Ever since Malcolm Gladwell released his now-famous book Outliers, purporting the 10,000-hour rule to be the “magic number of greatness,” parents, teachers, students, and coaches have clung to the claim. The idea presented in the book argues that skills that appear to be preternatural, innate gifts are, in fact, the result of thousands of hours of intense and focused practice.
He intimates that Bill Gates’ success, for example, is mostly the result of being born into a wealthy family and having the opportunity to go to a high school that offered access to computers and coding courses. This access enabled him to reach the 10,000-hour mark by the time Gates went to college. Early access to computers and a head start allowed him to found Microsoft and, of course, make history.
The 10,000-Hour Myth
The 10,000-hour myth prompted millions of families to invest billions of dollars into elite training programs, private coaches, and club teams in the hopes that their child will get a full ride to college and then go on to become the world’s next superstar.
While Gladwell had many valid points in the book, the 10,000-hour argument’s limitation is that most of the studies quoted were retrospective. They looked at subjects who had achieved mastery level proficiency and asked them to reconstruct the number of hours they had practiced to achieve it. Musicians who had been admitted to an elite music school, for example, were already the proverbial cream of the crop and likely constituted a small percentage of total students who had spent the same or even greater amount of time deliberately practicing their instrument.
Therefore, the issue with these studies was that they naturally eliminated the vast majority of the population. Creating what science commonly refers to as sample or selection bias. Subsequent investigations and analyses have slowly chipped away at the notion.
A 2016 meta-analysis in Perspectives in Psychological Science reviewed 33 studies focusing on the relationship between deliberate practice and athletic achievement and discovered that practice only accounts for an eighteen percent improvement in athletes’ success. Moreover, in elite-level performers, the difference was even less significant, a mere 1% variance.
Although deliberate practice does improve performance, athletes who went on to become ultra-successful did not begin their sport earlier. These studies led researchers to conclude that many other factors, such as genetics, personality, grit, and course TALENT, make the differences between an average player and a superstar.
No matter how many hours some people practice, they will never become the next Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, or Usain Bolt. This realization has left thousands of children feeling inadequate and disappointed for not achieving a dream they may never have wanted in the first place.
Nature Or Nurture
In his book “The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance,” David Epstein goes to great lengths to discover the factors that lead some people to achieve greatness. He comes to the natural conclusion that both nature (our genetic traits and talents) and nurture (the environment we grow up in and how much we practice) is vitally important.
Starting at a young age, children understand that they have natural skills, talents, and weaknesses. Children who are highly gifted in particular areas such as math, reading, athleticism, or art are identified very quickly by their parents and teachers. Other traits, however, require more effort and exposure. A musically talented child may learn to play piano by ear if they have access to a piano, just as Bill Gates learned to code because he had access to a computer. However, for many children, their natural talents are not so readily apparent.
If a child has never seen building blocks and Legos, they may not realize that they would excel at architecture. A child who never learns to swim will never know that they could have been the next Olympic gold medalist or even a good college swimmer. A chess prodigy would never have realized that talent if someone hadn’t taught him chess. The more exposure children have to different activities, environments, and creative outlets, the likelier they are to identify their areas of interest and nurture them.
Instead of spending 10,000 attempting to perfect a single skill, children should have access to a wide variety of sports, musical instruments, languages, arts, and sciences. Although less than one percent of the world’s population can be classified as a “genius,” every single child has the ability to achieve extraordinary things if they find their true calling by cultivating their natural talents and fostering curiosity. Even if they never become famous athletes or musicians.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Unfortunately, many high school and college students lack exposure to various fields and therefore never discover their innate talents. Instead, they hammer away at tasks and subjects that offer them little inspiration. Consequently, it is no wonder that they demonstrate difficulty identifying areas of study and career paths that fit their personality, interests, and skillsets.
For decades the Department of Education (DoE) has been attempting to find a one-size-fits-all solution for more than 14,000 public school districts. Common Core Standards and STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) were installed as the focal point for education. As funding cuts loom, schools slowly chip away at their budgets for arts and humanities, purporting that they are somehow less valuable to child development and therefore “optional.” To make more space for STEM curriculums, school boards started tossing everything from languages, music, art history, and dance into the “electives” bucket.
The reality is, that arts and humanities classes are vital to child development and teach creativity, emotional intelligence, and improvisational skills vital for career success. By minimizing exposure to the arts, we are depriving an entire generation of identifying their true genius and reaching their full potential. We are also sending students the message that their skills, interests, and talents in arts and humanities are not as valuable or desirable to society, thereby discouraging them from pursuing these career options.
Without passion, exposure, and direction, many students flounder, change majors, switch jobs, and ultimately become unhappy employees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one-third of first-time college students change their majors at least once. Ironically, the major most likely to change is also one of the most practical math.
Finding Your True Calling
As our society continues to graduate students who have not found their true calling or cultivated their identity, the workforce struggles to attract quality employees and leaders. According to Indeed’s latest survey, 58% of workers are willing to accept a pay cut to change industries. Of those who switched careers, The No. 1 reason for the change was that they were unhappy in their previous job sector. Nearly half, 49%, of people said they had made a dramatic career shift, like marketing to engineering or teaching to finance.
Of course, no one will argue that STEM curriculums are not necessary. It’s just that these courses do not always teach students skills correlated with career success. Furthermore, as we eliminate arts and humanities, we deprive students of the opportunities to develop the soft skills required to become innovators and entrepreneurs: problem-solving, thinking outside of the box, communication, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, stress tolerance, and innovation. Studies have found that practical, analytical, and improvisational skills combined with creative behavior are positively associated with entrepreneurial companies’ growth and profits. The very measures of success our society values and prioritizes.
On the other end of the spectrum, as graduates flounder to find their way in the job market and commit to careers that do not fulfill them, we have increasingly witnessed a movement calling for people to quit their day jobs in pursuit of their dreams. Motivational speakers, billboards, and podcasts are full of inspirational messages as well as get-rich-quick schemes luring young adults away from stable jobs into an uncertain future.
Neither philosophy is entirely rational or practical. Pursuing a career that you don’t like to earn a paycheck leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness. However, blindly following a childhood passion or investing 10,000 hours in the hopes of becoming a professional ballerina or baseball player is generally unrealistic and can lead to disappointment.
I believe the answer lies somewhere in between, and as a society educating our children, we are missing the ball. For example, even though it might be unattainable to become the next LeBron James, Adele, or Emma Stone, there are hundreds of other career options in the sports, music, and art industries that can fuel natural aptitude and passion. To develop an enthusiastic, talented, and innovative workforce, we must expose our students to a wide variety of experiences, industries, and career options.
We must work harder to inspire and motivate our children to explore all the possibilities and create more opportunities for self-discovery. If we identify unique talents, (whatever field they may be in), we should encourage students to open novel businesses, nurture their creativity, and make the world a more colorful, tolerant, and interesting place.