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Complexity

I don’t believe in innate talent. I’ve never seen it in a student, and I have noticed no correlation between early successes in training and long-term achievement. But you can draw a linear relationship between hours spent in class and acknowledged skill. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is my sort-of-ex-student (in that he has gone on to set up his own independent school) Ilkka Hartikainen. Round about the time he was developing an international reputation for his Bolognese research, we co-incidentally did a review of attendance data. Turns out that my star student had 50% more class time logged than the next-keenest student. A clear indication that his effort, not some genetic predisposition to historical swordsmanship, was the underlying cause of his success, as I'm sure he'd agree. This is as it should be. I see no point in engaging in any sort of activity where genetic factors are the prime determinant of success. And everybody now knows (or should do!) about the 10,000 hour rule, which indicates that ten thousand hours of dedicated practice (not just going through the motions), is needed for mastery in any complex field. A major component of my job is to ensure that the time students spend in class is actually dedicated practice, not just swinging a sword about.

This always begs the question though, of what is complexity? In what areas does this rule apply, and where does it not? In one lecture I gave on this subject, someone who clearly felt threatened by the idea that it’s effort, not talent, that generates expertise, asked me if it took 10,000 hours to master blinking. The best definition I have so far come across for complexity in this context is in Matthew Syed’s Bounce, the subtitle of which is bang on the money: the myth of talent and the power of practice. He says (on p48 of the 2011 Fourth Estate paperback edition):

“…complexity… describes those tasks characterised by combinatorial explosion; tasks where success is determined, first and foremost, by superiority in software (pattern recognition and sophisticated motor programs) rather than hardware (simple speed or strength).

The usual example of a pursuit characterised by combinatorial explosion is chess. 32 men on 64 squares leads to more possible game permutations than there are atoms in the universe. But from our perspective, chess is simple! It doesn’t matter how you place your knight on the board, just where. Slam it down or place it silently, makes no difference. Likewise, there is only one desired result: checkmate. There are no nuances or degrees. You can win, lose, or draw. We can learn much from the paths to mastery that top chess players have used (e.g. Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning), but in terms of breadth, chess is sadly lacking. In addition to the complexities of tactics that chess players use, we can add depth and breadth of research, skills of motor execution (not smashing up cars, performing the physical movements of the art), levels of control allowing a choice of outcomes (kill, wound, capture, evade etc.) and so on. Even if someone suffers from severe physical disability, there is nothing stopping them from mastering an area of this art to a degree that puts them at the top of their part of this giant field.

There are many insights in Syed’s book that will no doubt make their way into this blog at some point (he has a lovely section on double-think, for instance, and another on the necessity of consistent execution of basic actions, for another instance), but I’ll leave you with this thought: The only thing that stands between you and mastery of the art of arms is the amount of dedicated practice you are willing to put into it.

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

2 Responses

  1. Pingback: Curricula and coaching, and the formation of a Fiore practice group | Lonin

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