Talent not practice: The myth of the 10,000 hours

Common wisdom, and self help books, says that anyone who completes 10,000 hours (10 years) in their chosen discipline will excel. This is part of the rationale for Code Kata and Coding Dojos from the Software Craftsmanship movement. But the 10 years equals expert formula isn’t true.

Here is an example of self-help tendency to encourage practice, from no less an authority than Captain Picard of Star Trek fame:

Picard artistry tip: Lacking innate talent at a skill doesn’t mean you should stop. On the contrary, it means you need to practice.

Picard Tips (@PicardTips, 30 July 2014)

Although I follow and enjoy Picard Tips, this tip isn’t one I agree with. I believe practice doesn’t help unless you have talent. Even the magical 10,000 hours of practice won’t help much. And my belief is now backed by research.

A study by Macnamara, Hambrick and Oswald (2014, 1 July) found there are plenty of people who work very hard in their chosen area yet fail to excel. Dr Jeremy Dean explains that:

The results [of the research] contained a surprise, but first the obvious news: practice was important. People didn’t generally get good without practice.

The surprise was that practice only accounted for 12% of individual differences in performance across all the different areas.

  • Games: 25% practice.
  • Sports: 18% practice.
  • Education: 4% practice.
  • Professional performance: less than 1% practice.

In a software context the last one “Professional performance” seems most relevant. Practice makes “less than 1%” difference to professional performance!

For me this reinforces my belief that you should hire on talent rather than other things like qualifications, knowledge or personal attributes. And certainly not on time served / hours of practice. So keep doing Coding Kata and attending Coding Dojos if you enjoy them. But they won’t help too much unless you already have the talent for coding.

Sorry Captain Picard, I think you’re wrong.

References

Dean, J. (2014, 3 July). The 10,000 Hours Myth: Practice Predicts Only 12% of Performance. PsyBlog.

Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick D. Z. and Oswald, F. L. (2014, 1 July). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions – A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science.

9 thoughts on “Talent not practice: The myth of the 10,000 hours

  1. I basically agree with your conclusion however it is more valid in theory rather than application in the ‘real world’. Not every professional will have a stellar or even an above average natural talent, be it a doctor, coder, lawyer or police investigator, but persistence, extensive experience and an ability to work towards a shared mission or vision with a team should not be readily discounted.

    • I don’t see this as theoretical. My “real world” observation is that natural talent (or the lack of) is obvious amongst the people I work with. This is overwhelmingly what makes them effective. Of course somebody with talent and no team skills isn’t really going to fit, but that is another story.

  2. I don’t really see how you can have a talent for programming without the practice? No one is born with a knowledge for programming, if they were then there wouldn’t be such a shortage of software developers in the UK right now.

    You have to study and work to learn how to write code properly.

    I can understand this point if two people had put the same amount of time and effort in to learn something and one individual was better than the other then they could be deemed to have more natural talent but you would never get to that point without the hours of work to make the comparison.

    Furthermore how do you identify natural talent from the hiring process, assuming you provide a technical test, how do you distinguish between someone who’s been coding a long time and has put a lot of hours in to get to where they are and someone with natural talent?

    I can’t say i’ve ever looked at some code and thought wow this person has natural coding talent, the best programmers i know are up until 2.30am every night writing code.

    Kudos on this blog but i think this kind of puts out a message that people should just give up if they aren’t deemed to be a “natural” whatever that is.

    • It is worth noting this research focusses on “deliberate practice” i.e. “structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain” (like coding kata). The research says deliberate practice doesn’t help much. The researchers suggest some factors that may be important: how early in life you start, intelligence, personality, and working memory capacity.

      In a software context I’d add education, experience and talent – of course that is just my opinion. I believe education, experience and more experience make better professionals – whether developers or PMs – but talent is most important. I have met people that have many years experience but no natural talent for their chosen profession. Tragic really. And for me as a manager these people pose a threat to my ability to deliver. I can’t trust them, regardless of qualifications or experience. They slow me down.

      I borrowed the concept of talent from Buckingham and Coffman. In their research on managers, they observed that the best managers select an employee for talent rather than for skills or experience. In this context talent means “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.” The emphasis here is on the word “recurring.” Your talents are the behaviours you find yourself doing often.

      Talented developers will write good quality code, and do it fast, whether during the day or at 2.30am. Untalented developers labour for days trying to write a program that a talented guy can knock up in a few hours.

      Education, skills and experience enable the talent but it is the talent that makes people particularly effective.

      re technical test
      That’ll give you a good insight into their ability. Watching them do it will give you more insight. Pairing with them will provide even more.

      • I’m still unconvinced, however, i like your idea of interview pairing. It’s something i may suggest for our current hiring process. Thanks for the response and again congrats on the great blog.

  3. This is a fascinating discussion, if I have more time I will add to it. For now here is excerpt from Smithsonian.com (July15, 2104) in regard to the research findings;

    ‘Other researchers, however, cry foul. Some say that the authors didn’t define practice clearly enough, lumping in casual play with serious lessons and thus diluting true practice’s effect. Others say that there are important factors that the literature doesn’t capture very well, such as the age at which someone began learning a new skill; whether they have a driven personality; and the number of tournaments, tests, performances or other by-memory challenges that people put themselves through. Still others, the Times continues, say that varying the location and timing of practice can make a difference in how effective it is’.

  4. There is hope for those without natural talent (Time Magazine article :July 10, 2012);

    ‘Although some researchers — and much of the public, influenced by popular books like journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — argue that prodigious expertise can be acquired with sheer effort, 10,000 hours of practice to be exact, the current findings suggest that natural talents can blossom in far less time. “[Many prodigies] displayed their extreme talent before reaching 10 years of age, undercutting the nurture-based theories that credit contemporary training techniques and upwards of 10 years of deliberate practice as the root of all exceptional achievement,” the authors write.

    That doesn’t mean all is lost for everyone else, notes Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at New York University. “There is research showing the positive benefits of working memory training,” he wrote on his blog on Psychology Today‘s website, suggesting that practice could take us closer to perfect’.

  5. How did they measure “individual differences” in this study that apparently debunks the importance of practice? And what kind of practice were these individuals doing? A lot is left out here. It is true that things are more complex than — practice hard and anyone can be an expert. But both Ericsson and Gladwell were more nuanced than that. And the underlying point — that lots of deliberate practice is essential for elite performance in complex activities — remains valid.

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