Recipe for success: 10,000 hours of practice and plenty of myelin!

November 21, 2008 at 8:31 pm 6 comments

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.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood 


Entry filed under: etc, play, think. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Chain link Viagra: also an on-the-field performance enhancer?

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ben R  |  November 24, 2008 at 4:00 am

    I think Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence” does a better job explaining the performance of East Asians on math/science subjects. Essentially, if you look at the group average, they do particularly well on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests. This is consistent with their performance on math/science subjects. Seligman also notes possible explanations of this including:

    “Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile “selection pressure” for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn’s 1987 paper refers to “the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain.” These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world’s best visuospatial abilities.”

  • 2. Ruben Fowler  |  November 24, 2008 at 5:13 am

    Yeah, well, maybe. But were there other bands with the same amount of hours who never really made it? What about Pete Best? He was in on that. Why didn’t he go on to be a great drummer elsewhere? Have the Jonas Brothers anything like that experience? Was it all those hours performing (which, with practice, came to about 10,000 hours altogether) that led to their tapping into this songwriting genius of theirs?

    I don’t dispute the importance of practice, but I’m always wary when someone says, “This was it, this was THE reason.” I mean, frankly, if it’s only about the practice, George should have been a better guitar player after all that….

  • 3. WeightLoss  |  December 11, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    Outliers is really a great book. The problem is Gladwell leaves little room for critical thinking by interlacing his opinion and ideas throughout the book. I like to form my own thoughts based on research. But I think for the target this was a great book.

    I wish I’d been born at the right time and had 10k hours of practice at doing something. Maybe blogging will help my writing skills.

  • 4. RaiulBaztepo  |  March 28, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

  • 5. PiterKokoniz  |  April 7, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    Hi !!!! ;)
    My name is Piter Kokoniz. oOnly want to tell, that your blog is really cool
    And want to ask you: will you continue to post in this blog in future?
    Sorry for my bad english:)
    Thank you!
    Piter Kokoniz, from Latvia

  • 6. jleeger  |  July 22, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Good book. Gladwell also points out the incredible amount of luck it takes (being in the right place at the right time) to become “successful.” The difference between “skill” and “success” is interesting, though. Myelin is a factor in being skillful, but so is the muscular development that accompanies it. So many factors…can’t really choose just one to pin it on…


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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