Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
Hi, Amelie's Hugh, and you're listening to Ted talks daily, today's talk features really fascinating research that cuts us all some slack.
What I mean is it turns out you can be a late bloomer in your chosen sport or skill or specialty, and it's actually better for you in a lot of ways. The talk is from journalist David Epstein at Ted Manchester in 20/20.
So I'd like to talk about the development of human potential, and I'd like to start with maybe the most impactful modern story of development. Many of you here have probably heard of the 10000 hours rule. Maybe you even model your own life after it. Basically, it's the idea that to become great in anything takes 10000 hours of focus practice. So you'd better get started as early as possible. The poster child for this story is Tiger Woods, whose father famously gave him a putter when he was seven months old.
At 10 months, he started imitating his father's swing at two. You can go on YouTube and see him on national television. Fast forward to the age of 21. He's the greatest golfer in the world. Quintessential ten hours story. Another that features in a number of best selling books is that of the three Polgar sisters whose father decided to teach them chess in a very technical manner from a very early age. And really, he wanted to show that with a head start and focus practice, any child could become a genius in anything.
And in fact, two of his daughters went on to become grand master chess players.
So when I became the science writer at Sports Illustrated magazine, I got curious if this 10000 hours rule is correct, then we should see that elite athletes get a head start in so-called deliberate practice. This is coached error, correction, focused practice, not just playing around. And in fact, when scientists study elite athletes, they see that they spend more time in deliberate practice. Not a big surprise when they actually track athletes over the course of their development.
The future elites actually spend less time early on in deliberate practice in their eventual sport. They tend to have what scientists call a sampling period where they try a variety of physical activities. They gain broad general skills. They learn about their interests and abilities and delay specializing until later than peers who plateau at lower levels. And so when I saw that, I said, gosh, that doesn't really comport with the ten thousand hours rule, does it? So I started to wonder about other domains that we associate with obligatory early specialization like music.
Turns out the patterns are often similar. This is research from a world class music academy. And what I want to draw your attention to is the exceptional musicians didn't start spending more time in deliberate practice than the average musicians until their third instrument. They, too, tended to have a sampling period. Even musicians we think of as famously precocious, like Yo-Yo Ma, he had a sampling period.
He just went through it more rapidly than most musicians do. Nonetheless, this research is almost entirely ignored and much more impactful is the first page of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where the author recounts assigning her daughter violin. Nobody seems to remember the part later in the book where her daughter turns to her and says, You picked it, not me, and largely quits. So having seen this sort of surprising pattern in sports and music, I started to wonder about domains that affect even more people like education.
And an economist found a natural experiment in the higher ed systems of England and Scotland. In the period he studied, the systems were very similar. Except in England, students had to specialise in their middle years to pick a specific course of study to apply to ours in Scotland. They could keep trying things in university if they wanted to, and his question was who wins the trade off the early or the late specialisms? And what he saw was that the early specialisms jump out to an income lead because they have more domain specific skills.
The late specialisms get to try more different things. And when they do pick, they have better fit or what economists call match quality. And so their growth rates are faster. By six years out, they erased that income gap. Meanwhile, the early specialisms start quitting their career tracks in much higher numbers, essentially because they were made to choose so early that they more often made poor choices. So the late specialisms losing the short term and win in the long run.
I think if we thought about career choice like dating, we might not pressure people to settle down quite so quickly. So this got me interested seeing this pattern again in exploring the developmental backgrounds of people whose work I had long admired, like Duke Ellington, who shunned music lessons as a kid to focus on baseball and painting and drawing, or Maryam Mirzakhani, who wasn't interested in math as a girl, dreamed of becoming a novelist and went on to become the first and so far only woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in the world.
In math, Vincent Van Gogh had five different careers, each of which he deemed his true calling before flaming out spectacularly and in his late twenties, picked up a book called The Guide to the ABCs of Drawing that worked out OK.
Claude Shannon was an electrical engineer at the University of Michigan who took a philosophy course just to fulfill a requirement. And in it he learned about a near century old system of logic. It was true, and false statements could be coded as ones and zeros and solved like math problems. This led to the development of binary code, which underlies all of our digital computers. Today, finally, my own sort of role model, Frances Hesselbein. She took her first professional job at the age of 54, went on to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts, which she saved.
She tripled minority membership at at one hundred and thirty thousand volunteers, one of the proficiency badges that came out of her tenure. It's binary code for girls learning about computers. Today, Francis runs a leadership institute where she works every weekday in Manhattan. And she's only 104, so who knows what's next? We never really hear developmental stories like this, do we? We don't hear about the research that found that Nobel laureate scientists are 22 times more likely to have a hobby outside of work.
As our typical scientists, we never hear that even when the performers of the work is very famous, we don't hear these developmental stories. For example, here's an athlete I've followed now. He tried some tennis, some skiing, wrestling. His mother was actually a tennis coach, but she declined to coach him because he wouldn't return balls. Normally, he did some basketball, table tennis, swimming. When his coaches wanted to move him up a level to play with older boys, he declined because he just wanted to talk about pro wrestling after practice with his friends.
And he kept trying more. Sports, handball, volleyball, soccer, badminton, skateboarding. So who is this dabbler?
Roger Federer. Every bit as famous as an adult as Tiger Woods. And yet even tennis enthusiasts don't usually know anything about his developmental story. Why is that? Even though it's the norm?
I think it's partly because the Tiger story is very dramatic, but also because it seems like this tidy narrative that we can extrapolate to anything that we want to be good at in our own lives. But that, I think, is a problem because it turns out that in many ways, golf is a uniquely horrible model of almost everything that humans want to learn.
Golf is the epitome of what the psychologist Robin Hogarth called a kind of learning environment. Kind learning environments have next steps and goals that are clear, rules that are clear and never change. When you do something, you get feedback that is quick and accurate. Work next year will look like work. Last year, chess also a learning environment. The Grand Masters advantage is largely based on knowledge of recurring patterns, which is also why it's so easy to automate on the other end of the spectrum are wicked learning environments where next steps and goals may not be clear, rules may change.
You may or may not get feedback when you do something. It may be delayed, it may be inaccurate and work next year may not look like work last year. So which one of these sounds like the world we're increasingly living in? In fact, our need to think in an adaptable manner and to keep track of interconnecting parts has fundamentally changed our perception. So here we are in the wicked work world and they're sometimes hyper specialization can backfire badly. For example, in research in a dozen countries that matched people for their parents years of education, their test scores, their own years of education.
The difference was some got career focused education and some got broader general education. The pattern was those who got the career focused education are more likely to be hired right out of training, more likely to make more money right away, but so much less adaptable in a changing work world that they spend so much less time in the workforce overall that they win in the short term and lose in the long run. Or consider a famous twenty year study of experts making geopolitical and economic predictions.
The worst forecasters were the most specialized experts, those who'd spent their entire careers studying one or two problems and came to see the whole world through one lens or mental model.
Some of them actually got worse as they accumulated experience and credentials. The best forecasters were simply bright people with wide ranging interests. Now, in some domains like medicine, increasing specialization has been both inevitable and beneficial, no question about it. And yet it's been a double edged sword. A few years ago, one of the most popular surgeries in the world for knee pain was tested in a placebo controlled trial. Some of the patients got sham surgery. That means the surgeons make an incision.
They bang around like they're doing something. Then they saw the patient back up that performed just as well. And yet surgeons who specialize in the procedure continue to do it by the millions. So if hyper specialization isn't always the trick in a wicked world, what is it that can be difficult to talk about? Sometimes it looks like meandering or zigzagging or keeping a broader view. It can look like getting behind. But I want to talk about what some of those tricks might be.
If we look at research on technological innovation, it shows that increasingly the most impactful patents are not authored by individuals who drilled deeper, deeper, deeper into one area of technology as classified by the US Patent Office, but rather by teams that include individuals who have worked across a large number of different technology classes and often merge things from different domains.
Someone whose work I've admired, who is sort of on the forefront of this, a Japanese man named Junpei Yokoi. You're quite didn't score well in his electronics exams at school. So he had to settle for a low tier job as a machine maintenance worker at a playing card company in Kyoto. He realized he wasn't equipped to work on the cutting edge, but that there was so much information easily available that maybe he could combine things that were already well known in ways that specialists were too narrow to see.
So he combined some well-known technology from the calculator industry with some well-known technology from the credit card industry and made handheld games. And they were hit and it turned this playing card company, which was founded in a wooden storefront in the 19th century into a toy and game operation. You may have heard of it. It's called Nintendo Jonquières Creative Philosophy, translated to lateral thinking with with technology, taking well-known technology and using it in new ways. And his magnum opus was the Gameboy technological joke in every way.
And it came out at the same time as color competitors from Sega and Atari. And it blew them away because Yokoi knew what his customers cared about wasn't color, it was durability, portability, affordability, battery life, game selection. So this breadth advantage holds in more subjective realms as well. In a fascinating study of what leads some comic book creators to be more likely to make blockbuster comics, a pair of researchers found that it was neither the number of years of experience in the field nor the resources of the publisher, nor the number of previous comics made.
It was the number of different genres that a creator had worked across, and interestingly, a broad individual could not be entirely replaced by a team of specialists. We probably don't make as many of those people as we could because early on they just look like they're behind and we don't tend to incentivize anything that doesn't look like a head start or specialization. In fact, I think in the well-meaning drive for a head start, we often even counterproductively short circuit, even the way we learn new material at a fundamental level.
In study last year, seventh grade math classrooms in the US were randomly assigned to different types of learning. Some got what's called bollocked practice.
That's like you get problem type A, A, BBB and so on. Progress is fast. Kids are happy, everything's great. Other classrooms got assigned to what's called interleaved practice.
That's like if you took all the problem types and threw them in a hat and drew them out at random, progress is slower. Kids are more frustrated. But instead of learning how to execute procedures, they're learning how to match a strategy to a type of problem. And when the test comes around, the interleave group blew the block practice group away wasn't even close. Now, I found a lot of this research deeply counterintuitive, the idea that a head start, whether in picking a career or a course of study or just in learning new material, can sometimes undermine long term development.
And naturally, I think there are as many ways to succeed as there are people. But I think we tend only to incentivize and encourage the tiger path when increasingly in a wicked world, we need people who travel the Roger path as well, or as the eminent physicists and mathematician and wonderful writer Freeman Dyson put it, as he said, for a healthy ecosystem, we need both birds and frogs.
Frogs are down in the mud seeing all the granular details. The birds are soaring up above, not seeing those details, but integrating the knowledge of the frogs. And we need both. The problem, Dyson said, is that we're telling everyone to become frogs. And I think in a wicked world, that's increasingly short sighted. Thank you very much. PR ex.