “Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.”  For reference, 10,000 hours would translate into (for example) 20 hours a week for ten years.

What 10,000 hours gets you
The bar for “true expertise” here is pretty high: Gladwell and the researchers he’s referring to are talking about being not just really good at something, but world-class–a Meryl Streep, an Arnold Palmer, a Yo Yo Ma, a Marie Curie. To put this in perspective, earning my first dan black belt in Taekwondo Chung Do Kwan at a rigorous Taekwondo school took me something on the order of 600 hours of practice, a far cry from 10,000 hours. The difference between 600 hours and 10,000 hours is the difference between me and Jackie Chan.

By the way, if you’re thinking “Practice is fine, but it’s no substitute for natural talent,” I direct you to my article “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?” The value of “talent” is surprisingly limited.

Beyond just practicing
Gladwell’s point is fascinating, especially when we realize how much research supports it, but Geoffrey Colvin offers a further insight in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. In that book, he gives some of the same kinds of evidence Gladwell discusses for practice, not “inborn talent,” being the key to world-class performance, but goes further to say that not all practice is created equal. After all, if it just took 10,000 hours of doing something to become truly great at it, why isn’t every accountant who’s been working full-time for at least 5 years phenomenally wonderful at accounting? The key is what Gladwell and others refer to as “deliberate practice.”

[Deliberate practice] definitely isn’t what most of us do on the job every day, which begins to explain the great mystery of the workplace–why we’re surrounded by so many people who have worked hard for decades but have never approached greatness. Deliberate practice is also not what most of us do when we think we’re practicing golf or the oboe or any of our other interests. Deliberate practice is hard. It hurts. But it works. More of it equals better performance. Tons of it equals great performance.

In other words, if you want to become great it’s not enough to show up and do what you’re supposed to, whether we’re talking about hitting golf balls, reconciling accounts, or teaching seven-year-olds. To become great, we have to push ourselves, to seek out great teachers or sources of learning, constantly create new challenges, and pay close attention to what results we get. Colvin describes deliberate practice by example: “Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day.”

Examples of practice vs. deliberate practice
I can feel the difference when I try deliberate practice in my own life. When I’m studying Taekwondo, it’s the difference between just trying to get through a sequence of moves and pushing myself to concentrate on specific aspects of every single motion, like stance, breath control, or reaction force. For an example in writing, several years ago I joined The Daily Cabal, a group that requires me to create entirely new stories in less than 400 words, often on a weekly basis. For some of these I’ve pushed myself, practiced very deliberately–for instance, “A Is For Authority” took serious effort, concentration, and sweat–while “The Plot Against Barbie’s Life” practically wrote itself as soon as I came up with the title. (By the way, for writers who may be reading this post, as of July 27, 2010 we’re accepting applications for new Cabal members.)

Is deliberate practice always productive?
Note that deliberate practice doesn’t necessarily make a better immediate result. My short story “A Ship that Bends” was rewritten numerous times and eventually became a published finalist (but not a winner) in the Writers of the Future contest, by far the largest English language speculative fiction contest in the world. My novelette “Bottomless” (about villages on ledges deep inside a bottomless pit) won second place in the contest the following year and was another of those pieces that came out fairly easily. It’s probably worth noting that by the time I wrote those stories, I suspect I already had at least a thousand hours of writing practice.

The upshot is simply this: practice–even deliberate practice–may produce either good or lousy immediate results, but only long-term, deliberate practice produces the skills to consistently deliver great results.

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Do you have enough talent to become great at it?

Strategies and goals

For the past two and a half years, my son and I have been studying Taekwondo. At a class a few days ago, some of us were practicing a difficult kick, and a newer student was finding she had to go through the kick very slowly.

“It took me about two years to learn that kick,” said a third student we were working with, by way of encouragement.

That surprised me at first. It’s just one kick! Admittedly, it wasn’t nearly the only thing we had been practicing, and it was a kick that involved spinning in mid-air, but two years seemed like a very long time. Yet when I thought about it, I realized it had taken me a year and a half or two years too, and that was with taking extra time after class some days specifically to practice it.

mozartBecoming excellent at something really does take a long time. What’s more interesting is that, in a manner of speaking, that’s all it takes. In other words, that old saw “You can do anything you set your mind to” appears to have a lot of truth to it, truth backed by fistfuls of scientific studies.

“What about talent?” you might ask. My response to that would have to be: “It doesn’t seem to exist.”

“But Mozart … Tiger Woods!” you say.

“Both were taught intensively in their fields by their fathers practically from infancy,” I’d tell you, “and both their fathers were teachers with exceptional credentials. By the time each was five years old, they were so far ahead of their peers, the world was their oyster.” Practice may not make perfect, but it does make darn good.

Skeptical? László Polgár knew a lot of people who were skeptical when he claimed that you could raise children who were prodigies at almost anything, if you cared to go about it the right way. To prove it, he married a woman willing to do the experiment with him, fathered three daughters, and brought them all up to be world-class chess masters. Two of the girls stuck with chess long enough to become grandmasters and (at different times) world champions. László himself is an unexceptional chess player, but he has studied chess thoroughly enough to have been a very effective teacher for his daughters.

judithpolgarAll of this about talent that I’m casually summing up in a pretend conversation comes from the arguments found (among other places) in two recent, very well-written books. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers does a lot to explain how the very best people in every field–music, chess, sports, business, and so on–all seem to have gotten their skills by working very hard for a long time. In fact, Gladwell will tell you how long that period of time is: 10,000 hours. It takes about 10,000 hours of practice in practically anything to become world-class at it.

In his book Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin dives into the subject further, and points out that the quality of practice makes a huge difference as well. The very best violinists in the world now are much better than the very best violinists in the world 200 years ago, and it’s not just because there are more people playing the violin: it’s also that today’s violinists have better learning methods, recordings, and other resources contemporaries of Mozart or Beethoven never had.

But again, what about talent? There are just people who are really good at things from a young age, naturally, so what about them?

Actually, such people don’t seem to exist. Find anyone who’s exceptional at practically anything, dig into their past, and you’ll find a whole lot of practice–much more practice than people who aren’t as good as they are.

Not to say that genetics count for nothing. Genetics determine a lot about a person’s body, which can influence which athletic activities, for instance, they might be good at. Genetics also seems to determine a range of potential intelligence, and in turn intelligence has some influence over what a person can get good at–but only in that a person seems to need a certain minimal level of intelligence to be able to do well at certain activities, with more intelligence not corresponding to more success. For instance, a decades-long study that began by identifying a number of child geniuses found that these children didn’t fare any better than the average graduate student in life. Intelligence certainly counts for something, but it doesn’t make for automatic success.

I can understand if you don’t believe this, or if you have big reservations. If so, it might be worthwhile reading Colvin’s or Gladwell’s book and seeing if the evidence they present there doesn’t make a better case than I can in this short blog entry. The idea that people are born with special talents is a very strong one in our culture, and when we see someone who does well at something, we tend to assume automatically that it’s because of inborn talent, then take that success as proof that inborn talent exists.

And what does all this have to do with self-motivation? Well, it is a bit of a tangent, but it does relate to two key elements of self-motivation: goals and belief that you can accomplish them.

In terms of goals, it may help to realize that if you have a goal of being very, very good at something, it’s almost certainly possible to reach that goal–but it will take a lot of time and effort, so you had better enjoy whatever it is you plan to be doing. In some cases, others may have an enormous head start on you. For instance, if you start playing violin at age 30, it’s not likely that you’ll ever catch up with 30-year-olds who have been playing violin day in and day out since age 5–so you can become an excellent violinist even starting at age 30, but there’s little possibility you’ll become one of the best in the world.

In terms of belief, it can be discouraging sometimes to slowly move through a kick that feels awkward and clumsy to you when other people are spinning through the air and delivering it seemingly without effort. What Gladwell and Colvin and the researchers on whose work they’ve based their books have to tell us is that in time, that kick will come. Practically anyone can fly through the air, spinning, if they’re willing to put in the time.


  • Only a few inborn traits, like intelligence and body size, affect what we can or can’t become great at
  • Almost all exceptional skill comes from many, many hours of practice
  • No, seriously: it’s true

Pictures above: Wolfgang Mozart, Judit Polgár


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