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More Big Round Numbers: Does 10,000 Practice Hours Really Make for Greatness?

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Originally posted on September 11, 2014.

In a recent blog essay (here) I advised thinking critically about big round numbers, including claims that the brain has 100 billion neurons, that we use 10 percent of our brains, and that 10 percent of people are gay.

Regarding the latter claim, a recent Gallup survey asked 121,290 Americans about their sexual identity: “Do you, personally, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender?” “Yes,” answered 3.4 percent.  And when a new National Center for Health Statistics study asked 34,557 Americans about their sexual identity, all but 3.4 percent of those who answered indicated they were straight. The rest said they were gay or lesbian (1.6 percent), bisexual (0.7 percent), or “something else” (1.1 percent).

Questions have recently arisen about another of psychology’s big round numbers—the claim that 10,000 practice hours differentiates elite performers, such as top violinists, from average to excellent performers.  As the distinguished researcher, Anders Ericcson, observed from his study of musicians (here), “the critical difference [is] solitary practice during their music development, which totaled around 10,000 hours by age 20 for the best experts, around 5,000 hours for the least accomplished expert musicians and only 2,000 hours for serious amateur pianists.”

Not so fast, say David Hambrick, Brooke Macnamara, and their colleagues (here and here). In sports, music, and chess performance, for example, people's practice time differences account for a third or less of their performance differences. Raw talent matters, too.

Perhaps both are right?  Are superstar achievers distinguished by their unique combination of both extraordinary natural talent and extraordinary daily discipline?

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).