The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, May 31, 2013

How to Master a Martial Art

Perseverance alone does not assure success.
No amount of stalking will lead to game in a field that has none.
-                      I Ching, Hexagram 32, Fourth Line.

An old saying that was attributed to Cheng Man Ching is that mastery requires three things: Natural Talent, a Top Teacher and Perseverance. In other words, nature plus nurture.

Without natural talent, a knack for things, all the hard  work in the world isn't going to make the difference. If you could achieve greatness by hard work alone, you could repeat your first lesson 10,000 times and voila!

Without a good teacher and hard work, the talent will only get you so far as well. 

A common misinterpretation of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule" is that simply putting in the time will do the trick. 

My friend at the Dao of Strategy blog sent me an article from which I am publishing an excerpt below. Please pay a visit. The original article may be read here.

What immediately caught my eye was that one of the authors was Temple Grandin, a true renaissance woman. Dr Grandin is autistic and rather than be relegated to the short bus, went on to get a PhD in Animal Behavior and has been at the top of not only her field, but in many others.

Your Genes Don’t Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won’t Make You an Expert

By Temple Grandin and Richard Panek

“In recent years, the relationship between nature and nurture has been getting a lot of attention in the popular press.

In particular, the 10,000-hour rule seems to have captured the public imagination.
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the rule, but he did popularize it through his best-selling book Outliers. The principle actually dates to a 1993 study, though in that paper the authors called it the 10-year rule.

Whatever name it goes under, the rule essentially says that in order to become an expert in any field, you need to work for at least x amount of time. I don’t know what all the fuss was about. But I guess a big round number brings the equation to life or makes a formula for success sound scientific in a way that simply saying “Practice, practice, practice” doesn’t. Still, that interpretation of the rule seems reasonable to me. Talent plus ten thousand hours of work equals success? Talent plus ten years of work equals success? Sure!

But that’s not how the rule often gets interpreted.
Consider this article about the 10,000-hour rule that opens with the example of Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people in the world: “As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was ‘wired at birth to allocate capital.’ … Well, folks, it’s not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don’t exist. (Sorry, Warren.)” Maybe the issue here was the word targeted.

Was Warren Buffett born to be a CEO specifically? Was he born to run a behemoth corporation like Berkshire Hathaway rather than, say, to work as a day trader? No. But was he born with a brain for business — a brain that would lend itself to number-crunching and risk-taking and opportunity-identifying and all the other skills that go into becoming the leading investor of his generation? I say yes. Certainly Buffett put in his ten thousand hours or ten years of work. He bought his first shares of stock at the age of eleven, founded a successful pinball-machine business with a friend at the age of fifteen, and before he graduated high school, he was wealthy enough to buy a farm.

This is not the career trajectory of someone who’s interested in business and is putting in his ten thousand hours. This is the career trajectory of someone who lives to do business. You might say it’s the path of someone who was born to do business. You might even say it’s the path of someone who was wired for business at birth.

By putting such an emphasis on practice, practice, practice at the expense of natural gifts, the popular interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule does a tremendous disservice to the naturally gifted.

But wait. It gets worse.

Some interpretations of the 10,000-hour rule leave talent out of the equation altogether — like this description of the 10,000-hour rule on Squidoo (like Wikipedia, it allows users to create brief entries on popular topics): “If you want to become an expert in your field, be that art, sport or business — you can. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always innate genius or talent that will make you a success, it’s the hours that you put in, which means that ANYONE can do it.”

Well, no. Not everyone can do it. Let’s go to Gladwell’s example of Bill Gates. In the late 1960s, when Gates was still in high school, he had access to a Teletype terminal, and his math teacher excused him from class so that he could write code. Computer code became something of an obsession with Gates, and ten thousand hours later — well, you know the story.

Now let me tell you the other side of that story. In the late 1960s, when I was a student at Franklin Pierce College, I had access to the same terminal as Gates — the exact same Teletype terminal. The school’s computer system tapped into the University of New Hampshire’s mainframe. So I had as much access as I wanted, and I had as much firepower as I wanted, and it was all free. And you’d better believe I wanted to spend as much time as possible on that computer. I love that sort of stuff; I love to see how new technology works. The computer was called Rax, so when I turned on the computer, a message would type out on paper: Rax says hello. Please sign in. And I would eagerly sign in.

And that was it. I could do that much — but that was all. I was hopeless. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that allows me to write code. So saying that if I’d spent ten thousand hours talking to Rax, I would be a successful computer programmer, because anyone can be a successful computer programmer, is crazy.

I say: Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nature + nurture = Success.

Others say: 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nurture = Success.

Stated so baldly, this interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule looks ridiculous. It does an injustice to the naturally gifted.

But it also does a tremendous disservice to the naturally ungifted. It raises hopes to an unrealistic level. All the hard work in the world won’t overcome a brain-based deficit.

I’m certainly not saying we should lose sight of the need to work on deficits. But the focus on deficits is so intense and so automatic that people lose sight of the strengths.

If even the experts can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong instead of what could be better, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism on a daily basis to think any differently? I’m concerned when ten-year-olds introduce themselves to me and all they want to talk about is “my Asperger’s” or “my autism.” I’d rather hear about “my science project” or “my history book” or “what I want to be when I grow up.” I want to hear about their interests, their strengths, their hopes. For me, autism is secondary. My primary identity is as an expert on livestock — a professor, a scientist, a consultant.


Joseph McParland said...

Interesting post! My interpretation / experience has been that integrating a new physical skill takes whatever number of hours, where "physical skill" generally means some kind of complex, previously unnatural sequence, and "integrating" means making reaching the point that conscious attention is not required to execute it--you can be thinking about other things or focused elsewhere.

I might have forgotten about that experience learning aikido if I hadn't started learning to play the mandolin a year ago from scratch... Now I'm almost comfortable with the basics :-)

10,000 hours will certainly get you comfortable doing something, but if you don't know where to apply your attention to correct things, you'll have completely integrated something substandard or wrong--and maybe have made it difficult to correct in the future.

Thanks for the post!

Joseph McParland said...

In my experience, practicing a new skill means leaving some portion of what I'm doing to "auto-pilot" while focusing attention on an aspect that you are working to improve. The eventual goal is to have the entire new skill fully integrated: it's available without thought; your focus can be elsewhere because the rest of your body knows "I've got this."

10k hours may well be enough to fully integrate what you're doing, but that won't make it optimal or right. I might have forgotten the lesson from aikido studies if I hadn't just started learning to play the mandolin from scratch one year ago. So many details to get right... the left hand finger positions on the fret board, the right hand keeping rhythm and finding the right strings, ... so many things to get right... A teacher is definitely helpful in showing me where I need to put my attention to make improvements before the wrong way is integrated.

Good post--thanks!

Rick said...

Joseph, thanks for stopping by and leaving comments.

I think Dr Grandin nails it in saying that the 10,000 hour rule is often misinterpreted. I don't think that repeating your first lesson 10,000 times will make you a maestro.

Paul said...

The x-hours rule is a good subject matter for popular writers, and a good motivational saying. I buy into its motivational effects. Though any reasonable man knows that it all depends on how you define as "having mastered" and what is your objective. I was told some Harvard MBAs got their business busted. And many an old folk considers himself having mastered their martial art and lives healthily, happily and some even be able to defend himself in incidental push/pull situations. Both having gone through the x-hours regime. To the former, I'll say" tough luck", to the latter, I'll say "good work".

Rick said...

It's all too easy focus on the simple thing, racking up numbers, and ignore the rest.

The Strongest Karate said...

Grandin stakes her counter-point on the supposed popular interpretation that "anyone can master X" according to the 10,000 hour rule, no matter what biology as to say about it. I respectfully half-disagree with her.

When we hear that statement made what we are hearing is not a magical belief that 10,000 hours will transform someone into a Gates, Da Vinci, or Jordan regardless of any biological disability. But rather, we the reader are intended to take that as a given. It just simpler than making the modifying caveat "anyone not born with a preventative disability..." which would, according to her explanation, remove Grandin's objection to this rule.

We all interpret life through our unique lenses, and while I have a huge amount of respect for Dr. Grandin I think her own lens is causing her to miss the forest for the trees.


Rick said...

Without natural talent and a good teacher, even with the 10,000 hours of training, I think your results will be less than mastery.

It ALL has to come together to reach the pinnacle in any endeavor.