In the second chapter "The 10,000-Hour Rule" of his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell poses a question asking if innate talent truly exists. He states that, "Achievement is talent plus preparation" (38) Throughout this chapter Gladwell begins to raise questions regarding this very thought. From a study done by K. Anders Ericsson, the history of "The Beatles", and an examination of the 75 richest people in the world, Gladwell explains that it is more than just talent. He states that practice time and the year an individual was born play a crucial part in their success. I feel that Gladwell is fair and convincing in his arguments and I think that these are all excellent examples to show the significance of the 10,000-Hour Rule and of being born in the right place at the right time.
In "The 10,000-Hour Rule," Gladwell discusses what he calls the 10,000-Hour Rule. He announces that it is the magic number for which researchers believe a person reaches mastery level and can contribute a lot to a person's success. Gladwell begins this argument with a study done by K. Anders Ericsson and two colleagues at the Berlin's elite Academy of music. He shares that they divided the school's violinists into three groups: the world class soloists, the "merely good" and those who intended to become teachers in the public school system. Everyone began playing around the same age of five, Gladwell points out and within the first years practiced approximately the same amount. By age eight the hours of practice for the students who were the best had increased. At age twenty Gladwell states that the elite were practicing well over thirty hours a week and had each totaled the "magic" 10,000 hours. He concludes that it takes about ten years to acquire 10,000 hours. Gladwell's summation and according to Daniel Levitin, ""The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert-in anything"" (40).
In Gladwell's opening argument here, I found a detailed analysis of what he describes as the 10,000-Hour Rule. His example given of the study done on the violinists by Ericsson and his colleagues is fair and complete. He is able to effectively use his knowledge and writing together to create convincing evidence of this "magic" 10,000-Hour Rule. There seems to be an exception to this passage that keeps me from completely believing that 10,000 hours of practice in a certain skill can take you from ordinary to extraordinary. In one of Gladwell's final statements, he quotes Levitin saying, "But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time" (40). I have a problem with this statement. When he writes it by saying that "no one has yet found"; Gladwell implies that there are people out there that can do it in less time and that they just have not been found. He leaves me a bit suspicious. Gladwell goes on later to explain that Ericsson and his colleagues never found any "naturals" or "grinds". He refers to "naturals" as those individuals that are extremely gifted and rise to the top without the 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell defines a "grind" as a person who works harder than everyone else but just does not have what it takes to reach mastery level. The problem with all this is that perhaps they just have not been found either. I believe that they do exist and that Gladwell is conveniently leaving this out to make his argument seem relevant. I find these two mistakes to be exceptions to Gladwell's well refined idea behind the 10,000-Hour Rule.
Malcolm Gladwell tests his idea of the 10,000-Hour Rule, on perhaps, one the most famous bands ever, The Beatles. He states that The Beatles came to the United States in February of 1964. Incidentally, it was ten years between the time the band was founded and their "greatest artistic achievements". Gladwell points out however that two of the band mates, Lennon and McCartney began playing together in 1957. In 1960, Gladwell shares that while they were still in high school, the band was invited to play in Hamburg, Germany. It was here that the Beatles were given their extraordinary opportunity
Forty years ago, in a paper in American Scientist, Herbert Simon and William Chase drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:
There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions…
In the years that followed, an entire field within psychology grew up devoted to elaborating on Simon and Chase’s observation—and researchers, time and again, reached the same conclusion: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks. After Simon and Chase’s paper, for example, the psychologist John Hayes looked at seventy-six famous classical composers and found that, in almost every case, those composers did not create their greatest work until they had been composing for at least ten years. (The sole exceptions: Shostakovich and Paganini, who took nine years, and Erik Satie, who took eight.)
This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my book “Outliers,” when I wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us 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." In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”
Recently, there has been some confusion about this argument. Some of the critiques are just bewildering. Here, for example, is a passage from an article in Time a few months ago, which makes me think that there is another Malcolm Gladwell out there, with far more eccentric views than mine, who put on a Halloween wig and somehow conned his way into the Time Life Building:
Based on research suggesting that practice is the essence of genius, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness,” regardless of a person’s natural aptitude. With enough practice, he claimed in his book Outliers, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. It was just a matter of putting in the time.
Regardless of a person’s natural aptitude?
A more thoughtful response comes from David Epstein in his fascinating new book The Sports Gene. Epstein’s key point is that the ten-thousand-hour idea must be understood as an average. For example, both he and I discuss the same study by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that looked at students studying violin at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin. I was interested in the general finding, which was that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked. Epstein points out, however, that there is a fair amount of variation behind that number—suggesting that some violinists may use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly. It’s an important point. There are seventy-three great composers who took at least ten years to flourish. But there is much to be learned as well from Shostakovich, Paganini, and Satie.
Epstein makes two other arguments that are worth mentioning. The first is about chess. He cites a study by Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet of a hundred and four competitive chess players. Epstein says that they found that the average time it took to reach “master” status was eleven thousand hours—but that one player reached that level in just three thousand hours. This is variation on an extreme scale. Does that mean that in chess “naturals” really do exist? I’m not so sure. Epstein is talking about chess masters—the lowest of the four categories of recognized chess experts. (It’s Division II chess.) Grandmasters—the highest level—are a different story. Robert Howard, of the University of New South Wales, recently published a paper in which he surveyed a group of eight grandmasters and found that the group hit their highest ranking after fourteen thousand hours of practice. Even among prodigies who reached grandmaster level before the age of sixteen, we see the same pattern. Almost all of that group reached grandmaster level at fourteen or fifteen, and most started playing when they were four or five. The famous Polgár sisters (two of whom reached grandmaster status) put in somewhere north offifty thousand hours of practice to reach the top. Epstein, similarly, argues that studies show that it takes only four thousand hours to reach “international levels” in basketball. The study in question was of a sample of players from the Australian men’s basketball team. I have nothing against either Australia or Australian basketball. But I’d be a bit more impressed if someone could find a starting point guard in the N.B.A. with fewer than ten years of basketball under his belt. Arguments about what it takes to be an elite performer are less persuasive if the performers being studied aren’t actually elite.
I think that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain. For instance, Epstein uses as his main counterexample the high jumper Donald Thomas, who reached world-class level after no more than a few months of the most rudimentary practice. He then quotes academic papers making similar observations about other sports—like one that showed that people could make the Australian winter Olympic team in skeleton after no more than a few hundred practice runs. Skeleton, in case you are curious, is a sport in which a person pushes a sled as fast as she can along a track, jumps on, and then steers the sled down a hill. Some of the other domains that Epstein says do not fit the ten-thousand-hour model are darts, wrestling, and sprinting. “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” Epstein quotes one South African researcher as saying, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.”
As it happens, I have been a runner and a serious track-and-field fan my entire life, and I have never seen a boy who was slow become fast either. For that matter, I’ve never met someone who thinks a boy who was slow can become fast. Epstein has written a wonderful book. But I wonder if, in his zeal to stake out a provocative claim on this one matter, he has built himself a straw man. The point of Simon and Chase’s paper years ago was that cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed. There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us “The White Album” when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no. It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. What Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.
Photograph by Kent Skibstad/AFP/Getty.