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After 10.000 hours of practice you become a world-class performer: true or false?

Few months ago a musician friend of mine said that all he would have needed to turn his passion (the music) into a real job, was enough time to practice.

He mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and his theory, the "10.000-Hour Rule". In his book "Outliers: The Story of Success", Gladwell affirms that you need 10.000 hours of practice to become a world-class expert in any skill (in his book he uses the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples).

This sounded like a convenient trick to me: is it really possible that anyone can master any skill by allocating a huge amount of time to the practice of that skill?

So I did some research and I found an interesting article that actually confirms the opposite: "Practice Does Not Make Perfect: No Causal Effect of Music Practice on Music Ability" (Miriam A. Mosing, Guy Madison, Nancy L. Pedersen, Ralf Kuja-Halkola and Fredrik Ullén, Psychological Science, 30 July 2014)

The case study described in this article examined the links between music practice and music ability in 10.500 Swedish twins, and its authors affirm that "music practice may not causally influence music ability and that genetic variation among individuals affects both ability and inclination to practice" (“music ability” is referred to rhythm, melody and pitch discrimination).

In other words: you have more chances to become a great musician because you have it in your genes, than because you practice a lot on an instrument.

In fact, the results of the study are as follows:

  1. "First, the discussion of the relative importance of practice and other variables for skilled performance has often been framed in terms of nurture versus nature. Our findings clearly illustrate that, in the context of practice effects on expertise, this is a false dichotomy. Genes and environment are important for essentially any behavior (Plomin, Shakeshaft, McMillan, & Trzaskowski, 2014), and practice is no exception." And "We found that music practice was substantially heritable (40%–70%). Associations between music practice and music ability were predominantly genetic" You want to give the ingredients for becoming a world-class performer? You can’t exclude innate talents and environment: practice is not enough.

  2. However, it should be emphasized that a high heritability of music practice does not imply genetic determinism. The present findings are compatible with the possibility that environmental interventions could stimulate deliberate practice in individuals who show little spontaneous motivation for sustained effort (Plomin et al., 2014) You don’t come from a family of musicians? You still have a chance, if you live in an environment that stimulates and motivates you.

  3. So, contrary to past beliefs, it may be that different individuals choose different leisure activities rather than that music practice makes individuals different. It’s more probable that you become a top-class performer because you had the necessary qualities from the beginning, rather than because you decided to.

So, are these bad news? No, not really.

These are important observations that help us being more realistic, while practicing an instrument and setting our goals.

In particular:

  • We have the empiric, scientific evidence that rebuts the “10.000-Hours Rule”. In fact, there is no perfect recipe to become world-class performers. No tricks work! Your DNA, the environment around you, your practice on the instrument, your motivation: everything counts and percentages vary considerably, on case by case basis.

  • We should stop thinking that everyone can do everything. It’s simply not true. We all have different talents, inclinations, stories: if you really want to pursue this phantasmal “success”, you should start with what you are really good at. Gladwell’s book highlights how Beatles and Bill Gates succeeded in their relative fields. But I bet that, if Bill Gates tried to become a world-class singer, maybe he wouldn’t be in that book!

  • Still the “10.000-Hours Rule” can teach us a lesson: you cannot have everything immediately. You have to work hard for your dreams, have a method (I would say something more strategic than just counting how many thousands of hours you practice!), persist in the improvements of your skills and knowledge.

If you are good enough, maybe one day you will write a book that will bring 5 psychologists work together on 10.500 Swedish twins, in order to discredit your thesis!

[article published on 23rd October 2014, reviewed on 1st December 2016]

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