Let's say that you and I decide to play pool. We agree to play eight-ball, best of five games. Our perception is that what follows is a contest to see who will do something called winning.

But I don't see it that way. I always imagine the outcome of eight-ball to be predetermined, to about 95% certainty, based on who has practiced that specific skill the most over his lifetime. The remaining 5% is mostly luck, and playing a best of five series eliminates most of the luck too.

I've spent a ridiculous number of hours playing pool, mostly as a kid. I'm not proud of that fact. Almost any other activity would have been more useful. As a result of my wasted youth, years later I can beat 99% of the public at eight-ball. But I can't enjoy that sort of so-called victory. It doesn't feel like "winning" anything.

It feels as meaningful as if my opponent and I had kept logs of the hours we each had spent playing pool over our lifetimes and simply compared. It feels redundant to play the actual games.

I see the same thing with tennis, golf, music, and just about any other skill, at least at non-professional levels. And research supports the obvious, that practice is the main determinant of success in a particular field.

As a practical matter, you can't keep logs of all the hours you have spent practicing various skills. And I wonder how that affects our perception of what it takes to be a so-called winner. We focus on the contest instead of the practice because the contest is easy to measure and the practice is not.

Complicating our perceptions is professional sports. The whole point of professional athletics is assembling freaks of nature into teams and pitting them against other freaks of nature. Practice is obviously important in professional sports, but it won't make you taller. I suspect that professional sports demotivate viewers by sending the accidental message that success is determined by genetics.

My recommendation is to introduce eight-ball into school curricula, but in a specific way. Each kid would be required to keep a log of hours spent practicing on his own time, and there would be no minimum requirement. Some kids could practice zero hours if they had no interest or access to a pool table. At the end of the school year, the entire class would compete in a tournament, and they would compare their results with how many hours they spent practicing. I think that would make real the connection between practice and results, in a way that regular schoolwork and sports do not. That would teach them that winning happens before the game starts.

Yes, I know that schools will never assign eight-ball for homework. But maybe there is some kid-friendly way to teach the same lesson.

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Aug 31, 2010
While 8 Ball may be out of the question, it does pose an interesting idea for areas of traditional school curiculuum. For instance, reading, or math homework. Having good prizes for the best log in class, grade, school, and system could be its own motivator to improve the level of learning. No child left behind the 8 ball, if you will.
Aug 31, 2010

I did put in the 12 hours days of practicing through my teens and into my 20s ending up with 2 grad degrees in music. If you pulled a garden variety music listener off the street and had them compare my playing when I was 30 vs. Schiff they would hear little difference. (or so I've been told) But *I* did know that I sucked in comparison. Take a random vote of the fairly literate readers here of how many classical music concerts they have attended in the last 6 months and I'd dare say it would be a puny number. Making a living as a performer is to put it mildly, a stretch.

When I was 10 I wanted to play baseball much more than play the piano. The greatest gift my parents gave me were those lessons. I have little regard for parents who say "I don't want to force my little snowflake into doing what they don't want to do" as if a 10 year old knows consequences better than adults. Ok, some do but that's another story.
Aug 31, 2010
If you're looking at the lower numbers of practice hours, I find it almost certain that some people will be much better than other people at a particular skill (or sport). In the higher numbers, I think that the rate at which people improve has to vary to some degree, and the raw numbers once again fail to tell the tale.

Your observations must be valid in a statistical sense... practice hours must correlate to skill in a fairly direct manner, or else practice wouldn't be as important as it is. However, I can think of dozens of examples from my lifetime where an hours vs hours comparison of two people in a particular skill doesn't correlate well to results.
Aug 31, 2010
Beyond natural ability, and practice - are those who work hard to earn a skill. You can be a natural at something, and spend the majority of your waking hours "practicing" that skill - and still get beaten by someone else who had a better teacher, spent the same amount of time practicing, and worked harder/did a better job practicing.

There are too many variables involved in developing a skill to just say "Add up the hours of practice & you'll be able to predetermine the winner with a high degree of accuracy". If you can control for those factors, then sure - you can predict better. And yes, of course you can ignore those factors and get a statistically significant prediction result, if you know the hours of practice. But would you make bets on the winner of a contest if you had only a 60% chance of winning?
Aug 31, 2010
You're playing the wrong game. This is why tournaments are usually nine-ball. You have to shoot the lowest numbered ball on the table, but the winner is the one who sinks the nine ball. It forces you to make impossible shots, and there's much more luck involved. You'll become a better player no matter who you play, and you'll find it more fun. The luck involved, and the requirement to hit that lowest numbered ball, make for a lot of surprises and dramatic shots.
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Aug 31, 2010
Music requires skill, which requires untold hours of practice, but even the best technician must also be able to communicate the feeling of the music. Remember, that's why Elvis shot the TV when Robert Goulet was performing--he said he was singing all the right notes but didn't have any feel for it.

I would think your premise would hold truer for individual sports or skills, but not so for artistic endeavours.

Aug 31, 2010
Oh yeah, I'm the same way with darts, but I need time to get my "Dart muscles" in shape. Once they are consistent, I'm mad if I don't hit double-triples every time.
Aug 31, 2010
What happens when players who practiced a similar number of hours, finish in very different places?

I've always had an innate talent for pool. I never practiced pool. I only played for fun whenever someone asked me to. My friend had a table in his house and I'd beat him all the time. Even one summer he played every day and got good enough to beat me occasionally but never would beat me 3 out of 5 games. What accounts for this?

I remember one time going to a bar I've never been in before and winning like 8 games in a row against strangers while I was drinking the entire time. Some even had their own pool cues. Again, I NEVER practice and really don't even like playing pool. I don't even really know the rules just what balls I'm supposed to hit first.

Practice plays a large part I'm sure, but it's certainly not all, and I'm sure it's not 99%.
Aug 31, 2010
Apparently, my ability to spell and proofread my comments is something that also comes and goes.
Aug 31, 2010
It sems to me that there are other factors which you may not have considered in your anaylsis. For example, in 8-ball, as in any game of pool, knowing angles makes a great difference in how well you are able to compete. Personally, I am very good with angles, geometry and trigonometry were to me very easy concepts to learn. However, despite my ability to figure out the correct angles, the ability to shoot the cue ball where I want to, on the line that I want is a skill I could not hone despite shooting pool for many many hours as a youngster. And theability seemed to come and go at random intervals. Some days, the line was perfect. The very next day it would seem as though I'd never held a cuestick in my life. The same holds true for my golf game. I used to play twice a week, religiously, and though on average, my game got better, there would still be days on which I looked liked I was playing putt-putt without the pencil marks on the rails. Competition, to me adds an element which changes the whole face of an activity, provided that there is an approximately equal level of skill or a handicapping system between the competitors. Godd concept to think about though.
Aug 31, 2010
Different topic - Scott: you might find this article interesting: Are we living in a designer universe? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/7972538/Are-we-living-in-a-designer-universe.html It seems related to previous blog posts.
Aug 30, 2010
There is an interesting analysis at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/08/how-to-raise-a-superstar/ which combines the "10,000 hour rule" about gaining expertise with the observation that disproportionately many athletes come from smaller towns than from big cities. The thesis is that early specialization is not nessecarily the best route to success, but still learning early on that practice gives improved performance in a variety of endeavors. In smaller towns, people are more likely to try several things, perhaps one obsessively, and then learn that obsession is a good route to improvement. Then they can apply that to their original obsession or perhaps by exploring several things find something that they are better suited for than their original obsession.

My take on it is that several things are helpful for extreme success:

1) obsessive practice in the field of success
2) a good combination of talent/physical features in the case of sport ("freaks of nature") or mental talent/creative talent in the case of art/professional/scientific fields

Part of getting #1 is to realize that practice is essential- many gifted people don't actually practice much because they have natural success, so that when they get to the next level, when they are competing against other "freaks of nature", they don't do so well. Someone who has realized that practice is essential for serious improvement is far more likely to invest in the practice needed for true success. They may have come to that realization by trying some other endeavor in which they weren't as suited, but if they learned the value of practice, it nevertheless serves them well. It's kind of like how learning a second foreign language is often much easier than a first, at least for some people.

In other words, your expertise in playing pool from an early investment of hours was by no means a waste of time- you realized the importance of dedication and practice. Though you are not a world-class pool player now, that practice and lessons have served you well in excelling in other fields (building a comic empire and eventually enslaving humanity via Dogbert's New Ruling Class) for which your natural artistic/creative/interpersonal skills combination is much better.
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Aug 30, 2010
Scott, practice might not be the be-all, end-all to whether you can succeed in an endeavor so much that it might be a symptom of other likely (and helpful) qualities. Perhaps if a kid discovers he has a natural talent for something, then he enjoys it, he plays ("practices") more. Untalented people might wrongly believe that practice is the only thing this boy has on them, leading them to practice more (and improve, perhaps at a slower rate and not to as great a proficiency). But I agree that in reality, it is all just a combination of genetics experience.
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Aug 30, 2010
This illusion of winning is important to the evolutionary history of our species. Since our genetic success no longer depends on "winning" we have artificial competition with illusory goals. It satisfies our most basic and natural motivation structures.

But not everyone needs or even wants the illusion. Some people find enlightenment or satisfaction in excellence for it's own sake an with no regard to competition. For example, while music can be a competitive activity, the best music is a function of artistic expression.

Concert pianists don't practice 8 hours a day to win - although there are important piano competitions. Of all the piano players in the world, only one will win the Gina Bachauer competition. They practice for the art of the well turned phrase and the beauty of the musical moment. We listen, not because they are winners, but because they have discovered an aesthetic of communication that speaks to us on a higher level.

The illusion of winning is great for survival level needs. Beyond that a person's motivation should be refined.
Aug 30, 2010
As cliche as this is: not everything is about winning. I almost always lose at pool. I almost always win at certain video games. Why? Who cares? I enjoy playing.
Aug 30, 2010
Competing is fun. Winning feels great but isn't necessarily "fun" per se. It's more "fun" to play a well-matched game and lose than to blow out your opponent and win. A championship game/match/race will be both for the victor because they know they are competing against the best.
Aug 30, 2010
The idea is that you should play people at roughly your own skill level, much like golf or tennis, then it is a real competition, and you have to really work at it to win. Or, if you are equally matched, it would come down to luck. Playing someone who is obviously better than you and relying on luck, or obviously worse to humiliate them; there is no sport in those.

This of course would not apply for someone with a natural talent, such as tiger woods for golf, the williams sisters for tennis, bach for music.

I think all children should have to enter some sort of competition while they are in school, whether it be soccer, badminton, debate, music, swimming, etc. And of course the schools would have to stop handing out ribbons or medals for participation and make the students actually earn them. They need to learn how to win, and lose, gracefully.
+12 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2010
I had a piano teacher growing up who always used to say "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." The implication was that you can't just grind out long hours at your skill of choice, you actually have to be actively engaged in that practice to get the benefit. You could bang the pool balls around all day long, but you have to be paying enough attention to know why you scratched or whatever. Too much backspin, not enough? You have to also develop the skill of recognizing your mistakes and how to avoid them. That is the level I think most people stop at for any activity they aren't passionate about.

For instance, I've been playing piano since I was five years old. I still spend at least as much time playing every week now as I did growing up. However, now my playing is just for me. It's fun and relaxing, so I don't fuss over the occasional missed note or off rhythm. When I was younger though, I was competing in music festivals, accompanying choirs, orchestras, and bands, and so my practice was a lot more structured. I would drill difficult stretches of music, and I would stretch my abilities with progressively harder music. My apparent ability is very different as a result. I recently watched an old home movie of me playing when I was ten. I was twice the pianist then as I am now. It shocked me to hear it. Hours logged just isn't a good enough metric. You actually have to care about improving for the benefit.
Aug 30, 2010
Even though you mention the word "skill" a lot, you do not consider it your argument. Some people are just naturally better at pool. I've spent hours learning sports only to be beaten by beginners with more natural ability. And don't tell me anyone could create Dilbert cartoons if they practiced as many hours as you did.
Aug 30, 2010
I think the ability to focus is the sine qua non for success. One can practice doing the wrong thing over & over again. You must first be able to focus/concentrate before being able to practice well & "win" consistently. This focus must also involve critical analysis of what you are doing right what you are doing wrong. Going through the motions of practice in music or athletics will get you nowhere, no matter how hard you practice.
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