Most of you probably heard of a study that, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, indicates you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an "expert" at anything.

More recently, someone looked at the study and pointed out that 10,000 was an average. If you have the right genes, you might need far less practice, while other people might need far more. So the average of 10,000 hours is a fairly useless number. All we know for sure is that practice is a good thing.

Other writers have been pointing out that it also matters what you practice. If you practice the wrong stuff, it doesn't matter how much effort you put into it.

What you have read so far in this post is seen as ground-breaking thinking in the field of success. Allow me to list these shocking results:

1.       Practicing the right things is important!

2.       It helps to have the right genes!

Summary: duh

I'll add one more, um, insight? It goes like this: The only people who can put in long hours of the right type of practice are . . . drum roll please . . . PEOPLE WITH THE RIGHT GENES.

Oh, and also victims. If your parents made you practice the flute for 10,000 hours, and it wasn't your thing, you aren't an expert. You're a victim.

Do you know why I don't put in long hours training for a marathon? Is it a lack of focus and dedication?

No, although I don't have any of that stuff either, at least for running.

The reason I'm not training for a marathon is that my body isn't built for it. I'm a lifelong exerciser with 16% body fat. I try to work out seven days a week. But my genes just aren't right for distance running. I'm built for sprinting. So for me, tennis makes more sense. I've played about 8,000 hours of tennis, according to my thumbnail calculation. I should crack the 10,000 hour mark by the time I'm seventy, at which point I expect to win Wimbledon. I hope to God I haven't been practicing the wrong strokes this whole time.

Anyway, here's my formula for becoming an expert:

1.       Be born with the right genes. (luck)

2.       Have opportunities that work well with your genes. (luck)

At best, becoming an expert is a process of moving from a game that's wrong for you to one that fits your genes. That's the part you can control, at least according to the common view of free will.

The diabolical element of the "expert" conversation is that it relies on an illusion. That illusion is generally referred to as willpower. The idea is that one can hunker down and do unpleasant things that need to be done if one has enough of this thing called willpower.

But willpower is like the horizon. You can see the horizon, define it, and even walk toward it. And yet a horizon exists as nothing but a concept. You can't scoop up some horizon and put it on a basket.

Willpower is like that. We know what we mean when we speak of it, but it doesn't exist. It is an illusion.

Let's say you and I are sitting in a room with donuts in front of us. We both know donuts are bad for our health. Which one of us breaks down and eats a donut first?

Is it the one of us with the least willpower?


It's the hungriest one.

Willpower is an illusion.

People become experts for the same reason most things happen: luck. You need the right genes and you need to be born into the right environment. The most important skill involved in success is knowing how and when to switch to a game with better odds for you.


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Aug 27, 2013
I fundamentally disagree. You become an expert at things through experience. The words are, in fact, derived from the same root word through no accident. You can power your way through activities that you don't care for and acquire enough experience to be an expert. It doesn't mean you're great at something. It means that you have a lot of knowledge about it. And expertise is a relative thing -- in a room full of people, the guy with the most experience is the expert. His knowledge is the most comprehensive and authoritative.
Aug 23, 2013

If you think that luck is everything, try getting anywhere by relying entirely on it.
Aug 22, 2013
After you've read Malcom Gladwell, go read Freakanomics. Your overall success in life (measured by income, health, etc) can be predicted at birth, based on your genetic background and your parents lifestyle. In other words, if you have healthy, good looking, rich parents, you will be health, good looking and rich.

So when you are born, try very hard to:
1. Be born in North America (in the good parts).
2. Have relatively well-off (or rich) parents.
3. Make sure you parents aren't fat or have heart conditions.

We have no free-will. We have programming and dumb luck. But I don't believe in 'luck' either. Luck is when preparation intersects with opportunity. So we have programming and random events. So those 10,000 hours of preparing (training) for something will help if the opportunity happens.

Sorry Scott, those 10,000 hours of tennis may be useful, but look both ways before you cross the street, just in case there's a bus.
Aug 22, 2013
It occurs to me there actually is a recent study which is related. Those who quit smoking have been shown to have higher earning potential than either their smoking or non-smoking counterparts. Whether this is "willpower", "grittiness", "persistence", or none of the above is debatable - but there is something different about people who have the ability to quit smoking. I would argue they are the kind of people who can suffer in the short term and follow a long term plan to a better outcome - but it does seem to me there is some "willpower" needed to do that.
Aug 22, 2013
From an Isaac Asimov jokebook:

A scientist shows a friend the horseshoe he carries for good luck.

The friend says, "I thought you hated superstitions and had debunked all forms of magical thinking."

The scientist says, "That's true. But they say the horseshoe works whether I believe in it or not."

Seemed apropos, somehow.
Aug 21, 2013
How many times, and in how many ways, is Scott going to keep telling us that he doesn't believe in anything he can't see. We get it: he's a hard-core materialist. Good for him.
Aug 21, 2013
Watching my now adult children go through sports in school, as well as watching others, I came to a conclusion (not THE and not ONLY, but A) that it took 3 basic things to excel in sports - physique, ability, and desire. Very few 5' 5" people are going to excel at basketball, for example, doesn't matter how much ability or desire you have. Muggsy Boggs proves the rule. You can usually get by with 2 of the 3, but let's face it, if you don't have the desire, it doesn't matter if you're 7 ft tall and can dribble like Fred 'Curly' Neal, you may play at it, but you'll never be 'great'. Look at Michael Phelps body, he had to have been genetically engineered for swimming. That to me makes Mark Spitz even more remarkable (like Eric Heiden.) My two daughters, one had the physique and ability, but desired to play as many sports as possible, so she was good, but not great. My other daughter had less physique and ability but more desire in one sport, and exceeded beyond everyone's (but her own) expectations. This goes along with Scott's gene theory but genes (which affect all 3 if you think about it) can't do it all. I also agree that luck is in the mix, but luck is the mix for every single part of all of our lives.
Aug 21, 2013
I always figured it as a combination of natural talent, work (and enthusiasm for the work -- the willpower), and luck (environment, !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ etc).

You might get some mileage from two out of three; rare that you get anywhere on just one -- even if that one is the all-important luck.

Think of the guys who get a big break and don't sustain or build it; the hard workers who eke out a living but little more; and the natural talents who either coast on little effort to little effect, or never even use their gifts (perhaps chasing the wrong dream).
Aug 21, 2013
I use affirmations to help me avoid the donuts.

"I will be happier if the other person is fatter than me."
Aug 20, 2013
So, can I conclude from what you are saying, that it is not my fault that I am hopelessly mediocre, I'm simply a product of the hand I was dealt. If so, thanks for momentarily making me feel just a little bit better about my life long mediocrity.
Aug 20, 2013
Willpower is an illusion? It's definitely a combination of physical and mental motivators.

For example, put me in a room with you and my favorite donut, and I can be twice as hungry as you and still not eat it...if I happen to be 18 hours into the fast-and-chug-laxatives phase of a colonoscopy prep. Do I really want that donut - hell yes! Would it temporarily make me feel physically better - yes! But I can find the willpower to resist freakin anything when faced with starting over with that bottle of Miralax!

+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2013
There is another important factor is success and mastery: Grittiness. Plenty of studies have shown that the most successful math students, for example, are not necessarily the ones who have the highest natural affinity for math. The most successful students are the ones that apply themselves and continue to work through the lessons until the understand it.

Obviously - there is a baseline of intelligence that needs to be in play here - but the idea of grittiness as a key factor in success plays out in many areas of life.

I've worked one-on-one with a number of teenagers. I started with my own kids - and came to the faulty conclusion that teaching well was all about providing the right environment and resources for learning. Then I met "C". "C" is a bright kid who gives up the instant something becomes difficult. He will continue "working", but he is really just pushing a pencil around on the paper. He stops actually trying to understand the concept - and so does not progress.

Turns out, he is the son of a highly domineering mother who tells him what to do, where to go, what to think, etc. every moment of every day. This kid has zero personal initiative. I've tried to talk to his mother but she is convinced she is helping him stay on the right path in life...
Aug 20, 2013
Here is a must-read for this discussion - Michael Shermer's review of The Sports Gene in the Wall Street Journal:

Aug 20, 2013
I would disagree on what makes you an expert. In my opinion the difference between an Expert and an amateur is Confidence. You can have 2 people with the same skill level and one, because he has confidence in his abilities, will be seen and presented as an expert; while the other, lacking confidence in his abilities, will be seen as an amateur. What practice does is increase your confidence in your skills and improves those skills. Talent makes improving ones skills easier, that is all.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2013
This is totally unrelated but it would be great to see a strip on open-source stuff and reverse engineering. I can see Dilbert's deciding to open source the company IP because it sounds cool and reverse engineering a really bad product. And unreadable Captchas are a field in themselves. I feel like I have worked with most of these people. At one place, we had batteries which wouldn't charge below 15C so after many meetings , the topic went upstairs and the answer from the CEO was to change the manual to say don't charge below 15C. Would have been funny if it wasn't for an implantable heart assist device - lucky the company went bust. Keep up the great work. Thanks
Aug 20, 2013
Most people want to believe they can do anything with enough willpower. It was the basis of the movie "Rocky" and spawned many sequels. This makes a good story but it's wrong for most people.

Persistence and experimentation is crucial. You can be the best fisherman in the world but sometimes the fish won't bite: this requires persistence. If the bait is wrong the fish won't bite either: this requires experimentation. The delicate part is knowing when persistence and experiment won't work.

Knowing when to switch the game is a valuable skill. Most people probably don't learn this until later in life because it requires the behavioral reinforcement of failure. As a society we also don't teach this skill - we would much rather preach the "Rocky" mythology of willpower.

I like where your thoughts lead because I think there are some fairly profound conclusions that can grow in that soil. Maybe the popular mythology of success is wrong because it's been trumped by feel-good sloganeering.
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 20, 2013
Willpower is real. Two people can be evenly hungry, and then the person with the least willpower will eat the donut.
Ofcourse willpower is something that is defined by your genes and your upbringing.

Aug 20, 2013
It is not just in sports that this is true. I always had a deep desire to be involved in anything technical and in particular, electronics or computers. This manifested itself very early in my life (so there really is no hope). Natural dancers or footballers can make it to the top and usually stand out from the crowd. What makes a great artist, engineer or musician? Practice, the willingness and interest to practice, the right environment to practice and the ability to learn from that practice.
Aug 19, 2013
I see a point in your argument, Scott, but I reach the opposite conclusion. As part of the 10,000 hours of practice spoken of, one of the many lessons you would learn is whether the task you were practicing was one that you were apt at and/or enjoyed.

As an example, I jumped into a college Physics program, willing to put in my 10,000 hours, ready to become another Leonard Hofstadter (I knew I wasn't a Sheldon Cooper).

I got through 3 years of Physics classes. I joined a research group, presented results at conferences, and traveled to National Laboratories to take measurements. I had lots of opportunities (I attended a large private school), and the entire time, I thought, "I hope this gets fun soon".

I like the idea that 10,000 hours is an average. It might be that it would take me 18,000 hours to learn to love the reality of Physics research; it might take a Leonard Hofstadter 10,000 hours to do the same thing (or Sheldon Cooper, 500).

I still think that I could become a PhD Physicist, but after about years of tedium, I had to ask myself if it was worth it. I finally decided that 18,000 hours of work to become a mediocre Physicist wasn't worth it when I could put in 9,000 hours and become a kick - ass high school Physics teacher (I'm about 1/3 the way there, by the way).

My question is, what about said decision ISN'T free will? Am I genetically disposed to teach high school? If so, why did I waste years of my life breaking equipment and staring at data? If not, why do I enjoy teaching so much?

Taking Scott's postulates literally, my !$%*!$%*!$%*! (genetics, epigenetics, and environment) would have had to have programmed me to do everything, including mess up. That seems horrid. I can't live in a world where I am not allowed to screw up. As a moist robot, mistakes are not my own - they belong to the accidental programming my !$%*!$%*!$%*! provided. I couldn't imagine living in a world where you couldn't learn.

I realize that this is not a scientific argument, but instead of the horizon, perhaps free will is like electronic currency. By itself, it isn't anything. It isn't physical. In fact, you have to put in something physical (say, 500, or 10,000, or 18,000 hours of effort) to get it. But then it can be traded for things that are physical, and it can be wasted on things that we don't get a good exchange rate for.

While Scott's horizon analogy and my e-currency metaphor cannot be distinguished through scientific testing, I much prefer the e-currency one. Thanks, Scott, for getting my mental gears working. I don't agree with you most of the time, and I enjoy convincing myself of that a couple times a month.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 19, 2013
It just seems like semantics; "willpower," "dedication," whatever you want to call it, the quality that separates many top performers from their peers is the amount of effort (work/practice/learning) they put in. If it's not willpower then what word would you use to describe the time spent practicing an instrument for hours beyond the point most people would stop? Or when someone keeps working studying when they would much rather be out seeing a movie? Is that just luck?

To me luck implies that the outcome is pure chance; it has nothing to do with working 60 hours weeks, taking risks or passing up leisure time. Yes you're lucky to be able to do something you love, but you still have to put in the work or you're not going to get very far. That's what willpower means to me.
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