Thursday, December 29, 2011

More on Talent and the 10,000 hours

Way back in July I put up a post about a recent book by Malcolm Gladwell based on psychological research on what makes for success. I just read another discussion on this topic here. Some interesting ideas are added including the idea of deliberate, solitary practice and the idea of 'grit', i.e. keeping on with things even if the results are not immediate.

I just keep shaking my head because it seems as if the profession of psychology, not to mention the profession of writing best-selling non-fiction books based on psychology, just keeps coming up with one long-established bit of wisdom after another. How nice of them. They will protest that now we have, ahem, "scientific proof" of the bit of folk wisdom. Well, really not. My previous post ended with this critique:
I'm pretty sure that if you put 10,000 hours into something you will make some progress. But I think the very number itself is designed to benumb your mind. "Wow" you say, "what a lot of hours". But it is really a meaningless number. There are things that you will not master even in 10,000 hours and others that will come to you in 10 hours. It is more in how you approach the problem than in the sheer amount of time. From many years of teaching guitar I know that most practice time is simply wasted doing the wrong thing in the wrong way.
Similarly, to the current claims about having discovered the virtues of 'deliberate' practice and 'grit', I would reply that again, these things have long been known and they are in no sense a 'scientific' discovery because nothing has been proved. The researchers have still failed to explain the causes of success (let alone define that slippery word!).

Yes, having practiced enough hours is a necessary component of success--wait, for that slippery word let us substitute the perhaps clearer word 'mastery' or 'competence'. Here is what you need to do to become competent or capable on an instrument (which may, in time, lead to mastery): practice enough hours. Also, practice in an organized fashion (the 'deliberate' part). Also, be determined about it, keep working even if discouraged (because you will get discouraged). Is that it? Well, of course not. Thousands of people have done all this and still failed to become competent on a musical instrument. The inexplicable missing element has traditionally been attributed to 'talent'. Incidentally, it seems as if the real purpose of all this research is to eliminate the concept of 'talent', which they interpret as meaning 'genetic predisposition'. In the article linked to above they say:
The differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance...The intrinsic nature of talent is overrated – our genes don’t confer specific gifts. (There is, for instance, no PGA gene.)
 The mistake here, I think, is to equate 'talent' with 'genes'. What is perfectly obvious to anyone that has spent much time teaching music is that students are all individuals. They have different sensitivities, abilities and obstacles to overcome. For some, good advice like "practice deliberately" and "don't give up" is excellent advice and will result in progress. For others, you hardly have to say a thing, just point them in the right direction. For others, only modest results are possible. Why is this? Well, if people are all different is not a good enough answer, then I will add that there are a lot of subtle abilities that are extremely useful if you want to play music. Take your sense of time, for example. How attuned are you to a recurring pulse? How acute is your hearing? Are you sensitive to minute differences in pitch? How keen is your kinesthetic sense? How precise and delicate is your control of your fingers? How aware are you of differences in tone-color? There are even more subtle things. Recently I watched part of an interview with Itzak Perlman on the Wall Street Journal site and one of the wise things he said was "you have to practice the right way--if you practice one hour the wrong way, it can take two hours to undo those errors." Yes, exactly! But the ability to sense when you are practicing something the wrong way is a subtle one. For example, you can hinder your progress enormously by simply working too hard on everything instead of doing it with minimal effort.

This whole complex of sensitivities and abilities, some of which we don't have a name for, are crucial in achieving competence on a musical instrument. As a kind of shorthand, we have traditionally referred to them as 'talent'. But there is no predestination involved! As for the relationship between genes and these sensitivities and abilities, perhaps our scientific researchers can look into that when they have finished telling us stuff we already know--like it helps to practice!

Isn't it interesting that a predetermined agenda seems to underlie so much so-called 'scientific' research?

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