Practice, practice, practice

Yes, the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall. And the idea behind this 2016 Savage Chickens cartoon (thanks to Chris Waigl for bringing it to my attention):


Cognitively complex performances of all kinds — especially those that require creative fashioning for some audience or for the exigencies of the context — can be mastered only through long practice, the point of which is to automatize most aspects of the performance, which then do not require conscious attention, reflection, or decision-making in the moment, but leave room for that creative fashioning.

Although some simple skills can be acquired through mere repetition, all kinds of practice work better if  they’re engaged — intense, focused, even enjoyable. Meanwhile, for complex performances it’s going to take a lot of practice: the more cognitively complex the performance, the longer it takes to get really competent at it. Ten to fifty thousand hours, seven to ten years. For playing basketball, discovering the organization of social practices, ballet dancing, analyzing philosophical issues, playing and composing music, analyzing genetic mechanisms, writing fiction, revealing the mechanisms of population movements, creating computer languages, reviewing movies, playing chess, understanding the structure of a (natural) language, and much else.

Malcolm Gladwell, “Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule”, in the on-line New Yorker of 8/31/13:

Forty years ago, in a paper in American Scientist [Herbert A. Simon & William G. Chase, “Skill in Chess”, American Scientist 61 (1973) pp. 394-403], Herbert Simon and William Chase drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:

There are no instant experts in chess — certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…

In the years that followed, an entire field within psychology grew up devoted to elaborating on Simon and Chase’s observation — and researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks. After Simon and Chase’s paper, for example, the psychologist John Hayes looked at seventy-six famous classical composers and found that, in almost every case, those composers did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years. (The sole exceptions: Shostakovich and Paganini, who took nine years, and Erik Satie, who took eight.)

This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my [2008] book Outliers, when I wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second — and more crucially for the theme of Outliers — the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

Gladwell got it from Simon, who was also the inspiration for my poem — I had a previous career as an Occasional Poet in academic circles — for the 1990 “graduation dinner” at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, which begins:


And on Simon, from Wikipedia:

Herbert Alexander Simon (June 15, 1916 – February 9, 2001) was an American political scientist, with a Ph.D. in political science, whose work also influenced the fields of computer science, economics, and cognitive psychology. His primary research interest was decision-making within organizations and he is best known for the theories of “bounded rationality” and “satisficing”. He received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1978 and the Turing Award in computer science in 1975. His research was noted for its interdisciplinary nature and spanned across the fields of cognitive science, computer science, public administration, management, and political science. He was at Carnegie Mellon University for most of his career, from 1949 to 2001, where he helped found the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, one of the first such departments in the world.

Notably, Simon was among the pioneers of several modern-day scientific domains such as artificial intelligence, information processing, decision-making, problem-solving, organization theory, and complex systems.

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