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29 Sep 2014, 15:41

Don't even try, unless you have some sort of natural ability


There was an article on Slate recently, called Practice Does Not Make Perfect, the following is my response to that article.

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These sorts of articles really bug me. They might as well have titled it, “Don’t even try, unless you have some sort of natural ability”. That advice might play well for the handful of savants who are exceptionally good at something when they’re young, but doesn’t really mean anything for the rest of us. That some people have greater natural abilities than others seems so obvious that it is barely worth mentioning. You don’t need much experience in the world to bump into someone who is able to grasp certain things more quickly and easily than you.

However, the argument that encouraging practice harms society is asinine. This sort of thinking encourages is a sort of socioeconomic fatalism, where some people are destined to be the captains of industry, amazing scientists, or great artists. As opposed to encouraging people to devote their time and energy to reaching for their goals. Honestly, that socioeconomic fatalism is just about the most harmful paradigm that I can think of, and it has been pervasive enough, at least in my experience, to do anything and everything required to combat it.

This is not to say that hard work is all that it takes. But surely it’s not going to be as harmful as the author claims. Two quick examples. First, let’s say that someone wants to become a software engineer, and studies very hard, and does everything in their power that they can reasonably do to achieve that goal. However, after years of practice, they still don’t have the skills required to be a productive programmer in the field. Is this failure that harmful? Aren’t there a lot of things that you can do with that knowledge, that many cannot? Perhaps they can do QA, or documentation, or something that is perhaps not a core development job, but still takes a fair amount of technical understanding. By spending that time, the person put themselves in a much better position than they would have been not studying.

Another example is one that the author brought up, which is becoming a heart surgeon. Moving towards that goal is going to make you more and more qualified for all sorts of jobs that are not doing heart surgery, but that are living in that space, and requiring a knowledge of what is involved.

Again, this is not an excuse for societal differences, and I think that it’s also obvious that money, access, and opportunity play big roles in an individual’s success. In fact, Gladwell himself discusses some of these things in the same book that he talks about the 10,000 hours rule. One of the most important things is a person’s upbringing, and their views on authority. People from lower socioeconomic circles tend to be brought up to treat authority figures in a way that is more humble, thinking that they are not as good. Whereas those from a higher socioeconomic status tend to treat authority figures with respect, but more as equals. This small difference shapes the way that we think about the world, and how we handle the things that come our way. Shifting that world view is difficult and takes a lot of time. 

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