When I was a kid we had a pool table in the basement. It barely fit. We only had enough room to maneuver the stick when the cue ball happened to be near the middle of the table. The pool table didn't have a slate bed. That would have been expensive. Our family liked bargains. One of our home court advantages was the knowledge that hitting a ball slowly along the North side meant the ball would roll to the edge and cling all the way to the pocket.

I played about a billion hours of pool on that table, mostly by myself when bored. There wasn't much else to do on a freezing winter night in Windham NY. We only had three channels on TV and I did my homework at school.

As an adult, I realized my dream of getting a nice pool table. Thanks to my many hours of childhood practice, I don't often lose. The exception is when I run into someone who also grew up in a cold climate and had a pool table.

Pool is a game in which there is a nearly perfect correlation between how much you have played during your life and how good you are. I sometimes joke that instead of playing actual games I could just compare my number of hours of lifetime practice to my opponent's and declare a winner. Research shows this is essentially true for all sorts of skills.


So you would think that the secret to success is to practice more than your competition. But it's never that simple. In order to put in that much practice you need the opportunity, such as having a pool table in your basement*. But you also need some sort of passion, or drive, or OCD to put in the time. Where does that come from?

Personally, I have felt the compulsion to practice particular skills dozens of times in my life. It happened with ping pong, drawing comics, tennis, computer programming, and other things. Practicing these skills always felt like something I couldn't stop if I wanted to. The attraction was so strong that it felt like OCD. The only reason I wasn't treated for my afflictions is that the activities to which I was drawn (no pun) were socially acceptable.

It makes me wonder if the passion part of our brains will ever be manipulated by drugs so that passionless people get just enough OCD to obsessively practice something until they get good at it.

* Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, talks about the importance of opportunity. It's a great read.

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Jan 24, 2010
i need that drug. i can't focus on anything productive.
Jul 5, 2009
"Outliers" was a decent book, but I felt it lacked in its conclusion. It felt like it just ended on his personal note, as if he felt guilty of his success, analyzed the ecology of how he got there, and then wrote the beginning of the book to support his hypothesis and soothe his conscience. Don't get me wrong, I think he's dead right when it comes to determining the origins of success (or at least he's a lot closer than anyone else); Outliers just needed a more definitive conclusion.
Jan 13, 2009
I kept a diary of how much work it took to get very good at golf. It took me 11 years of hard practice to be a scratch golfer. I hit over 800 range balls per week, yes, over 450,000 balls, practiced the short game about 14 hours per week, played at least 3 rounds of golf every week. During a 3 year period, I played 845 rounds of golf. I played 36 even 45 holes per day often. In all, I played 1,933 rounds of golf during those 11 years. The bottom line to become very good at anything, you have to pay a price most people would never withstand.
Jan 10, 2009
I think you're digging into something that is very commonplace in Asian culture. The masses of people with socially acceptable OCD wouldn't have the time/need to demand an overly luxurious life. Although the spreading of American culture into Asia is changing the landscape dramatically. My relatives now all demand cars, redundant furniture, electronics and the such just like my wife and kids.
Jan 9, 2009
There is no question a sample of highly capable people will consist mostly of those who practiced the most as most people are capable of improving through practice at similar rates to each other. It's a bell curve - theres always outliers at either end when you consider the "ability to improve in x amount of time". So that means that people who improve faster need less practice than those who improve slower to achieve the same capability. Couple this with Parkinsons law and you find that people generally only practice as much as they need to be competitive (i.e. enough to simply get a little better than the people they compete against directly). Talented people do compete against themselves (bettering their times etc), but it only does so much - consider the 100m sprinter who famously slowed down at the end cos he'd already won.

There's bound to be someone somewhere with a latent talent to improve dramatically at golf so that they could beat Tiger Woods within 15 years practice compared to his 20 if he is simply well practiced rather than a fast golf learner (I don't know which he is). And others who would need 50 years practice.

The student will surpass the master.

I read somewhere else that simply thinking about lifting weights made your biceps stronger, and thinking about basketball made you a better player - so its often not even physical practice thats necessary.
Jan 9, 2009
Could you not find an article more recent than 14 years old to cite as proof of your theory?
Yes practice and hard work can pay off. But remember it also takes intelligence to determine if you are practicing the most effective way. Great athletes are constantly reevaluating their game and practice habits to determine if they are being efficient in achieving their goals. After all there are only so many hours in a day. Practicing a bad golf swing will not make you a better golfer, it will only make it harder to change your swing into a proper one.
Jan 9, 2009
toonmonitor appears to be a random word generator. WTF?
Jan 8, 2009
I recently read Yvonne Chouinard's book "Let My People Surf". In case you don't know who this is; Yvonne is a pioneer in rock climbing, inventor of climbing gear, environmentalist and of course creator and owner of Patagonia. In his book he states he is an 80% person. The quick and dirty of this is that he enjoys learning about 80% of everything he does. He says he is an 80% kayaker, meaning better than most but not in the elite. This allows him time to have broad interests, see things from multiple points of view, and have the most fun in life.

The classic surfing quote is "The best surfer in the water, well, the one who is having the most fun!" I envision that the life of a professional ice skater (or the parent of said skater) is a hellish nightmare most of the time with a few hours of glory a year. I think I will stick to Yvonne's 80% attitude and enjoy the heck out of life.

You know what they call the med student who floated through school with all B's? Doctor.

Jan 8, 2009
Very interesting comment Scott. Would it be possible to program your slow-loading Beta blog to default the comment view to "ascending" rather than "descending" order. I may not be the only one who prefers to read from the beginning. Just a thought.
Jan 8, 2009
I think practicing a lot can make you good, but there is no guarantee that it will make you the best or even successful (wealthy, famous, lactose tolerant, etc.). I think there are guys who practiced as much as Michael Phelps. But he was just built for swimming. Some factors are beyond your control. Practice will make you better and increase your odds of success, but I think only to a point.
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Jan 8, 2009
It's also about getting the right kind of practice.

For example, I played a lot of video games when I was a kid. But I didn't know how lousy I was at them until I started playing multilayer games against my friends. And I didn't get really good at one particular game until I played against the guy who all he did all day was sit around playing it.

My point is, if I've never played pool in my life, practicing against you will be much more worthwhile than practicing against my rich neighbor who bought the pool table but has only had time to play it twice.
Jan 8, 2009
My OCD helps me be a better programmer. Only OCD would drive someone to spend hours running code over and over again with very slight tweaks to test every possible outcome.

But I also found, a few years ago, that I could apply my OCD to skiing. After learning to ski, I got addicted to the adrenaline. But my OCD helped me practice relentlessly to get good at it. Anyone can get an adrenaline rush from skiing completely out of control. But with OCD you can perfect the very fine movements it requires to get control and really enjoy it.

The downside of OCD: if I can't get obsessed about something, I lose interest completely and stop doing it.
Jan 8, 2009
About a decade ago, I started studying a foreign language (one of those east Asian ones that are excruciatingly difficult to read and write), and for some reason was motivated to keep after it diligently for several years. I ended up getting really good at it and it has lead to employment and all kinds of other good things.

Whenever people ask me how best to go about learning a language, I tell them to work hard at it for several years. Unless I found a new compulsion like I had before, I don't think I could repeat the feat.
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Jan 8, 2009
For me it is fishing. Being from Massachusetts means suffering a lot to fish, sometimes to the degree that only a compulsion can explain why we do it. The open Atlantic is cold and windy, especially in late fall and early spring. When it comes to early December and late March my friend and I often wonder if there is a pill that would makes us stop, but we still go out. To us, a small craft advisory means the National Weather Service and the Coast Guard are stating that it is a good time to fish.
Jan 8, 2009
I regularly take a drug that helps me practice dancing and laughing. I think I've almost perfected the craft.
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Jan 8, 2009
> I have felt the compulsion to practice particular skills dozens of times in my life. It happened with... drawing comics

I'm still waiting for all of your practice to finally pay off.
Jan 8, 2009
I had a friend in high school (in a hot climate) who after we all went away for college claimed he was a regular pool shark. He hung out in pool halls all evening winning bets. He was all excited about playing me even though I could count on one hand how many times I had played in my life.

Well, long story short, I absolutely mopped the floor with the guy. He might have gotten in 2 or 3 balls tops. His excuse? I didn't really know how to play pool. As an engineering major I knew how to use physics and angles and such to get the balls in the pockets.

Yeah, Michael Phelps also can't swim, just knows how to push himself against water.
Jan 8, 2009
As a species, diversity is strength, so we need people who are (functioning) OCD and people with no drive.

Of course that also gives us a perfect excuse for any of our shortcomings - I'm filling a niche that rounds out the diversity of the species. My laziness is essential - you should be grateful.
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