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When practice just kills time

Posted: August 21, 2014 9:37 a.m.
Updated: August 22, 2014 6:00 a.m.

Last week we spent a few minutes talking about being the best in the world in a particular field.

LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, and Rory McIlroy is the best golfer, but I think we agreed that it’s nearly impossible other than in sports to pick a single person who’s better than anyone else at a single task.

What we didn’t discuss is how you get to be the absolute best at something. Are you born with a phenomenal talent, or do you earn that distinction by long hours of practice?

Probably a combination of the two. Coincidentally, I recently happened upon some research on that very subject.

A preface, however: if you’re familiar with the author Malcolm Gladwell, you know he takes sets of circumstances and then arrives at certain conclusions.

In his book Outliers, Gladwell deduced that the best hockey players in the game are born in the first three months of the year.

His reasoning? That kids with late birthdays get pushed back a grade, so they’re older than most of their classmates. Because they’re a few months older and thus more physically mature, they’re better hockey players as kids.

And because they’re better players, they get better coaching. And more attention, all the way to the National Hockey League.

But some find fault with Gladwell’s analysis. And, of course, scientists have long argued over the most important part of becoming an elite performer. Is it talent, or it is practice?

And, as you might imagine, they can’t agree on anything.

Journalist Benedict Carey, in a freshly written piece, reviews the seminal 1993 study on the subject in which researchers said practice made up the biggest difference between elite performers and dedicated amateurs.

In a new study, Carey points out -- the most detailed research ever done on the subject -- that scientists came to a different conclusion.

 “We found that, yes, practice is important, and of course it’s absolutely necessary to achieve expertise,” said one author of the new paper. “But it’s not as important as many people have been saying” compared to inborn gifts.

Proponents of both theories even argue, as scientists often tend to do, about what is real practice and what is -- how can we say this? -- practice that basically kills time.

The argument gets a little too esoteric for me, but does include the revealing fact that people who practice seriously and achieve extraordinary results work on lots of different skills during one session, going back and forth between them, rather than just perfecting one narrow skill -- say, a particular chord on a piano keyboard.

I fall into the “if you ain’t very good to start with, you’re still not going to be great, no matter how hard you practice” school.

I could sit down on a piano bench next to the world’s greatest instructor and practice 12 hours a day, seven days a week for several months, and I would still be a piano dunce.

I’ve been running for 38 years, but even when I was younger, I could have trained under the tutelage of Olympic champions -- I could have worked myself to the point of exhaustion -- and I still never would have had a chance to run in the front of the pack with the Kenyans.

I could take painting classes with a world-class portrait artist and I’d never be able to produce an image that even remotely looked like my subject.

I could … well, you get the message.

If you have extraordinary, world-class talent in a particular area, you can hone and buff it to a fine luster. You can, perhaps, even become the best in the world at what you do.

But the rest of us? We just need to come to grips with the fact that with lots of practice, we might become pretty good at the things we enjoy.

And that’s not such a bad thing.

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