A new paper out in Intelligence, from a group of authors led by David Hambrick, is getting a lot of press coverage for having “debunked” the 10,000-hour rule discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The 10,000-hour rule is — well, actually, that’s the point of this post: Just what, exactly, is the 10,000-hour rule?
The debate in Intelligence is between Hambrick et al. and researcher K. Anders Ericsson, who studies deliberate practice and expert performance (and wrote a rejoinder to Hambrick et al. in the journal). But Malcolm Gladwell interpreted Ericsson’s work in a popular book and popularized the phrase “the 10,000-hour rule.” And most of the press coverage mentions Gladwell.
Moreover, Gladwell has been the subject of a lot of discussionlately about how he interprets research and presents his conclusions. The 10,000-hour rule has become a runaway meme — there’s even a Macklemore song about it. And if you google it, you’ll find a lot of people talking about it and trying to apply it to their lives. The interpretations aren’t always the same, suggesting there’s been some interpretive drift in what people think the 10,000-hour rule really is. I read Outliers shortly after it came out, but my memory of it has probably been shaped by all of that conversation that has happened since. So I decided it would be interesting to go back to the source and take another look at what Gladwell actually said.
“The 10,000-Hour Rule” is the title of a chapter in Outliers. It weaves together a bunch of stories of how people became wildly successful. The pivotal moment where Gladwell lays out his thesis, the nut graf if you will, is this:
“For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do—the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” (pp. 37-38)
This is classic Gladwell style — setting up the conventional wisdom and then knock it down. You might think X, but I’m going to show you it’s really not-X. In this case, what is the X that you might think? That there is such a thing as talent and that it matters for success. And Gladwell is promising to challenge that view. Zoom in and it’s laid bare:
“Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view…”
Some Gladwell defenders have claimed he was just saying that talent isn’t enough by itself and preparation matters too. But that would be a pretty weak assertion for a bestselling book. I mean, who doesn’t think that violin prodigies or hockey players need to practice? And it is clear Gladwell is going for something more extreme than that. “Achievement is talent plus preparation” is not Gladwell’s thesis. To the contrary, that is the conventional wisdom that Gladwell is promising to overturn.
Gladwell then goes on to tell a bunch of stories of successful people who practiced a lot lot lot before they became successful. But that line of argument can only get you so far. Preparation and talent are not mutually exclusive. So saying “preparation matters” over and over really tells you nothing about whether talent matters too. And the difficulty for Gladwell is that, try as he might, he cannot avoid acknowledging a place for talent too. To deny that talent exists and matters would be absurd in the face of both common sense and hard data. And Gladwell can’t go that far:
“If we put the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates together, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success. Joy and Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation, and Bill Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he was able to make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe. That much is obvious.” (p. 55)
So “a more complete picture of the path to success” says that talent exists and it matters — a lot. It is actually a big deal if you have a “gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation.” So we are actually back to the conventional wisdom again: Achievement is talent plus preparation. Sure, Gladwell emphasizes the preparation piece in his storytelling. But that difference in emphasis tells us more about what is easier to narrate (nobody is ever going to make an 80’s-style montage about ACE models) than about which is actually the stronger cause. So after all the stories, it looks an awful lot like the 10,000-hour rule is just the conventional wisdom after all.
But wait! In the very next paragraph…
“But what truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities.” (p. 55)
“Opportunities” doesn’t sound like talent *or* preparation. What’s that about?
This, I think, has been missing from a lot of the popular discussion about the 10,000-hour rule. Narrowly, the 10,000-hour rule is about talent and preparation. But that overlooks the emphasis inOutliers on randomness and luck — being in the right place and the right time. So you might expand the formula: “Achievement is talent plus preparation plus luck.”
Only Gladwell wants his conclusion to be simpler than the conventional wisdom, not more complicated. So he tries to equate luck with preparation, or more precisely with the opportunity to prepare. Be born in the right era, live in the right place, and maybe you’ll get a chance to spend 10,000 hours getting good at something.
The problem with simplifying the formula rather than complicating it is that you miss important things. Gladwell’s point is that you need opportunities to prepare — you can’t become a computer whiz unless you have access to a computer to tinker with (10,000 hours worth of access, to be precise). He notes that a lot of wealthy and famous computer innovators, like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs, were born in 1954 or 1955. So when personal computing took off they were just the right age to get to mess around with computers: old enough to start businesses, young enough and unattached enough to have the time to sink into something new and uncertain. Gladwell concludes that the timing of your birth is a sort of cosmically random factor that affects whether you’ll be successful.
But not all opportunities are purely random — in many domains, opportunities are more likely to come to people who are talented or prepared or both. If you show some early potential and dedication to hockey or music, people are more likely to give you a hockey stick or a violin. Sure, you have to live in a time and place where hockey sticks or violins exist, but there’s more to it than that.
And let us not forget one of the most important ways that people end up in the right place at the right time: privilege (turns out Macklemore has a song about that too). The year that Gates, Allen, and Jobs were all born in 1954-55 may be random in some cosmic sense. But the fact that they are all white dudes from America suggests some sort of pattern, at least to me. Gladwell tells a story about how Bill Hewlett gave a young Steve Jobs spare computer parts to tinker with. The story is told like it’s a lucky opportunity for Jobs, and in a sense it is. But I wonder what would have happened if a poor kid from East Palo Alto had asked Hewlett for the same thing.
So now we are up to 4 things: talent, preparation, luck, and privilege. They all matter, they all affect each other, and I am sure we could add to the list. And you could go even deeper and start questioning the foundations of how we have carved up our list of variables (just what do we mean by “innate talent” anyway, and is it the same thing — innate in the same way — for everybody?). That would be an even more complete picture of the path to success. Not an easy story to tell, I know, but maybe a better one.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. How does Gladwell arrive at this conclusion? And, if the conclusion is true, how can we leverage this idea to achieve greatness in our professions?
Gladwell studied the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success. This article will review a few examples from Gladwell’s research, and conclude with some thoughts for moving forward.
Violins in Berlin
In the early 1990s, a team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany studied violin students. Specifically, they studied their practice habits in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. All of the subjects were asked this question: “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?”
All of the violinists had begun playing at roughly five years of age with similar practice times. However, at age eight, practice times began to diverge. By age twenty, the elite performers averaged more than 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able performers had only 4,000 hours of practice.
The elite had more than double the practice hours of the less capable performers.
Natural Talent: Not Important
One fascinating point of the study: No “naturally gifted” performers emerged. If natural talent had played a role, we would expect some of the “naturals” to float to the top of the elite level with fewer practice hours than everyone else. But the data showed otherwise. The psychologists found a direct statistical relationship between hours of practice and achievement. No shortcuts. No naturals.
Sneaking Out to Write Code
You already know how Microsoft was founded. Bill Gates and Paul Allen dropped out of college to form the company in 1975. It’s that simple: Drop out of college, start a company, and become a billionaire, right? Wrong.
Further study reveals that Gates and Allen had thousands of hours of programming practice prior to founding Microsoft. First, the two co-founders met at Lakeside, an elite private school in the Seattle area. The school raised three thousand dollars to purchase a computer terminal for the school’s computer club in 1968.
A computer terminal at a university was rare in 1968. Gates had access to a terminal in eighth grade. Gates and Allen quickly became addicted to programming.
The Gates family lived near the University of Washington. As a teenager, Gates fed his programming addiction by sneaking out of his parents’ home after bedtime to use the University’s computer. Gates and Allen acquired their 10,000 hours through this and other clever teenage schemes. When the time came to launch Microsoft in 1975, the two were ready.
Practice Makes Improvement
In 1960, while they were still an unknown high school rock band, the Beatles went to Hamburg, Germany to play in the local clubs.
The group was underpaid. The acoustics were terrible. The audiences were unappreciative. So what did the Beatles get out of the Hamburg experience? Hours of playing time. Non-stop hours of playing time that forced them to get better.
As the Beatles grew in skill, audiences demanded more performances – more playing time. By 1962 they were playing eight hours per night, seven nights per week. By 1964, the year they burst on the international scene, the Beatles had played over 1,200 concerts together. By way of comparison, most bands today don’t play 1,200 times in their entire career.
Falling in Love With Practice
The elite don’t just work harder than everybody else. At some point the elites fall in love with practice to the point where they want to do little else.
The elite software developer is the programmer who spends all day pounding code at work, and after leaving work she writes open source software on her own time.
The elite football player is the guy who spends all day on the practice field with his teammates, and after practice he goes home to watch game films.
The elite physician listens to medical podcasts in the car during a long commute.
The elites are in love with what they do, and at some point it no longer feels like work.
Now that we’ve reviewed the trends uncovered by Gladwell’s research, what can we do about it? All of us want to be great at something. Now that we know how other achievers have gotten there, what can we do to join their ranks?
One approach: We could choose a field and practice for 10,000 hours. If we are currently working in our target profession, forty hours per week over five years would give us ten thousand hours.
Or… We can look at the question in reverse. Where have we already logged 10,000 hours of practice? What is it that we do really well? What tasks do we perform so well that people ask: How did you do that? Sometimes when we fall in love with practice we don’t even recognize it!
If you’re running a company, what does your company do better than anybody else? What is it that the individual members of your company do better than anybody? How do you create an environment that gives everyone on your team the opportunity to practice?
Business is tough, especially now. Yet even in the midst of a challenging economy, there are individuals and companies that prosper beyond all expectations. Practice plays a major role in success.
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Through interviews and statistical analysis, Gladwell determines why some people and organizations achieve success far beyond their peers.
About the Blog Author
Raymond T. Hightower is president of WisdomGroup, a software company that creates apps for the web. WisdomGroup leads the open source user group ChicagoRuby, and we created conferences for Ruby on Rails (WindyCityRails) and the Internet of Things (WindyCityThings). For more information, visit WisdomGroup.com. Icon created by Freepik.