David Epstein – 10,000: The Most Dangerous Number in Sports

This morning David Epstein gave a great keynote, see below:

So I decided to attend his follow up talk too.

The problem with the 10.000 hours is that it is only looking at the top performers. It’s like looking at people already in the NBA, asking them how much they practiced but disregarding that they are 2 meters in average length.

Interestingly, when comparing top performers to sub-elite, the top performers practice less when they are younger:

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A very interesting story about the right type of practice is when Barry Bonds (a famous baseball player) tried to hit a ball pitches by softball player Jenny Finch. He expected to be able to easily hit it, as women throw slower. Turns out, he really sucked at it!

Why? Turns out that baseball hitters do not have a better reaction speed than the average guy. This is because human reaction time is just not quick enough to react when the ball is already thrown. In order to be able to hit a ball, you have to know it is going to be thrown. Baseball players learn this by looking at the muscles of the thrower, by knowing different throwing strategies. But these ‘tells’ are very different in softball players, so facing Jenny Finch, Barry Bonds was useless!

The same holds for chess players. In the 80s, a study was done where chess players had to memorize chess board setups, and they could do that in 3 seconds. Recently, the study was repeated, but this time it included chess boards with random setups. Turned out, chess players weren’t better at this than average people! They can remember chess setups better, because they have trained to recognize meaningful patterns.

The conclusion is: Best best right away isn’t important! So what is going on in the graph above?

The elite are trying different things (sports, instruments) The specialization happens later, when they have found the right sport. On the other hand, the sub-top is being pushed by the 10.000 hours rule, usually on the first thing they try.

Conclusion of the whole talk is more general than sports: Find the thing in the world that you can be the top performer in, and THEN put in the work.

Awesome talk!