Can qual­ity be clocked?


National Post (Latest Edition) - - NEWS - TRISTIN HOP­PER Na­tional Post thop­per@ na­tion­al­post. com Twit­ter: TristinHop­per

Psy­chol­o­gist Anders Eric­s­son had no cont act with Mal­colm Glad­well be­fore the Cana­dian writer took one of his pa­pers on Ber­lin vi­olin stu­dents and mor­phed it into one of the 21st cen­tury’s most sto­ried self-help ax­ioms.

The “10,000 hour rule” — en­shrined in Glad­well’s best­selling 2008 book Out­liers — holds that mas­tery in any field can be achieved with 10,000 hours of prac­tice.

But Eric­s­son, a Florida State Univer­sity re­searcher who has spent his ca­reer break­ing down the sci­ence of what makes peo­ple ex­tra­or­di­nary, says Glad­well missed the point.

“If you’ve been do­ing your job for 10 years or 10,000 hours, the idea that you mag­i­cally be­come a su­pe­rior per­former … is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive,” he told the Na­tional Post.

As Eric­s­son ex­plains in a new book, Peak, it’s not enough to en­gage in 10,000 hours of a task. Cab­bies are not trans­formed into vir­tu­oso driv­ers over years of ser­vice. What’s crit­i­cal is “de­lib­er­ate prac­tice” — a sci­en­tific at­ten­tion to spe­cific im­prove­ment goals, a con­stant drive to move out­side one’s com­fort zone that is “gen­er­ally not en­joy­able,” and a good coach “to min­i­mize the risk” of wasted, frus­trated time.

What Glad­well got right, though, says the book, is that ex­per­tise of any kind re­quires a “t re­men­dous amount of ef­fort ex­erted over many years.”

Peak ar­gues that in­nate ta­lent is vir­tu­ally ir­rel­e­vant. Prodi­gies are a myth, Eric­s­son ar­gues, per­fect pitch can be taught and Mario Lemieux was no more gifted than any other Cana­dian baby raised in a hockey-mad house­hold where the fam­ily cov­ered the liv­ing room with packed snow to al­low the chil­dren to con­tinue skat­ing af­ter dark.

“I can’t say that such a thing ( as a prodigy) doesn’t ex­ist, but I can say that I’ve been search­ing for such ev­i­dence over 30 years and I’ve yet to find a case that doesn’t al­low for an al­ter­na­tive ex­pla­na­tion,” said Eric­s­son.

Even autis­tic sa­vants — the gold stan­dard for ge­niuses as far as movies are con­cerned — can be ex­plained. Peak cites re­search from the U. S. and Bri­tain show­ing that the ex­treme mem­o­riza­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties shown by peo­ple with autism can be repli­cated by the non-autis­tic sim­ply by de­vot­ing the same amount of time to the task.

The only dif­fer­ence is that “autis­tic peo­ple are more likely to prac­tise ob­ses­sively.”

Peak pays spe­cial at­ten­tion to Steve Faloon, a Carnegie Mel­lon un­der­grad­u­ate who, with Eric­s­son’s tute­lage, be­came the world master at re­call­ing strings of dig­its.

Con­ducted in the l ate 1970s, the ex­er­cise was to read Faloon a list of num­bers in quick suc­ces­sion, then ask him to par­rot back as many as he could re­mem­ber.

The av­er­age per­son can usu­ally han­dle about eight — but with two years, and about 500 hours of prac­tice, Faloon was able to bring that fig­ure to 82.

The feat was so spooky that when Faloon died in 1981 of aplas­tic ane­mia, an ex­tremely rare blood dis­or­der, those close to him briefly sus­pected that the mem­o­riza­tion may have played a part in his un­timely death.

Says Eric­s­son: “You have two ex­cep­tional things, and I think it’s rea­son­able to as­sume there is a con­nec­tion be­tween the two.”

Peak’s pages abound with some of the most mo­ti­vated peo­ple on the planet. Dan McLaugh­lin, a 30- year- old com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­pher with no golf ex­pe­ri­ence, quit his job to put in 10,000 hours to­ward be­com­ing a golf pro. Paul Brady, a 32-year-old Bell Tele­phone re­searcher, taught him­self per­fect pitch us­ing a rigid train­ing reg­i­men backed by a cus­tom- made com­puter pro­gram.

If you’ve been do­ing your job for 10 years or 10,000 hours, the idea that you mag­i­cally be­come a su­pe­rior per­former … is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

And there’s the rub with Eric­s­son’s t heory. Most peo­ple are not Dan McLaugh­lin or Paul Brady. Even with a point-by-point road map on how to achieve greatness, we don’t want it enough to make the nec­es­sary sac­ri­fices.

Or maybe, ac­cord­ing to Eric­s­son, they just need a bet­ter sense of the pay­off.

The re­searcher dis­putes even the idea of in­nate drive. There is no sci­en­tific ev­i­dence of an over­ar­ch­ing con­cept of “willpower,” he ar­gues, and mo­ti­va­tion of any kind can be built from scratch.

“From our stud­ies of ex­cep­tional per­form­ers, one of the things we’ve no­ticed with peo­ple who don’t reach high lev­els is they don’t re­ally get a grasp of the emotion and the sat­is­fac­tion that suc­cess will bring them,” he says.

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