A child playing the trumpet at a public event. Photo: Getty Images
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When it comes to expertise, 10,000 hours of practice isn’t enough

Contrary to popular opinion, practicing a musical instrument or a sport for thousands of hours isn’t enough to produce a Mozart or a Maradona – though it still helps.

What distinguishes a few exceptional talents from a mediocre majority? Is it hours upon hours of monotonous dedication to perfecting a skill? Or is it rather an innate gift, like a natural ability or talent?

The nature versus nurture debate as applied to intelligence and expertise is not new. Since the mid-1800s scientists have been questioning whether experts are “born” or “made”. Sir Francis Galton, the 19th-century founder of the field of behavioral genetics, proposed that experts are born to be experts. He believed that ultimately our innate abilities limit the level of performance an individual can achieve, and practice is only necessary for reaching an expert level of performance. Yet later mid-20th century psychologists - like John Watson, one of the founders of behaviourism - denied innate abilities or the existence of talent, and instead proposed that practicing more intensively than others is probably the only reasonable explanation for success and accomplishment.

An alternative theory, called ‘deliberate practice’, has become more popular in recent years thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's popular book, Outliers. It suggests that an accumulated amount of practice reflects expert performance. In other words, the more you practice, the better you become. Gladwell also popularised the “10,000-hour rule”- that is, the suggestion that practicing any skill for 10,000 hours is sufficient to make you an expert.

However, a new study published in Psychological Science suggests otherwise. A team of sceptical psychologists has challenged the fashionable deliberate practice theory by testing whether it's supported by experimental evidence. The results make it clear that 10,000 hours of practice is not a guarantee of expertise in every field.

The researchers from Princeton University, led by psychologist Brooke Macnamara, conducted a meta-analysis of the available scientific literature on deliberate practice in music, sports, educations, games and professions. A meta-analysis is a kind of "study of studies", where scientists try to look at the big picture in a field and reconcile the findings of multiple studies from different teams around the world. While the implications of a single study on deliberate practice might be only mildly useful, when statistically analysed with similar research it can give results that are much more definitive. Meta-analyses have been vital in proving that there is no link between vaccines and autism, for example.

The results showed that 26 per cent of the variance in individual performance for games could be explained by practice, dropping to 21 per cent for music and 18 per cent for sports. Interestingly, deliberate practice was shown to be far less important for education - a minuscule 4 per cent - and less than 1 per cent for professions (the study doesn't define what this is, but it appears to be business skills). [UPDATE: Thanks to Andy Fugard/@inductivestep for tweeting that there is a definition of "professions" hidden in the study's supporting materials - it's a category that includes four papers, on programming, football refereeing, insurance agents and pilot skills.]

Therefore, the findings confirmed the researchers' suspicions, demonstrating that overall, individual differences in expertise, skill or performance, was not considerably affected by the amount of practice accumulated over time. With individual practice explaining 26 per cent, 21 per cent and 18 per cent of the variance for some domains, it is important to note that it is not completely useless for domains such as games, music and sports. However, for the education and professional domains, practice seemed to have significantly less of an impact, begging the question - if practice doesn’t matter so much, what does?

The researchers concluded that more influential factors could perhaps include the age at which a person becomes involved in an activity, or cognitive abilities such as working memory. Perhaps it isn't that "practice makes perfect", but that "practice plus other factors makes perfect".

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.