Practice Makes Perfect, If Your Genes Play Along

Practice Makes Perfect, If Your Genes Play Along

Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise. I wrote a column (for a different publication) espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule — and much of “Outliers” along with it.The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro — even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016.

Epstein’s book suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.

Genetic Clues

If 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is necessary and sufficient for world-class performance, Epstein asks, why do some people reach the master level in chess after 3,000 hours while others require 23,000? The average number of hours needed for many pros may be about 10,000, but it varies widely.

The reason for the variation is genetic, Epstein says. In one study, researchers at Indiana University, University of Minnesota, Texas A&M University, Washington University, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and Laval University in Quebec measured changes in VO2 max, an indicator of aerobic capacity, in people who followed a strict exercise regimen. About 5 percent of participants boosted their VO2 max levels by an astonishing 40 to 50 percent. Another 5 percent, however, saw almost no gain at all, and the rest fell in between.

The clincher was that, although a subject’s rate of improvement had little to do with how fit he or she was to start with, members of a family showed somewhat similar gains. The rate of improvement varied 2 1/2 times as much between families as within families, highlighting the importance of genes in determining how much improvement occurred. As one of the researchers told Epstein, “Unfortunately for the low responders in these studies, the predetermined (genetic) alphabet soup just may not spell ‘runner.’”

The research does not suggest that genes are dominant and training is irrelevant; instead, it says that the benefit from training is partially driven by genetics, so that a combination is required for top performance.

Consider professional baseball players. A batter needs years of practice to recognize subtle clues about pitches and thereby have a better chance of hitting them. This is why even the best baseball players tend not to hit well when they face softball pitchers; their accumulated clues are of little use.

Yet professional batters also tend to have extremely good vision — they can see the small nuances in a pitcher’s delivery to begin with. One study of minor and major league baseball players found that their average vision measures 20/13, which means they can read a letter at 20 feet that a normal person could make out only at 13 feet. To see how rare this is, consider that, in a large sample of eye tests from China, vision better than 20/17 occurred in only 1 in 200 people.

Finding Variations

Epstein says that the specific genes and attributes associated with high performance vary from sport to sport (raising the question of whether his book should be more appropriately titled “The Sports Genes”). Basketball players tend not only to be tall, but also to have long arm spans. In a controversial theory, Epstein suggests a disproportionate share of sprinters and jumpers carry sickle-cell trait and/or low hemoglobin, which may have evolved as protections against malaria and are harmful for aerobic activity but may boost fast-twitch muscle fibers. High jumpers tend to have very long Achilles tendons. And so on.

Ultimately, Epstein’s book is consistent with the literature about IQ. Neither athletic nor intellectual performance is solely a matter of nature or nurture. Instead, the two interact. We can all improve with practice, but some will see will bigger gains than others.

(Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.)

To contact the writer of this article: Peter Orszag at

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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