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 30, 2010
I agree in the context of 8 ball. And practice still makes a huge difference in team sports, but the chaos factor of so many different inputs in a team sport make the outcome far less obvious. The more people on the team the more this chaos factor is there. Any number of choices, enviornmental issues, attitudes, injuries, atmosphere all contribute and compound. They make the practice not as important as in a very controlled game like 8 ball.
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Aug 30, 2010
I don't get into video games for the exact same reasons you've outlined. I came of age with them, starting with Atari. At first I was amused by them, but, in time it was painfully obvious that the kids that practiced for hours, days, weeks, months, years (!) would blow me into the weeds. What a waste of time. My brother-in-law, like many others like him, is very proud of his video game prowess. I try to be polite and act interested when he goes on about unlocking secret messages, high scores and such, but, really, I'm thinking, so what? I understand the attraction but I guess I'll never understand the obsession.
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Aug 30, 2010
Your theory discounts the role of intelligence. A "smarter" person who learns to play pool will take note of the angles involved. A not so smart person will hit the ball around and will congratulate themselves every time one goes in due to luck.

Another factor is being able to learn from others. If someone plays against you for an hour a day and makes an effort to increase their skill as to be competitive will become an excellent player. Someone who plays against me for an hour a day until they are able to beat me will still be lousy.
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Aug 30, 2010
Scott, I have followed your blog enough to know that you also play soccer. While pool is a good example for your point of comparing hours of practice, soccer is a good example for the counterpoint of natural talent and luck influencing outcomes. Some people have bodies built for speed others, built for comfort. Dieting is important to stay lean and genetics play a part there too. I don't see a lot of short distance speed records being made by white men or women, just sayin.

As for luck, if a game can be won with a score of 1 to 0 I think we can easily see where luck can be a huge factor.

Just looking at the sports world it's clear that the team with vegas odds does not always win and there are lots of things that influence outcomes besides hours of practice.
Aug 30, 2010
I think that a few other factors in determining how well people play pool is how much diet coke or tea or beer they have in their system, how loud the music is, whether there is a strobe light (you ever played strobelight pool before? totally cool to see the balls transitioning at constant sample points in time), whether the table has any tilt bias to it, how big the table is, how many hot waitresses are crossing your line of site.....is this just because I got ADHD!? I notice a trend that on days when I can zone out everything else I can't miss at all, but on days when I'm distractable I miss too frequently.
Aug 30, 2010
If we ever meet in person, I'm going to challenge you to a game of 8-ball Scott :)
Aug 30, 2010
rockhopper, if you are not a professional piano player - and it sounds that you are a software negineer by day, I don't think that you would log anywhere close to the amount of hours playing the piano as someone like Schiff. I have two relatively close friends that have careers in classical music and practicing is their day job. We sit 8 hours in front of the computer - they spend 8 hours practicing the piano and they did this since their childhood. I still enjoy playing the piano and one of those guys enjoys tinkering with software. As you said, I could never come close to what he is doing with the piano. On the other hand, he wouldn't be able to build software like you and I are doing.

There are no wonders, just hard work. That doesn't have to go against the notion that there is a certain amount of (genetic?) predisposition/talent. If you have the potential to do be good at something (because you are tall, have a musical ear, happen to be good at abstraction etc...), you have more motivation in working on it because you will advance faster than others as you will derive happiness from your success. The kids that where forced to take piano lessons by their parents did not get very far. The two guys I mentioned in the beginning loved it as kids and they continued to love it and work on it... they enjoyed practicing for hours and they didn't have any attributes that prevented them from becoming better and better...
Aug 30, 2010
I suspect kids would learn that practice is important, but talent is more important, because there are always people who pick up things fast and there are always people who can practice a lot and learn little.

Aug 30, 2010
Responding to 'clagpag22'; I agree; my immeadiate thought/response is that studies show may experts - in fileds like computers, to sports - amass great numbers of hours honing their abilities (Outliers discusses this at great lengths): essentially an expert has spent more that 10,000 hours 'perfecting' their skills.
Aug 30, 2010
I see the engineer bias in this argument.

I've logged many many hours over the past several decades "playing" various piano works such as some preludes and fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier. I can play the "correct" notes and all the concomitant attributes. But there is something that makes my efforts more like "pressing keys" when compared to someone like Andras Schiff who plays the same notes and makes music. Would you care to quantify that difference? I'd dare say if we compared practice logs they would be in the same ballpark. I consider software engineering (the means by which I'm able to buy cat food) to be crashingly simple child's play in comparison.
Aug 30, 2010
In the pool halls I have frequented, the little guys can win as much money as they want at pool, but ultimately the big biker guy is going to walk out of there with the cash in his hand. I would guess that Scott probably recognized the same trend and decided against hustling.
Aug 30, 2010
My billiard game isn't what it used to be because of aging eyes. Other sports that I used to be good at are now just hobbies, instead of competitive obsessions, because of joints and tendons hitting the "age-wall". And it's a bit depressing.

There might be a couple of ways around this. HgH therapy might give a 10 year boost (and then bigger crash??)

Or is there a sport that allows one to get BETTER with age? Maybe Bridge? I dunno.
Aug 30, 2010
Sounds similar to part of Malcolm Gladwell's premise in "Outliers".

Check it out: http://amzn.com/0316017922
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Aug 30, 2010
Most people have the will to win, few have the will to prepare to win. -Bobby Knight
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Aug 30, 2010
Practice is not sufficient on its own. I could spend twenty years playing the piano, but I would be just as tone deaf as when I started. Two other factors are also necessary for improvement.

Self awareness and humility are important for the player to notice the difference between desired and actual results.

Observation, rationality and intelligence will enable the player to identify the causes of these differences and what behaviors minimize them.

But also there is innate ability and physical capability. Not everyone will start at the same level of achievement, even if you could assume everyone improved at the same rate.

Aug 30, 2010
This is also seen in the shows about various elite military units. The "selection" process isn't really about training. It's about whittling down 125 men to the 13 genetic and psychological freaks that possess the required skills.

THEN the training begins.

This was hammered home in a different TV special that demonstrated the ability of various special forces members to control core body temperature in extreme environments. They soaked one in ice water for an hour, and baked another under heat lamps. Environments that would cripple a normal person in 10 minutes had no detectable impact on performance after an hour of exposure.

And, different specialists were selected for different abilities. The pilot couldn't endure the apoxia, the ranger couldn't handle the disorientation of spinning maneuvers.

In other words, the people who make the news, in either sport or combat, are not like you. No amount of training will ever get you there.
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Aug 30, 2010
But the fun is in the competition. It IS possible that I could beat you at 8 ball if I only practiced 1/2 as many hours as you over my lifetime, and I'd be jazzed to try. More than that 1% chance I think. And there are people who are 'naturals' who need very little practice at an activity to excel to being 99% better than others.

You should've become a hustler in your youth and made mega-bucks. No way some big beefy Harley riding tattooed dude is going to suspect that little old you would destroy him in the pool hall...
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