The USS Quad Damage

Super-achievement and dogma

There's something peculiar about the way you pay to save your soul and forfeit your dreams.

My brother is not a natural at the Guitar. I know this because I’ve had to listen to hour after hour of him trying to hit some notes. Slowly and deliberately, and he would do so with a quality so bad that even when he succeeded it sounded terrible. Year after year, I would hear him incessantly pluck, hammer, and strum his mediocre fingers to play something which sounded terrible.

Ann Hulbert argues that K. Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” rule, and the many self help books that it helped spawn, has a dark side. Her key complaint:

Even as these books debunk the romantic and elitist belief in “giftedness,” they don’t always do realistic justice to the grunt work they champion.

I cannot comment on the books. I haven’t read them, only a little about the rule, and how it bears out in my own life. You see, the way Ann frames her problem is what I take issue with. She makes not a dent in the “10,000 hour rule”, rather highlights some of the problems in society today, and the way they beat the mind into submission.

First, she talks about “adult pushiness” and the 10,000 hours. That is, that parents will make their kids do some shit and their kids will become naturals at it, and the fact that this is hard. In fact, if you spent pretty much every waking hour doing this thing, you would have to do it for 2 years. If you did it as a job, it would take 3 and a half years. Remember that this is not “being forced to do something”, it’s “effortful” study. The “effort” is something that comes from within. That is, it’s something where you are engaged. You cannot be made to do this.

The very idea that adults pushing kids to make up these hours will somehow cause these kids to become super-achievers is disingenuous. The kids will have to do this themselves, and all that their parents need to do is to not force them to stop. In fact, “stop doing that” seems to be a catch-cry of modern parents. Parents who are supportive of obsessed children are much more likely to see this “10,000 hours” success than parents who force their kids. In the end, these kids are more likely to be seen as “gifted” as opposed to kids who just happened to get in these crucial hours at a young enough age.

The second problem is the assertion that this obsession is “hard” or “rare”. When you look at kids, most seem to have it, even though it seems like their mind is flitting from idea to idea, they are merely putting ideas together. They are trying to learn something which the system they are using is unable to teach. You can actually see kids widening their interest, then honing down. If anything kills this this immense ability to concentrate its hyper-optimising parents, not that this ability is somehow rare.

My brother is not a natural at guitar, but over time he has become fluent. I believe that is ultimately the take home message from the Ericsson research.