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The Winning Formula

In Malcom Gladwell’s seminal book Outliers, the journalist posits the theory that ten-thousand hours of guided practice is all that is required to achieve expert proficiency. Dr. Brooke Macnamara and her team at Princeton think otherwise. Following her studies into the science of mastery, the scientist argues for a new understanding of mastery and the mysterious alchemy of genius.

Practice is essential, but what else matters?

Dr Brooke Macnamara


Human performance is complex. Some would argue that the paradigm of excellence is impossible to quantify by nature of the broad range of abilities and gene-environment interactions that distinguish one individual from the next. Still, there is no shortage of scientists and performance specialists who have attempted to decode the secret behind mastery and excellence.

According to one of the most popular studies on the subject, journalist Malcom Gladwell’s theory of mastery emphasised the importance of deliberate practice. Inheriting this idea from Dr Anders Ericsson, a Professor at the University of Colorado, Gladwell famously dismissed the notion that innate talent was the singular predictor for success . Instead, he asserted, beyond the arena of sports where predisposed genetic advantages such as height and body size was essential to performance, the “talent myth”  was a narrow, limiting mindset that ascribed ‘magical thinking’ to a set of capabilities of an otherwise complex algorithm of factors. Dr Brooke Macnamara, an associate professor of cognitive psychology at Princeton agrees. “Individual differences are really important and need to be considered,” Macnamara asserts. “The entire field is about that, there’s nothing that’s a general principle.”


In the early days of his career, legendary chess Grandmaster Magnus Carlsson was surprisingly, a poor chess player.  It was reported that after a few years of training, the young player was thrilled at having achieved a 1000 FIDE ranking – a beginner rank by the FIDE world ranking standards. However since the age of eight, Carlsson continued his daily regime of six hours daily practice and over the years, ascended through the ranks to become one of the most prominent figures in the sport. 

When considering the value of “deliberate practice” as put forward by Dr Ericcson and Gladwell, Macnamara argues that the understanding what ‘practice’ itself entails should be more nuanced in light of the myriad of factors to consider. Firstly, the more predictable the task, the fewer moving parts, and the more you can practice the same thing over and over again, and the more practice predicts success. As in the example of chess, it is a domain that offers good, objective measures of success and benefits from the repetition of a strategic framework. For other tasks that call for a unique creativity, this is where the rigid, repetitive aspect of “deliberate practice” falters.

“For example,” offers Macnamara, “ if you were an investigative journalist, most of your success would be based on instinct and building up a knowledge.” Experience, in this instance, holds more value than automated repetition. “In this instance, with experience you can get to know when people do this they tend to be lying or nervous, and that’s all learned. That can become crystallized knowledge that you can then draw from.”


Then there is the question of quality. Macnamara asserts that the quality of practice factors greatly in influencing the efficacy of training. When seeking expert guidance, the domain in which we receive instruction is paramount. “We know that some teachers and coaches are better than others, so it’s not just who is better,  but who is also a better fit for the individual that they’re trying to work with. Different individuals will respond differently to different types of instruction or coaching. So again it becomes this very complex human problem”, shares Macnamara.


“I think hard work has become the popular perspective,” continues the Macnamara. “The way that people feel good and complement themselves is by the hardwork and effort that they put in.” However, in her studies, the scientist draws on examples of field interpreters to introduce the ephemeral quality of ability in our understanding of excellence.  Through her observation of a cross section of interpreters, she noticed that compared to those with over 20 years in the field, some younger interpreters were already considered experts where more experienced interpreters were overlooked. “Some people’s abilities might be so high that experience will gain them traction,” observes Macnamara, “and other people if their abilities are low, lots and lots of experience isn’t actually going to bring them up.”

“I grew up with people saying I was talented but not really believing it”, says Sarah Chang, a violin virtuoso and the youngest violinist to have debuted with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. With a career that has spanned two decades, the child prodigy remarks, “I think with 10,000 hours you can probably become good enough at something but I really do believe a huge percent of that is the talent that you’re born with.”


According to Macnamara, there are different types of gene environment interactions: passive, active and evocative. Passive interactions indicate, for example, smart parents passing their genes, and cultivating an environment conducive for intellectual learning.  Active interactions, can be found in examples whereby personal curiosity encourages an individual to seek out opportunities that align with their interests. Jovanka Zarić , a Soloist Ballerina at the National Theatre of Belgrade credits her parents for the success she has enjoyed in her career. “My father was a former professional basketball player and played a big role in me becoming a professional ballerina. The combination of my father’s athletic spirit and my mother’s artistic influence, created the perfect environment to grow up in.” In a country like The Dominican Republic where baseball is collectively encouraged, the evocative influence of environment  also encourages the development of talent. 

“ Talent is something that is really hard to pin down and research,” says Macnamara. “It’s part genes, part environment and not only an ability but desire. You might have a lot of talent, but if it’s not something that interests you, you’re not going to develop.” By definition, an expert is a rare breed of individual whose unlikely confluence of ability, chance and inclination has engineered an exceptional degree of capability in a given field. By nature of the unpredictability and unlikelihood of these circumstances, the complexity of this formula makes for the study of genius rare and intriguing.

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Sarah Chang

Sarah Chang is recognised as one of the world’s great violinists. Since her debut with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 8 she has performed with the greatest orchestras, conductors and accompanists internationally in a career spanning more than two decades. 

Follow @sarahchang

Tom Chilton

Tom Chilton is a British World Touring Car driver. At 19 he was the youngest race winner and has since gone on to take 12 wins, 45 podiums, the manufacturers title and the 2010 BTCC Independent Championship. In 2016 he joined forces with Sébastien Loeb Racing and in 2017 Tom secured the WTCC Trophy and also managed to finish the highest of any independent in WTCC history.

Follow  @tomchilton

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