10,000 Hours vs. The Sports Gene

Malcolm Gladwell was having fun.

He was seated on a small stage in front of a standing room only crowd with David Epstein, a potted plant and small table between them. The topic was “10,000 Hours and The Sports Gene”, referring to Gladwell’s book Outliers where he expanded on the 10,000 hour rule and Epstein’s recent release that questions if natural talent has more to do with elite performance than just a lot of practice.

Both journalists had notes in front of them. Epstein referred to his more readily, apparently a long list of studies that discussed and supported his thesis. Gladwell used his more as a way to play with the conversation, to provoke and change directions, to get a reaction from the audience. He was the bigger star with his easy comfort on stage, cool hair and an I-know-the-answers-to-the-test grin. Epstein kept pace, grinding out his points methodically, the tortoise chasing the hare.

David Epstein had command of his facts as he produced examples of elite performers who did not put in nearly 10,000 hours of practice. Malcolm Gladwell didn’t fiercely defend his side and the conversation bounced along a predictable path for 45 minutes.

Then a thought occurred to Gladwell: what if the source of genius wasn’t starting really early in life, nor having a mythical, genetic natural talent gene? What if, he mused, it was as simple as “fit”? The performer was lucky to stumble upon a sport, a discipline, an art so early in life and it just “felt” right and, because it was so natural and fun, they just kept doing it. And doing it. For years.

The discussion ended and most of the crowd hurried out to find lunch, while a small crowd pressed around Gladwell, each of them hoping to present a unique and profound question to him. I sat in my seat, near the back of the room, thinking about his comment. Fit. Such an easy term to throw out, but so much wound around it. But this is it, isn’t it? The problem that we have with the 10,000 Hour Rule is that it’s formulaic, mechanical, the humanity is lost. We struggle with the notion that ANYBODY could be Roger Federer and for some of us, tortured (just a bit) by that.

But by defining the genesis of elite performance as based on a perfect fit, this pulls a number of ideas together:

1. 10,000 hours stops being this gigantic, unattainable, scary idea that we’re not capable of achieving. When it’s a great fit, it’s fun, sometimes that grim sort of fun where you’re running in the wind and rain but secretly deep down you know that this is what you really want to be doing because let’s face it, no one else is out there doing this and it’s just awesome. But if someone asked you why you were out there, soaked to the skin, you couldn’t answer because your heart was so full, you were…complete and you couldn’t find the words to capture just what this moment felt like. That kind of fun.

2. Natural talent, being gifted, all those phrases that we use to excuse ourselves from trying to be great because hey, what do you want from me, I was born this way, start to fade back. And OK, I know that we’re all unique and that variety and mystery makes life really, really interesting (especially sports because even the greatest players lose sometimes) but in the end we’re really quite similar more than we’re different. When you consider that the elite performers found what fit and started doing whatever it was that resonated with them earlier than the rest of us, then it’s more luck, or fate, depending on how you believe the world works. The matching of the performer with a resonant activity is a complex combination of opportunity, timing, your mood at the instant it showed up, and the recognition that THIS is it. And then it’s not over – you have to move on from that moment and find the ball, the hoop, the racket, the piano, whatever you need to keep doing THAT THING.

3. Nurture is a tricky idea because we react differently to the things that influence us. But just for a moment consider that we’re all born helpless and we all used the same tactics as babies do – smiling at familiar faces, making noises that please them, stop doing things that make them mad, or go away. Those same faces often stick around and we call them parents, family, teachers and that urge to get a smile, a nod, a soft supporting comment never goes away. Early in our lives we caught a ball and everyone clapped. Of course you want to do it again and again, because it felt good and we wanted that feeling again. It takes a bit of repetition, not years, but enough, to start to separate from the pack of your diaper-clad peers. But when you do, you become The Athlete or The Artist or The Funny One and the upward spiral starts.

Maybe the answer to the question isn’t 10,000 hours. And it isn’t just natural talent. It may be that greatness comes from a perfect (or near-perfect because nothing is “perfect” right?) match of many things that show up at the same time: a bit of talent, a fortunate opportunity to express it, someone next to you to say hey, what the hell did you just do, that was awesome. And then the means to do it over and over and over again.

If you’re interested in some of my earlier thoughts, check out the chapter called Motivation in The Importance of Walking. It’s the story of a boy discovering the source of his passion and trying to take it all the way to the top of the world.

I would be really interested in your thoughts and comments.

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