Or consider the “tale of two high jumpers” that David Epstein presents in The Sports Gene, his important book on the relative roles of genes and environment—nature and nurture—in the building of a professional athlete. Mr. Epstein spent time with a Swedish high jumper named Stefan Holm, who started jumping at age 6. By the time he won the Olympic gold medal in the 2004 Athens games, he had logged more than 20,000 hours of training. Mr. Holm told the author that, to understand how he became an Olympic champion, Mr. Epstein should read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” particularly the chapters on the “10,000-hour rule” discovered by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson—that is, the idea that, to become an expert or professional at just about anything, it takes roughly 10,000 hours, or 10 years at 20 hours a week, of “deliberate practice.” This is practice that is guided, coached or focused in a way that is beyond just mindless repetition.
But then how do you explain Mr. Epstein’s second high jumper? In the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, the training machine Stefan Holm was beaten by a Bahamas man named Donald Thomas, who had started high jumping only a few months before. Mr. Thomas had boasted to his jock buddies that he could slam-dunk a basketball. Someone challenged him to high-jump a 6-foot-6 bar, which he easily cleared, followed by one at 6-foot-8 and then 7 feet. A successful 7-foot-3 jump in competition landed him in the Commonwealth Games in Australia just two months after he had first heard about high jumping. There he finished fourth in a field of world-class jumpers. At the World Championships—after a total of eight months of high-jump coaching, which included ducking out to shoot baskets, because he found high jumping “kind of boring”—Mr. Thomas defeated not just Mr. Holm but a 6-foot-6 Russian named Yaroslav Rybakov, who had failed to win a single world championship after 18 years of competition.
Today, six years into his high-jumping career and thousands of hours of practice later, Mr. Thomas hasn’t improved his performance by even one centimeter.