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Malcolm Gladwell got it wrong: “Deliberate practice” — not 10,000 hours — key to achievement, psychologist says

Here is a brief excerpt from an article by Tristin Hopper for the National Post which focuses on the so-called “10,000 hour rule” – enshrined in Gladwell’s bestselling 2008 book Outliers – a misinterpretation by Gladwell that mastery in any field can be achieved with 10,000 hours of practice. To read the complete article, check out others, and register for an online subscription, please click here.

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In the new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, prominent psychologist Anders Ericsson makes the case that innate talent — and prodigies — do not exist. With few exceptions, says the Florida-based researcher, anybody can achieve greatness using the proper mix of good coaching and deliberate practice.

But even then, is it truly an even playing field? To find out, the National Post contacted geniuses —and the people who know them — to ask the question, “is innate talent a myth?”

Psychologist Anders Ericsson had no contact 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: 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 by phone.

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 “tremendous amount of effort exerted over many years.”

As Anders Ericsson explains in a new book, Peak, it’s not enough to engage in 10,000 hours of a task.

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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Tristin Hopper is an award-winning reporter working for the National desk of the National Post. Originally from Victoria, BC, the first years of Tristin’s journalism career were spent in Whitehorse, where he was a reporter for the Yukon News and later an associate editor for Up Here and Up Here Business magazine. In between, he has made his living as a freelancer, with his writing appearing everywhere from Reader’s Digest to the in-flight magazine of a B.C. helicopter airline. He is based in Edmonton.

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