Performance - Is it all genetic?

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Performance - Is it all genetic?

Postby Canuck Singh » Tue Dec 30, 2008 8:57 pm

Synopsis of Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.

In southern Alberta, Canada, in the mid 1980's. Psychologist Roger Barnsley was attending a junior hockey game with his wife when they noticed something a little spooky about the program: For some reason, there were a disproportionately large number of January, February, and March birth dates.

Barnsley went home that night and looked up the birth dates of as many junior and professional Canadian hockey players as he could find and he saw the same pattern. More players were born in January than any other month. The second most frequent birth month? February. The third? March.

In fact, there were almost five and a half times as many players born in January as were in November.

In fact, when he looked at any elite group of hockey players, 40 percent of the absolute best were born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December.

Here's a hint: in Canada, the eligibility cut-off date for any junior division of hockey is January 1st. That means that if you turned 10 on January 2nd, you'll be playing with some boys that don't turn 10 until the end of that year, which constitutes an enormous difference in physical maturity. They are Nelson Muntz compared to Milhouse.

Nine or ten is also the age at which coaches start picking hockey all-star teams. Invariably, the comparatively older, bigger players are picked. Those players get better coaching, they get to play against better players, and perhaps most importantly, they get to play in 50 or 75 games instead of 20.

The same sequence invariably occurs as they move from age division to age division, league to league.

What starts out as a small but distinct advantage snowballs year after year, until those that were born earlier in the year are almost invariably much, much better.

Football and basketball don't select, stream, and differentiate to the same degree as hockey, but baseball does.

The cutoff for nonschool baseball leagues is July 31st. and more players are born in August than any other month. In 2005, there were 505 major leaguers born in August, compared with 313 in July.

You can find the same temporal injustice occurring in European soccer. In England, the cutoff date is September 1st, and at one point in the 1990's, 288 players were born between September and November and only 136 were born between June and August.

Likewise, in international soccer, the cuff date used to be August 1st and in one recent Junior World Championship, 135 players were born in the three months after August 1st and only 22 were born in May, June, and July.

Unfortunately, these temporal death zones aren't the exclusive purview of sport; a big one also dogs our educational system.


Again, kids who are born in the early part of the year are lumped in with those that were born in the summer, fall, or winter of that year. The older kids are put in an advanced stream where they learn better skills and the next year, because they're in a more advanced group, they do even better. What starts out as a small advantage persists, year after year.

Teachers invariably confuse comparative maturity with ability, and kids are locked into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on.

As evidence, Gladwell points to a study of 4-year colleges in the United States where students in the youngest group are under-represented by 11.6 percent!

This lopsided success rate demonstrated by the older students is called "accumulative advantage" by sociologists, and it's a kind of cold, sterile term for those millions of potential superstars that were pushed into athletic or academic oblivion just because of a silly, arbitrary bureaucratic whim based on the calendar.

The main reason all this "accumulative advantage" ends up damaging the prospects of millions of kids around the world has partly to do with the 10,000-hour rule.

In the 1990's, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson conducted an experiment with the Berlin Academy of Music. He divided the school's violinists into three groups: the elite, the good, and those that were unlikely to ever play professionally.

All of the kids had started playing when they were 5 years old, but what divided them, aside from ability, was simply how many hours each had spent practicing. The really good ones had totaled 10,000 hours of practice, while the good ones had only managed to squeak away on the catgut for 8,000 hours or so.

The underachievers? Just 4,000 hours of practice.

The most surprising thing was that they really couldn't find any "naturals." Nor could they find any grinders, people who just worked harder than everybody else but just didn't have the talent to become elite.

The thing that distinguished one from another was simply hard work, nothing else.

But the weird thing is that 10,000 hours — roughly the amount of practice a truly committed devotee could accrue over 10 year — keeps popping up in different fields. Whether you're a writer, a concert pianist, a basketball player, computer programmer, or chess master, true greatness seems to pivot on that magic number.

Gladwell notes only one exception: Chess player Bobby Fisher, who took only nine years to achieve Chess Master status.

The Beatles are an old-fogey rock band anachronism to most modern music lovers, but few would probably deny their influence on the world's music. Interestingly, the Beatles were afforded certain circumstances that allowed them to become great.

Early in their career, before anybody had heard of them, they got the opportunity to fly from their England homes to Hamburg, Germany, where a club owner had gotten the idea to have bands play non-stop music.

And play non-stop the Beatles did, for seven days a week, eight hours a night. They made five trips to Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. By the time they had their initial taste of success, they'd performed live approximately 1200 times, which is extraordinary in that most bands never play live 1200 times over their entire careers.

Writer Philip Norman, who wrote the Beatles' biography Shout, explained in this way:

"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 and roll, a bit of jazz too. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them."

There it was again, hours of practice accrued equates to success. Nothing magical. The more psychologists in Gladwell's book looked at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

Those hockey, baseball, and soccer players who weren't good enough to make it? They might have been too young to compete with older, more physically mature players, so they weren't picked to all-star teams, didn't get the extra coaching, never got close to hitting 10,000 hours of practice by the time the professional teams came around looking for players.

One can't help but wonder how many Gretzkys, A-Rods, or Ronaldos got left behind because of the calendar. One wonders how many Einsteins, Steve Jobses, or Bill Gateses got lumped in with the "less mature" students.

Gladwell encapsulates the problem thusly:

"Because we so profoundly, personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those that succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail."

The answer might be that often, your perceived failures might not be so much genetic as they are sociological, might not be so physiological as the are psychological, and armed with that knowledge, maybe you can motivated and help the budding development of that young person.
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