This idea — that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice — surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours.
A great read — I love poring over the results of these types of pattern-finding endeavors. The piece kind of goes to something I've long said, namely that pro athletes, etc. generally don't impress me (unless they can do something that I think I could never do, no matter how much I practice).
Sure, it's great that Michael Phelps won all those gold medals — it was fun to watch and to root for — but at the end of the day if anything impresses me, it's his obsessive-compulsive dedication. In other words, I don't look at him and think, "Wow, he's so fast! That's amazing!" I think, "Wow, this guy was born with an abnormally-proportioned body and he chose to spend every waking moment of his life swimming in a circle." I admire the journey infinitely more than the result.
My favorite passage (emphasis mine):
We pretend that success is a matter of individual merit. That is not the whole story. These are stories about people who were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort was rewarded by the rest of society.