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

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.

Categorized as Books