Recipe for success: 10,000 hours of practice and plenty of myelin!
As I mentioned a few days ago, Malcolm Gladwell has a provocative explanation for why Asian children are better at maths. The answer, he says, is embedded in the structure of our languages. Asian languages have shorter words for their numbers than most other languages, allowing for Asian children to cram more information in their memory. The construction of Asian number systems is also more logical and intuitive: Eleven is ten-one and twelve is ten-two, for example; in Asian languages, fifty-six is five-tens-six. (See entire post here.)
I was talking with a friend about this, however, and he brought up an interesting point that seems to put a small kink in Gladwell’s explanation: schools in Asia often teach children to do maths — including counting — in English. English, for example, is one of the official languages in Singapore, and according to him, is the dominant (sometimes only) language that school children are taught. And what about Asian students, born in the U.S. and with English as the only language they know, who are better at maths than their non-Asian peers… What explains their outstanding academic achievement? If they, too, are learning their number systems and maths in English and with an English construction, certainly language is not the only or primary explanatory variable for their dominance in math.
I don’t know how Gladwell would respond to this, but perhaps he would refer me to another chapter in his new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, that introduces us to the “10,000 Hour Rule.” The general thesis of this book is that, contrary to much conventional wisdom, talent is not innate. This is to say, geniuses — “outliers” — are not born; they are products of culture, chance, demography, and hard-work. Ten-thousand hours of work, at that. Take the the Beatles as a case study. The Beatles became the greatest, most successful, and influential musical group in history because they practiced. A lot. One of their early and regular gigs was at a club in the redlight district of Hamburg, Germany.
The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today don’t perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is what set the Beatles apart.
“They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” says [the band’s biographer, Philip] Norman. “They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock’n’roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren’t disciplined on stage at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.” [Full extract here.]
It was the fact that they had practiced for more than 10,000 hours — more than their boyish good looks and English charm — that allowed them to launch the British Invasion on the Ed Sullivan Show. Perhaps Asian students, in addition to benefiting from a language that facilitates the learning and manipulation of a number system, simply do more maths than students in other countries.
This is all a long lead-in to two items I found while surfing through the the online archives of Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, which, sadly, just announced that it is the victim of the downturn in print journalism and will no longer be in production. “How to Grow a Superstar Athlete” by Daniel Coyle illustrates how some parents and coaches hope that an early introduction to sports will allow their children to develop into professional or Olympic level athletes. Two hours of T-ball practice now leaves only 9,998 more to go until the Yankees offer that contract to little Jimmy.
Also from the archive, this illustration and animation explains why early and consistent practice is so beneficial to the development of young athletes: Myelin!
Some scientists believe that physiological changes in the brain that take place during repetitive practice at a young age make the difference between a world-class athlete and the rest of us. The brain is made up of grey matter (neurons) and white matter (nerve fibers and their insulating material). A process in the white matter called myelination may play a large role in the development of talent.
Signals are transmitted to different areas of the brain along pathways called axons. The faster and more precise these signals are, the more ability we have to perform complex tasks. Repetitive use of connections in the brain–or practice–triggers cells called oligodendocytes, which wrap layer upon layer of myelin around these connections. This optimizes the connections, making them more like a broadband Internet connection than like a dial-up. The athlete’s neuronal pathways for their specific skills have been turned into superhighways.
We’ll miss you, Play magazine. You always gave us a lot to think about.
Entry filed under: etc, play, think. Tags: 10000 hour rule, achievement, axons, brain, brain fitness, Ed Sullivan Show, education, Gladwell, grey matter, innate talent, language, math, myelin, oligodendocytes, Outliers, practice, sports, success, superstar athlete, the Beatles, TIMSS, white matter.