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Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”, and the 10,000 hour rule

by Michael Nielsen on November 18, 2008

All three of Malcolm Gladwell’s books pose a conundrum for the would-be reviewer. The conundrum is this: while the books have many virtues, none of the books make a watertight argument for their central claims. Many scientists, trained to respect standards of proof above all else, don’t like this style. A colleague I greatly respect told me he thought Gladwell’s previous book, Blink , was “terrible”; it didn’t meet his standards of proof. Judge Richard Posner wrote a scathing review criticizing Blink on the same grounds.

Gladwell’s gift as a writer is not for justification and proof of his claims. What Gladwell does have is an extraordinary gift to use stories to explain abstract ideas in a way that is vivid and memorable, a way that brings those abstract ideas quickly to mind at later need. This shamanic gift is dangerous, for if you read his books credulously, it leaves you open to believing ideas that may be false. It’s also incredibly valuable, for what you learn you internalize deeply. In my opinion, this more than makes up for whatever Gladwell’s books lack in rigorous justification.

I say all this so you know what to expect from Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Outliers is a vivid and memorable exploration of a single question: what makes some individuals so successful? It’s not a book that lends itself to a brief summary, for to summarize is to lose the essence of the stories which make it an enjoyable and memorable read. For this reason, I won’t review the book here, beyond saying that I strongly recommend the book, with the caveats above: read sceptically, and check the original literature when in doubt!

Instead, I’d like to zero in on one of the main themes of the book, an idea that has over the past few years become widely known and influential. This is the idea that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to really master a subject area or skill. The idea dates back to work done by Herb Simon in the 1970s. It’s been developed and publicized much further in the decades since, notably by one of Simon’s postdoctoral mentees, Anders Ericsson.

There are, of course, many provisos to the 10,000 hour rule. As just one example, to acquire mastery in an area, it’s not enough to just practice for 10,000 hours; the person practicing must constantly strive to get better. Someone who practices without pushing themselves will plateau, no matter how many hours they practice. I suspect many scientists fall afoul of this proviso, putting in enormous hours, but mostly doing administrative or drudge work which doesn’t extend their abilities.

On the surface, the rule is quite intimidating. We hear of the young Mozart, practising music with ferocious intensity for years, or of Bobby Fischer’s utter obsession with chess. Gladwell describes the similar obsession Bill Gates and Bill Joy had with programming as young men. How can one match this level of devotion? 10,000 hours is a lot of time, and most studies have found that it requires 10 or more years to put in this time, given the other demands of life. Must we commit ourselves to 10 years of deliberate practice in a single area, or content ourselves with mediocrity?

One of the main claims of Outliers is that putting in 10,000 hours of practice is a prerequisite for great achievement. I believe this is the wrong way of thinking about the relationship between achievement and the 10,000 hour rule. A clue to a better way comes from some examples which to some extent disprove the claim.

Consider the physicist Werner Heisenberg. He studied physics and mathematics as a student, from 1920 to 1923, and from 1923 on concentrated all his attention on physics. In 1926, he discovered quantum mechanics, one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. His more famous (but less important) discovery of the uncertainty principle followed not long after, in 1927.

Heisenberg was not even close to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice when he discovered quantum mechanics. Instead, he’d explored a broad range of areas in physics – his thesis, written not long before his great discoveries, was about the completely different area of turbulence – and gradually built up a broad range of basic competencies. Most importantly, his exploration let him figure out what area of physics was most interesting. At the time, that area was atomic physics, a field in turmoil as all the old ideas failed, and it became clear that radical new ideas were needed. This meant that the skills painstakingly acquired by the established physicists of the time – people who were far more skilled than Heisenberg – didn’t do those people much good. Heisenberg could enter a relatively level playing field, and jump ahead of the established experts. Having grabbed the intellectual lead, he was then well placed to make breakthrough after breakthrough, learning his craft in real time, achieving mastery in the crucible of real discovery.

A second example is the mathematician Gregory Chaitin. As a teenager, Chaitin published a series of seminal papers establishing a new area of mathematics now known as algorithmic information theory. Unbeknown to Chaitin, similar ideas were simultaneously developed and published by two other people: a professional American mathematician named Ray Solomonoff, and by one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov. Chaitin was a curious and bright teenager, but he had nowhere near 10,000 hours of experience in mathematics. He didn’t need it. He was developing a new field of mathematics from scratch, and what was needed was basic technical competence, lots of imagination, and some chutzpah.

A third example is the discovery of the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs. This is one of the great paleontological discoveries of the 20th century, but it was made by two non-palaeontologists, Walter Alvarez, a geologist, and Luis Alvarez, a physicist, neither of whom had much experience in palaeontology.

A fourth and final example is the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson had only studied biology for 6 years, and Crick for 5 years. Again, it seems very unlikely that they were anywhere near satisfying the 10,000 hour rule.

Given these examples, how should we think about the relationship between great achievement and the 10,000 hour rule?

It’s certainly clear that great achievement is possible without putting in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s perhaps even relatively common among the greatest discoveries within science, and would not be surprised if this were also true in some areas of technology.

I believe it’s a mistake to focus on building up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as some kind of long-range goal. Instead, pick a set of skills that you believe are broadly important, and that you enjoy working on, a set of skills where deliberate practice gives rapid intrinsic rewards. Work as hard as possible on developing those skills, but also explore in neighbouring areas, and (this is the part many people neglect) gradually move in whatever direction you find most enjoyable and meaningful. The more enjoyable and meaningful, the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to genuine mastery. The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra said it well:

Raise your quality standards as high as you can live with, avoid wasting your time on routine problems, and always try to work as closely as possible at the boundary of your abilities. Do this, because it is the only way of discovering how that boundary should be moved forward.

The only exception to this strategy is if your heart is truly set on working in an established field, doing work that builds on that tradition. If you want to become a classical pianist, or a writer, or a string theorist, you probably need to put in your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Note: Outliers goes on sale today, November 18, 2008.

From → Books

  1. elad-vav permalink

    Interesting review. I just wanted to note that Gladwell knows counterexamples himself: Jonathan Safran Foer, for one.

  2. Michael, this fine post touches on a topic that is treated numerous times in my quotation database.

    A wonderful example is an oral meme of Valentine Telegdi, which he disseminated to graduate students in physics (namely, me) in the form of a saying that Telegdi attributed to Dirac: “A Golden Age is a time when ordinary people can make extraordinary contributions.”

    This Dirac-Telegdi principle is consistent with Gladwell’s thesis for the simple reason that during the early development of an intellectual enterprise (like quantum mechanics or complexity theory) the 10,000-hour rule does not apply … for the simple reason that no one has put in 10,000 hours.

    In a similar vein, we have is Wheeler’s account of his 1948 work with the young Feynman: “What fun it was, what jokes along the way, what a happy mix of diagrams and equations, of the well known and the new! … I persisted, and still do, in regarding Feynman’s PhD thesis as marking a moment when quantum theory for the first time became simpler than classical theory.”

    To apply this lesson to the present, it seems to me that our present Golden Age is one in which (to paraphrase Wheeler) “we mark a moment when quantum simulation for the first time became simpler than classical simulation.”

    The arrival of this Golden Age I take to be a genuine “breakthrough” that has been delivered by quantum information science … a breakthrough having broad implications for mathematics, science and engineering … and arriving much earlier than quantum computers.

    It’s true that the present Golden Age of quantum simulation is not widely acknowledged or appreciated … which of course is simultaneously ironic, humorous, and a little bit sad … because whenever a Golden Age (finally) is appreciated, that recognition creates a flood of 10,000-hour workers whose collective ambitions soon curtail the idyllic laxity and freedom of the early Golden Age.


    I would add some BibTeX references—e.g., quotes from Dirac during a 1975 visit to Australia—but already the chance of this post making it through Michael’s spam filter is small!

  3. Aha! Having evaded the WordPress spam filter, here are BibTeX references to the Dirac and Wheeler quotations … these are contributed in the hope that they may inspire and/or assist you with your Future of Science book.


    @inproceedings{Dirac:75, Author = {P. A. M. Dirac}, Booktitle = {Directions in Physics}, Editor = {H. Hora and J. R. Shepanski}, Pages = {6}, Publisher = {Wiley-Interscience, New York}, Title = {The Development of Quantum Mechanics}, Year = 1978, annotation={
    “[In the early days of quantum mechanics] It was a good description to say that it was a game, a very interesting game one could play.

    Whenever one solved one of the little problems, one could write a paper about it. It was very easy in those days for any second-rate physicist to do first-rate work.

    There has not been such a glorious time since. It is very difficult now for a first-rate physicist to do second-rate work.”}}

    @article{Wheeler:1989rw, Author = {John Archibald Wheeler}, Journal = {Physics Today}, Month = {February}, Number = {2}, Pages = {24–8}, Title = {The young {F}eynman }, Volume = {42}, Year = {1989}}

  4. Did you see the NYTimes review?

    The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing.

  5. Hi Dave! Lol … that snarky NYT review has a mathematical echo in Joseph Doob’s AMS review of Claude Shannon’s 1948 Theory of communication: “The discussion is suggestive throughout, rather than mathematical, and it is not always clear that the author’s mathematical intentions are honorable.”

    Doob’s review is still on-line today, sixty years later … “” … it’s sobering that Doob’s snarky assessment has resonated so long.

    Shannon’s equally seminal Communication in the presence of noise fares even worse with Doob … it is dismissed with a one-line review … “”

    Given that an outstanding mathematician like Doob experienced difficulty in assessing the quality of past work, how hard is it to assess the likely qualities of future work?

    Obviously, it’s pretty darn hard.

  6. Dave – That NYT review isn’t very good. The key sentence that sums up most of the review is this: “Such assessments turn individuals into pawns of their cultural heritage”. That’s just outright wrong about what Gladwell is saying. He is certainly deeply interested in the _role_ of people’s cultural heritage, but he repeatedly stresses the role of individual choice, etc, against the backdrop of culture.

  7. elad-vav: Funny, I thought of mentioning Safran Foer as one of my examples. I’d forgotten that I learnt of his rapid rise to prominence from an article by Gladwell.

  8. John – that quote “It was very easy in those days for any second-rate physicist to do first-rate work [etc]” was very much on my mind as I wrote the piece. It summarizes things very well!

  9. I’m sure I’ll end up reading it, even though I had a reaction to “Blink” not too dissimilar to what you describe. I don’t think it was because I was holding it up to high standards, I just thought he was plain wrong. It’s the same feeling I had reading “A Brief History of Time” as a kid. It wasn’t that I thought Hawking wasn’t arguing rigorously, it’s a popular science book after all, it’s just that I strongly disagreed with many of his ideas.

    That said I’d give anything to have Gladwell’s pop narrative skills. 🙂

  10. Dave – I thought “Outliers” was better than “Blink”, although that may be because I’m more familiar with the original research.

    Regarding your use of the phrase “high standards”, I completely disagree. Gladwell just has different standards. He has far higher standards for readability, interest, vividness and many other desirable qualities than do most academics. He has different standards for correctness than many academics; higher than some, but lower probably than most.

  11. For some reason Michael your comment reminded me of MacBeth: “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Since Gladwell’s theories are eaten up by the public as intellectually rigorous, shouldn’t we be a bit concerned that his conclusions are often overstretched? Is a bad hypothesis fine as long as it is engaging?

    I mean, suppose that you didn’t have the ability to think through the logic of Gladwell’s arguments. His high standards for writing would then convince you of many wrong things.

    Seriously I don’t know the answer to these things, and find Gladwell a fascinating case study in this stuff. And of course, I wish I could write like him.

  12. Dave, you didn’t address my point. Many scientists of my acquaintance think it’s okay if people publish incredibly boring but correct material, but not to publish interesting material whose correctness is in doubt, or not suitably qualified. That’s a value judgement about what “high standards” means, and a pretty questionable one in my opinion.

  13. Dave, you didn’t address my point.

    Doh. You know me: crazy scatterbrain. When was the last time I had a coherent thought online. 2004?

    Many scientists of my acquaintance think it’s okay if people publish incredibly boring but correct material, but not to publish interesting material whose correctness is in doubt, or not suitably qualified. That’s a value judgement about what “high standards” means, and a pretty questionable one in my opinion.

    Well I agree with you that most scientists, myself included, publish boring but correct stuff (and in my case who knows about the correctness!) So yeah, scientists produce a lot of boring crap that nonetheless meets their communities “high standards” And, yes, when they criticize Gladwell it’s because he is not living up to their community standards. So the validity of their judgements of “high standards” is questionable, sure.

    I can agree that scientists/lawyers/etc are going to punish Gladwell for reasons of dubious standing, but you go beyond this to the other extreme and say
    “his shamanic gift is dangerous, for if you read his books credulously, it leaves you open to believing ideas that may be false. It’s also incredibly valuable, for what you learn you internalize deeply. In my opinion, this more than makes up for whatever Gladwell’s books lack in rigorous justification.”
    Why does a deeply internalized untruth make up for the fact that it is just plain wrong? This is what I don’t understand about your post.

    I guess I’m also more interested not in the answer for you and me, who’ve spent at least ten minutes being skeptical about something in our lives, but about Joe the airplane reader, who swallows the shamanic pill without an ounce of doubt. I’m a frickin elitist so I believe that when I read Gladwell I’ll take the arguments as interesting data for future investigations. But will the average reader do that? I would say no, they probably don’t.

    Then again I guess I could question myself and ask why the fact that Gladwells stuff will be eaten up by the masses, even if it is wrong, matters to me. Then I would probably start muttering something about psuedoscience in today’s society. The total amount of baloney and bad reasoning that fills peoples heads these days makes me a real jerk when it comes to stuff like this.

  14. Dave – To clarify my comment, Gladwell’s gift is only a problem _if_ someone believes things far too easily. Otherwise, it’s great.

    You talk about “Joe the airplane reader, who swallows the shamanic pill without an ounce of doubt”. I know there are such people out there. But do you have any data [*] on what fraction of the population (a) is likely to read Gladwell, and (b) actually falls into that category? I’ve had a lot of conversations with non-scientists about books in the same vein as Gladwell’s (and a few about Gladwell in particular). A couple of those people were far too credulous, but most seemed to have a pretty healthy approach. In the absence of any more systematic evidence, I’m pretty sure he’s doing much more good than harm with his books.

    With that said, I, of course, strongly agree that it’d be better still if he was both interesting and conveyed a more complete picture of the state of knowledge. To some extent, of course, that’s a mug’s game: you can always add caveats forever. But I think people like Pinker, Dawkins and Feynman have managed a better combination of interesting, clear and vivid writing, together with a relatively complete account of all the caveats. But there’s not a lot of other people I’d rank above Gladwell.

    [*] Edit: On rereading, I should have put this differently. Obviously, it’s not reasonable to hope for data on exactly this question. But still, I’m pretty uncomfortable with negative generalizations about the fraction of people satisfying (a) and (b) unless there’s a good reason, a reason I don’t currently see.

  15. An entire post could be written about Michael’s lovely phrase that in science, “the shamanic gift is dangerous.”

    Scientifically speaking, what is the shamanic gift? Hmmm … perhaps it is the ability to convey not just equations and data, but narrative.

    Just as Jonathan Israel’s writings distinguish between the Radical Enlightenment as contrasted the Moderate Enlightenment, can’t we similarly distinguish between Radical Science and Moderate Science? The distinguishing feature being, Modern Science eschews the shamanic narratives that Radical Science seeks to create and embody.

    Obviously, the majority of academic scientists are of the moderate school. Furthermore, scientists within academia who become radicalized not infrequently leave, because universities usually offer small scope and small incentive for radical scientific enterprises.

    The list of well-known radical scientists and engineers is long … Weaver, Szilard, von Neumann, Pauling, von Braun, Ramo, Woodridge, Grove, Moore, Watson, Crick, Freud (arguably), Grothendieck, Venter, Wilson, Diamond … and foremost among them (to my mind) Goodall. I’m sure that everyone reading this has their own favorites.

    This list of radical mathematicians, scientists, and engineers is long, but IMHO, it is perhaps not as long as it should be.

  16. Michael, my post overlapped with yours, so let me say, I’m very sorry I forgot Steven Pinker, and I should have added Marvin Minsky and Donald Knuth too!

    And doubtless others have been neglected … heck, we’ve skipped almost everyone before 1940 or so. Edison! Faraday! Hooke!

    Narrative-making shamans of the first water, all of them.

  17. Dave: I just have to reply to this: “When was the last time I had a coherent thought online. 2004?”

    As the Quantum Pontiff, I hope and expect you’d be having coherent online thoughts all the time!

  18. You probably know the reach numbers better than I do! I remember hearing that a fiction book is considered “successful” if it sells something like 5,000 (nonfiction slightly higher)? I remember hearing the Da Vinci code sold 40 million. Gladwell’s “Blink” would probably be in the 1 million to 5 million range? That would put him at under one percent of the United States population. Still that’s a healthy number of people (less than the number that watched the Grammy’s for sure.)

    I seem to recall that numbers of people who believe some very strange stuff (ghosts, for example) is around 30 percent. It’s a bad proxy, but I’d also wager it is a low ball estimate of the percentage who wouldn’t be able to be skeptical. Of course there are reasons to believe the less than percent who read the book aren’t this 30 percent.

    So back of the envelope says that the number we’re talking about is less than one tenth of one percent of the U.S. population (I think the U.S. publishes something like 1/4 to 1/3 of the books worldwide?) Not good, but at least it makes me feel better.

    Now look I’m totally decohered (looking for jobs will do that to you.)

  19. I talked to my corporate spy (who had admitted to knowing what the tipping point was about despite having never read it) that books like Gladwell’s are universally thought to be true. The reason for this is that rarely do owners buy books that they don’t believe are true.

    Another perspective 🙂

  20. Dave Bacon sez: “I’m totally decohered (looking for jobs will do that to you.”

    Hmmmmm … maybe you need to promise a quantum fix for the whole economy, not just the academic sector of it.

    The above suggestion is semi-serious … in fact, completely serious. Example: I enjoyed John Doerr’s TED lecture that Michael pointed to … but it was shocking that Doerr never saw fit to mention the word “quantum” even once.

    Just to state the obvious, if more of humanity’s technologies worked nearer to their quantum limits (e.g., the limits to sensitivity, computation, memory, and energy efficiency, to name just a few), the global economy would be in a whole lot better shape …

    … and the job market for young quantum mathematicians, scientists and engineers would be a whole lot more vibrant.


  21. Ben Richards permalink

    Gladwell seems to overlook the findings from Dan Seligman’s book “A Question of Intelligence”, when attributing Asian math performance to rice cultivation and Jewish success in law on being born in NYC in 1930.

    Seligman notes the above average performance on jewish people on the verbal component of psychometric tests. The recent paper by Cochran & Harpending on Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence indicated there was a genetic basis for this:

    “What accounts for this remarkable record? A full answer must call on many characteristics of Jewish culture, but intelligence has to be at the center of the answer. Jews have been found to have an unusually high mean intelligence as measured by IQ tests since the first Jewish samples were tested. (The widely repeated story that Jewish immigrants to this country in the early 20th century tested low on IQ is a canard.) Exactly how high has been difficult to pin down, because Jewish sub-samples in the available surveys are seldom perfectly representative. But it is currently accepted that the mean is somewhere in the range of 107 to 115, with 110 being a plausible compromise.

    The IQ mean for the American population is “normed” to be 100, with a standard deviation of 15. If the Jewish mean is 110, then the mathematics of the normal distribution says that the average Jew is at the 75th percentile. Underlying that mean in overall IQ is a consistent pattern on IQ subtests: Jews are only about average on the subtests measuring visuo-spatial skills, but extremely high on subtests that measure verbal and reasoning skills.”

    The three authors conclude this part of their argument with an elegant corollary that matches the known test profiles of today’s Ashkenazim with the historical experience of their ancestors:

    The suggested selective process explains the pattern of mental abilities in Ashkenazi Jews: high verbal and mathematical ability but relatively low spatio-visual ability. Verbal and mathematical talent helped medieval businessmen succeed, while spatio-visual abilities were irrelevant.

    The rest of their presentation is a lengthy and technical discussion of the genetics of selection for IQ, indirect evidence linking elevated Jewish IQ with a variety of genetically based diseases found among Ashkenazim, and evidence that most of these selection effects have occurred within the last 1,200 years.”

    In terms of East Asian math/science performance, Seligman notes they tend to perform above average on the non-verbal component of psychometric tests which is consistent with the math/science performance:

    “Severely compressed, his explanation goes about like this: Some sixty thousand years ago, when the lee Age descended on the Northern Hemisphere, the Mongoloid populations faced uniquely hostile “selection pressure” for greater intelligence. Northeast Asia during the Ice Age was the coldest part of the world inhabited by man. Survival required major advances in hunting skills. Lynn’s 1987 paper refers to “the ability to isolate slight variations in visual stimulation from a relatively featureless landscape, such as the movement of a white Arctic hare against a background of snow and ice; to recall visual landmarks on long hunting expeditions away from home and to develop a good spatial map of an extensive terrain.” These, Lynn believes, were the pressures that ultimately produced the world’s best visuospatial abilities.”

  22. I once found myself obligated to reside in the (incredibly isolated) outer islands of the FSM for awhile (portrait of a feral professor here).

    I will never forget the reaction of the islander who took my picture: “Say, is that the new 6 megapixel model? You’d better adjust the color balance for this bright sunlight!” It turned out, he understood rather more about opto-electronic imaging than I did.

    As it happens, the outer islands are run much like major research universities … wholly by committee … except that it was my experience that, on average, the outer islanders are considerably smarter than the research university faculty.

    The reason is simple: their environment is less circumscribed, and their social lives less isolating.

    This story relates to the previous post … life in the outer islands impressed upon me the need to be exceedingly wary of academic assessments of intelligence.

  23. As a followup to the above, here is a picture of Max (the island’s chief; think “University President” of 8° 35.297’N, 144° 31.354’E).

    It was Max’s son who took the picture … who would have thought to find a Microsoft-certified network engineer on such a remote island?

    To be a paradise for research, all that island needs—and thousands islands like it need—-is a fast internet connection and a thorough commitment to openness.

  24. Chessbase reports on a survey of 518 grandmaster chess players on the role of talent and training.

    Few surprises, but they have a lot of data to work with, and the discussion is thorough.

    From a sociobiological point of view (e.g., Goodall,, Wilson, de Waal, Pinker, etc.) this is a typical primate-designed academic study of primate subjects: the exclusive focus of both the subjects and the scientists being “who attains the highest rank?”

    Less-obvious questions go unasked and unanswered …

  25. Dave: “I talked to my corporate spy (who had admitted to knowing what the tipping point was about despite having never read it) that books like Gladwell’s are universally thought to be true. The reason for this is that rarely do owners buy books that they don’t believe are true.”

    Do you believe this?

  26. Hi,

    It seems that the presumption here is that 10,000 hours is a long time. However, if someone read, studied and thought for 8 hours a day, that only amounts to a little over 3 years. In terms of Heisenberg, thinking about fluid dynamics seems to be excellent preparation for developing quantum mechanics. Although Crick had only been in biology for 5 years he was in his 30’s when they discovered the structure of DNA after having studied physics for many years prior to that. I’m not saying I agree with Gladwell but I don’t think that 10,000 hours is necessarily a long time. Mozart could have reached that mark by the time he was 6. I think there may be a difference between a performance discipline like sports and arts and an intellectual one like math and science. It may take 10 years to practice 10,000 hours of golf or tennis but many people in the sciences never stop thinking.

  27. Yes, lots of people in the sciences never stop thinking. This is not at all the same as continually pushing oneself to get better. Most scientists spend most of their time caught up in rote work from which they learn little.

    I know few people capable of engaging in the very hard work of deliberate practice for 8 hours per day. Most people take time to eat, talk to other people, catch up on email, run errands, take care of admin work, etc. It’s an interesting exercise to time yourself for a few weeks and find out how much deliberate practice you do in a week. I doubt many people exceed 10 hours per week in practice, and that only while grad students and postdocs.

  28. The question was simply how long it would take to get to 10,000 hours and that is about 3 years. So, there is certainly enough time to do so while a grad student/post doc. There is also ambiguity in the definition of constantly pushing oneself. In terms of sports, that usually means being coached for a short period of time and then practicing over and over again. One of the theories of why the Russian women dominate tennis and Korean women dominate golf is that they do mind numbing practice for hours and hours each day while they are young. For a grad student that would correspond to pounding away at a problem for a few days/weeks/months and then coming back to the advisor for feedback. Also, what is the variance on that 10,000 hours? If it is 10,000 plus or minus 3000 then it could take 2 years to achieve mastery. I think the real question is if it only takes 10,000 hours, then why are there not more great people and among those that do practice that long, why are some still better than others. e.g. Tiger Woods, Keats, or Gauss.

  29. Best sellers certainly spread far beyond their sales numbers, don’t you think? I’ve never read “The DaVinci Code” but I certainly have an opinion about it, and even know the outlines of the story. In the business world when an idea catches on, I’m wager there are a pretty good number (vast majority?) of people who haven’t read the original source for the idea, nor even thought hard about whether it is true. And there is certainly evidence that people buy books they already agree with. I think my corporate spy was being a bit facetious, but there is a definitely a grain of truth in that we rarely seek out contrarian books.

    My corporate spy also tells me cool new words in use in businessland like “ideate.” Apparently scientists constantly “ideate.”

  30. With 10,000 hours in the cockpit, half of that teaching;

    I know without a doubt, that Gladwell is absolutely correct in his attribution of communication errors, to sociological structure both inherited and taught.

    I also have seen in in the thousands of hours intimately raking apart medical malpractice cases where the same kind of “ambiguous” communicaiton takes place, though more educational-induced than inherited sociology.

    Gladwell is a genius,….at least as it applies to pilot communicaiton breakdown, and inferred medical practice errors.

  31. “A fourth and final example is the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Watson had only studied biology for 6 years, and Crick for 5 years. Again, it seems very unlikely that they were anywhere near satisfying the 10,000 hour rule.”

    Can I just comment that they were riding on the back of other peoples work as well – they werent doing it on their own. Can there be a collective 10,000 hour rule?

  32. Austin permalink

    I beg to disagree with most of the article and man of the comments.

    Heisenberg was a math prodigy. His dad was a Classics Professor. He knew literally dozens of top professors from many fields growing up and soaked up math and classical knowledge with his mothers’ milk. He got his PHD at the age of 23. He used new mathematical tools about probability to formulate his theories.

    In short – he was talented, was passionate about and did lots of math, was raised in a culture that praised research and ideas, and found and used new math tools on emerging problems. And by the time h had his PHD, he had done his 10,000 hours!

    In short, Heisenberg fits Gladwelll’s thesis to a T.

    The Alvarez family also proves Gladwell’s point. Both men are autodidacts and geology is a multi-disciplinary field – it demands long study of unrelated fields of knowlege – geomagnetism comes to mind. They had the knowledge to see what others had missed for some time because they could see across many fields AND could use the tools to produce the proof – something that took a LONG time.

    James Watson began birding with his dad when he could barely walk. He was reading college level texts when he was 10. He lived and breath biology. He started college at age 15. By the time he found DNA, he had done his 10,000 hours.

  33. Austin – Gladwell’s claim is that people need to do 10,000 hours of work in a field to make a major contribution to that field. None of your examples is relevant. Birdwatching isn’t molecular biology. The Alvarez’s were a trained geologist and physicist, with almost no experience in paleontology. Heisenberg had only a few years’ fulltime experience working in mathematics and physics.

  34. J Smith permalink

    Michael – you and Gladwell are talking about different (but important) types of contributions. They are perhaps two sides of the same coin.

    Your examples are “discoveries”, which occur when someone challenges conventional thinking in an existing field, and sees things in a entirely new way. This contribution is almost necessarily made by (or with the help of) someone who doesn’t already know everything about the subject.

    Gladwell talks about individuals whose lives are completely immersed in a specialized area for such an extended period of time that they become master musicians, garment makers, programmers. If their expertise happens to be rare, and required at an opportune time, in a different but RELATED field, these individuals are alert, confident, and ready to take action because of their experience. They become history’s greatest songwriters, business people, software pioneers – because they understood better than lay persons what it took to become so.

    The 10,000 hour rule is about mastery, but I don’t think Gladwell is saying that anything less condemns us all to mediocrity. Of course major contribtuions can be made with less time.

    I hope readers continue to be inspired to read Outliers (with a skeptical eye, as you advocate) because there’s so much more to the book than the theme discussed in your article.

    Happy New Year!

  35. Austin permalink


    I seem to recall that Darwin was also a mere birdwatcher.

    I really wonder if you have spent time reading the bios of the people you talk about or know anything about the discoveries they made or how genius works?

    Even a casual reading of the wiki entries for these people, and a little knowledge about Ruf Level 5 kids, just blows your thesis out of the water.

    Watson was an omnibus genius who covered more ground before he was 20 than most people cover in their lifetimes. He entered college at 15, got his PHD at age 22. He started work on DNA at age 19 and worked on his PHD directly under the chief proponent of DNA. He made his discoveries when he was 24. He was fortunate to do much of his undergrad work at the University of Chicago and post-grad at Indiana U which had a lot of experts on Nuclear Physics and Molecular Biology. In other words – he was at the right place at the right time and grew up in that place. He easily got his 10,000 hours in from the age of 19 to the age of 24 in the field of DNA research.

    Watson fits Gladwell’s thesis to a T.

    Did you know that Luis Alvarez won the Nobel Prize for Physics LONG before he published the findings on the K-T event?

    That he was 70 years old at the time?

    Did you know his paper has NOTHING to do with paleontology per se and is all about nuclear chemistry of samples?

    The Alvarezes knew that the Irridium signature was not Terrestrial because they knew geology and nuclear chemistry. They found the signature because one was a geologist and the other a Nobel physicist and had a long training as such. They worked in a location where they could get access to tools and resources to test their ideas.

    Anyone who peruses the Alvarez’ bios can see that they both put in 10,000 hours in MANY subjects. The K-T event was tailor made for their talents to find it.

    The Alvarezes fit Gladwell’s thesis to a T.

    If you scroll down to the bottom of this list, you will see what I mean by Ruf Levels. A level 5 is able to do things at 15 that most adults can never do. Watson was clearly a level 5. Put in the right environment, which he was, there is nothing these kids cannot learn. Heisenberg followed the same trajectory as Watson and had the same level of support at home as well as in his schooling.

  36. Greg B permalink

    I think your understanding of the 10,000 hour rule is flawed. All your counter examples are people who DISCOVERED something, not people who were SUCCESSFUL. There is definitely a distinction between the 2. Many discoveries occur by accident, through environmental factors, things that the 10,000 hour rule has no control over. In order to MASTER and be SUCCESSFUL at a certain task (ie. programming, playing music), I think the 10,000 hour rule is a good rule of thumb. There are bound to be some exceptions, but I still think it holds a large amount of merit.

  37. actor permalink

    i think you all are taking the 10,000 rule too literally

    the sum of the story is that 9 times out of 10, putting in the time, effort, work, passion, etc is what makes someone successful, but also having help along the way

    as an actor, for years i’ve researched every time a new “up and coming break through” star is named, and 9 times out of 10, if you look to their FIRST role, it was most likely 10 years before the “breakthrough”

  38. kevin permalink

    I’ve not read the book but maybe someone can answer a question. As I understand it, most of the time, it takes sugnificant effort (10,000 hours) to become a master/expert at something. Gladwell also argues that there are other factors that are just as important to a persons success ie: the youth hockey example. How are these related?

  39. Jessica permalink

    Good points, but I would like to add that Watson and Crick did not discover the double helix by themselves. The majority of the work was done by graduate student Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer due to radiation exposure related to her studies. Her advisor told them about what she had discovered, and they went on to publish and get all of the credit.

  40. Zak permalink

    I think you are misunderstanding the 10,000 hour rule. It’s not a prerequisite for “great achievement”, it’s a prerequisite for world class skill mastery. You want to master the skill of playing a musical instrument? 10,000 hours. You want to master the skill of programming a computer? 10,000 hours.

    A one-off breakthrough in something can happen in any field during those 10,000 hours of practice, but to thoroughly master a skill takes the hours.

  41. Michael, I think you have misunderstood the scope of the 10,000 hour rule. The rule doesn’t say that it requires 10k hours to do something great or innovative. It says you need about 10 hours to be a master at any art. Werner Heisenberg discovered the uncertainty principle in a short span of time, but he didn’t become an authority on Theoretical Physics as soon as he did the discovery. Similar statements can be made about other examples given in the article.

    Let me give an example to elucidate the difference. For example you decide that you are fed up with your current house, and decide to build your own from scratch. You put in two years of hard labor and come up with a beauty. In fact the house is by now so much in your veins that you can go to a closet three rooms away blindfolded and flick a light switch with 100% certainty. No one else in the world can do that in your house. But does that qualify you as a master house builder?

    The scope of the 10,000 hours rule is mastery in a general field of art (in the broadest sense of his definition). This include fields like sports, literature and music. It doesn’t mean you need 10k hours to hit the fastest serve in Lawn Tennis, or to write a bestseller or compose a symphony. Mastery means be recognized among the peers and critics as an expert.

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