Why genius is more often created through hard work and opportunity than simply being born with it

Monday, November 17, 2008

Here's an article, an extract from a book that's definitely worth a read, about how genius is more often than not simply a result of extreme amounts of practice and not simply something people are just lucky to have. A friend of mine here has also talked about the subject quite a bit, and apparently the amount of time it takes to go from zero to specialization in a field is 10,000 hours, and that almost anyone can accomplish this. Even without the research it has always been painfully obvious that this is the case when taking a look at military training, which almost always succeeds in taking regular people and turning them into soldiers, people that weren't born that way but were successfully turned from something they never knew they had into something completely different.

One of the links he sent me before (which is referenced in the article), and an excerpt:

When experts exhibit their superior performance in public their behavior looks so effortless and natural that we are tempted to attribute it to special talents. Although a certain amount of knowledge and training seems necessary, the role of acquired skill for the highest levels of achievement has traditionally been minimized. However, when scientists began measuring the experts' supposedly superior powers of speed, memory and intelligence with psychometric tests, no general superiority was found --the demonstrated superiority was domain specific. For example, the superiority of the chess experts' memory was constrained to regular chess positions and did not generalize to other types of materials (Djakow, Petrowski & Rudik, 1927). Not even IQ could distinguish the best among chessplayers (Doll & Mayr, 1987) nor the most successful and creative among artists and scientists (Taylor, 1975). In a recent review, Ericsson and Lehmann (1996) found that (1) measures of general basic capacities do not predict success in a domain, (2) the superior performance of experts is often very domain specific and transfer outside their narrow area of expertise is surprisingly limited and (3) systematic differences between experts and less proficient individuals nearly always reflect attributes acquired by the experts during their lengthy training.
Reason (2) is why you can have geniuses at chess like Bobby Fischer that are surprisingly simplistic in their political view of the world:
In 1961 he made his first public statements despising Jews. Then after the Curacao Candidates Tournament in 1962, Fischer leveled charges against the Soviets of match-fixing (recently declassified documents show that he may have been right). The public conundrum began.
That “sickness” continued with more famous Fischer incidents. His 1972 World Championship Match with Boris Spassky featured the original “Spygate” camera scandal, culminating in Fischer’s forfeiture of round two (despite his contractual agreement allowing their use). For his part, Spassky, ever grateful for becoming a household name, remained a staunch supporter of Fischer up until his death, proving that untangling Fischer’s life is very much a personal decision.
After refusing to defend his title in 1975, he spent many years off the grid until a 1981 letter railed against the Jewish owners of his California storage unit, fomenting more invective diatribes in the coming decades. Fischer’s 1992 press conference hacked away even more public admiration, and his radio remarks on the evening of September 11, 2001 eviscerated any remaining personal fondness.
Neither the man nor his anti-Semitic views ever found much of a home after that.

Now back to the main article: it's especially interesting for the number of examples it gives of people or groups that are commonly thought to be simple geniuses or lucky, when a lot of what made them who they are came from a ton of hard work and opportunity.

On the magic 10,000 number of hours:

This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

And the story about The Beatles:

The Beatles - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr - came to the US in February 1964, starting the so-called "British Invasion" of the American music scene. The interesting thing is how long they had already been playing together. Lennon and McCartney began in 1957. (Incidentally, the time that elapsed between their founding and their greatest artistic achievements - arguably Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album - is 10 years.) In 1960, while they were still a struggling school rock band, they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.


And what was so special about Hamburg? It wasn't that it paid well. (It didn't.) Or that the acoustics were fantastic. (They weren't.) Or that the audiences were savvy and appreciative. (They were anything but.) It was the sheer amount of time the band was forced to play. Here is John Lennon, in an interview after the Beatles disbanded, talking about the band's performances at a Hamburg strip club called the Indra: "We got better and got more confidence. We couldn't help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one. In Hamburg we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing."

The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don't perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.

The moral of the article is a simple one: if you want to become an expert in something, set aside the time and do it. If you find yourself struggling in a field (let's say a language for example) and a friend of yours is doing much better at it, take a look at your habits. It's likely that the person that is struggling just puts in a bit of time every day into the language and doesn't give it much thought outside of this, whereas the person that is progressing much faster always finds time to put in some extra practice, watches movies in the language, has friends from the country and so on.

Info on the book:

This is an edited extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, to be published on November 27 by Allen Lane at £16.99. Malcolm Gladwell: Live In London is on November 24 at 5.45pm and 8.30pm at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Tickets from £13.50 to £26.50. To book, call 0844 412 1742 or go to malcolmgladwell-live.com. There will be an interview with Malcolm Gladwell in tomorrow's Observer.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Dave! :) :) :) The article you've linked to is the best article I've read about that subject ever! Very motivating for me.

Please publish more articles that talk about "what makes a genius".

Unknown said...
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