As teachers and parents of the most highly gifted students, we often wish for an “answer manual” to guide us through the puzzles these children present us with. Fortunately, there is one answer we can count on, apparently universal and immutable. Therefore, it might actually apply to all gifted people. It leaves other, more ambiguous, questions unanswered, but at least we have this one rock to stand on.
This important fact is a natural law of skill acquisition, discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, his fascinating book on high achievement. He devotes a chapter to the proven phenomenon that rather than the level of talent, the number of hours a person practices any skill determines their level of achievement. This is true of such diverse fields as athletics, music performance, and computer programming. Gladwell states, “Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”
Even the most highly gifted have to cross that 10,000-hour line before they gain full proficiency. This corroborates what I’ve observed in my most talented cello students: those who show sudden, huge spikes in ability; those who can correctly perform a component of technique the first time while most others are struggling through many attempts; those who can see the fingerboard with almost no practice.
All these students, including even the ones who have the best intuitive feel for music-making, struggle with the inconsistent pattern of their spectacular abilities. There is no remedy for this except hours of practice; the same 10,000 hours everyone else has to put in.
I find this reassuring. It’s a straightforward path of work, work, and more work. Although it may be difficult to convince gifted students, whose learning paths are so often eclectic and self-directed, that they need to log in their 10,000 hours, it is one certainty for us in a minefield of ambiguities.