Friday, January 6, 2017

Updating Ericsson, and Whatever Happened to Dan McLaughlin?

Some years ago I posted a few remarks about K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University:  Ericsson Put to the Test and Practical Benefits of Philosophy:    4. The Question.  Ericsson caused a bit of a stir when he announced that inborn talent had almost nothing to do with determining one's peak level of performance in just about anything.  “The traditional view of talent, which concludes that successful individuals have special innate abilities and basic capacities, is not consistent with the reviewed evidence," he says.  Rather, "[t]he differences between expert performers and normal adults are not immutable, that is, due to genetically prescribed talent. Instead, these differences reflect a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance."

Ericsson also maintained that not just any kind of effort produces expert performance; rather, you must apply yourself to what Ericsson calls "deliberate practice." Deliberate practice is long-term effort specifically focused on improving your performance, that is, it is designed to "stretch[] yourself beyond what you can currently do,” provides feedback on results from an expert and involves high levels of repetition.  

Ericsson then makes the bold claim that 10,000 hours of this sort of deliberate practice will make anyone an expert in any field.

Which brings us to Dan McLaughlin and The Dan Plan.  Dan wanted to test Ericsson's proposition.  He took an activity that he had never done before -- golf -- and proceeded to vigorously follow Ericsson's deliberate practice strategy.  His plan was to log 30-plus hours a week until he hit the magic 10,000 hour milestone by October of 2016.   His ultimate goal was to obtain a PGA TOUR card.

In the meantime, other psychologists have challenged Ericsson's theory.  Mostly, they argue that the interplay between talent and effort is far more complex than Ericsson asserts.  Zach Hambrick worked with Ericsson as a graduate student at Florida State in 1996.  He and Ericsson grew close; Hambrick became an admirer.  “It was fantastic. Wonderful, inspiring conversations,” Hambrick recalls.  So, when Hambrick left Florida State, he continued the research into the effects of practice verses talent. 
Only, his research showed that talent not only counted, it counted a lot.  Practice still accounted for differences in performance, but innate talent counted more.  For example, pianists with better working memory -- a heritable trait -- were better at sight reading, and increased practice did not alter the effect.  Other studies, however, have shown that practice and effort can still make a sizable difference, along with talent.  Vanderbilt University has been conducting a longitudinal study of students who, at the age of thirteen, scored in the top one per cent of mathematical-reasoning ability.  So far, the study has revealed that, while many of the gifted students have excelled in academic accomplishment, patents, publications and organizational leadership, others have ended up with achievements indistinguishable from their less talented 13-year-old peers.  It seems that genes set the upper limit of performance, but without practice and effort, you'll never get there.  For all the details, see the New Yorker article PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT. And here, Hambrick weighs in by way of a Scientific American article. Is Innate Talent a Myth?

For an answer to Jim's question posed to Ericsson himself about whether the passion to work hard is something inherited or whether it can be 
developed by effort and resolve, the New Yorker article said this:

As it turns out, though, even work ethic may be heritable. Hambrick has recently published a study on the heritability of practice, using eight hundred pairs of twins. “Practice is actually heritable. There have now been two reports of this—ours, and one using ten thousand twins. And practice is substantially heritable.”
So, that leaves the question, whatever happened to Dan McLaughlin?  That, I discovered is a bit of a mystery.  Initially, I found no internet news articles whatsoever on Dan's progress to date.  So, I decided to go directly to his website, The Dan Plan. Ominously, his blog ends abruptly on November 23, 2015. No less mysteriously, Dan's "Countdown to 10,000!" page ends without warning or explanation at the week of April 27 to May 2, 2015.  The Dan Plan Countdown.  And then, after much searching, I found this obscure article, Post Mortem on the Dan Plan, that said that Dan has abandoned the plan and moved on to selling artisanal sodas in Portland, Oregon.  I wasn't sure about the reliability of this website, but I tracked down another article about the soda company where Dan is supposed to be working and, sure enough, his name and picture are right there. Bubble Rap: Talking Artisanal Soda with Portland Soda Works. 

If you believe the "Post Mortem" article, Dan's apparent failure was due to his abandonment of the Ericsson deliberate practice regimen.  From his blog, however, it looks like Dan was sidelined by chronic back pain and the fact that he was running out of money.   In any event, I don't think Ericsson will be citing McLaughlin's experiment in any of his upcoming papers.

Incidentally, as the New Yorker article points out, Ericsson has not budged from his initial thesis, except to concede that inherited traits of body size and height may affect performance.  (He has also admitted that starting your deliberate practice late in life may also limit performance.)  He told the author of the New Yorker article, “I have no problem conceptually with this idea of genetic differences, but nothing I’ve seen has convinced me this is actually the case. There’s compelling evidence that if it’s length of bones, that cannot be explained by training. We know you can’t influence diameter of bones. But that’s really it.”

One last personal point.  There may well be some ultimate genetic barrier for each of us in any given skill, but how relevant is it?  There is also probably also some absolute maximum speed human beings as a species can run set by our genes, but the mile record keeps steadily dropping.   So, whatever it is, we haven't reached it yet.

My guess is that individuals likewise rarely if ever reach their personal genetic limit that couldn't be improved upon at least somewhat.  I used  to work with a very fine attorney who said that he had done nothing in his career -- write a brief, deliver an argument, conduct a cross examination, you name it -- that he couldn't have done better.  So, it seems to me, that mostly the barriers we encounter are not genetic ones but those that result from a lack of effort and focus.  At least, that's how I experience it.  Of course, if our willingness to work is genetically determined, we have a built in excuse. 


James R said...

Perhaps Dan wasn't genetically suited for the plan. According to the cited article, Dan apparently is "a really nice guy" and an artist, rather than an obsessive worker toward excellence. Also, it seems like he didn't get the best golf training in the world. Studies, like life, seem always to be a bit messy.

Big Myk said...

If so, Dan accomplished his goal. He proved that Ericsson was wrong and level of performance is not just a matter of the right kind of practice.