Thursday, August 22, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

Who is Peter Orszag and why is he saying these things?

You know that Orszag was the director of the Office of Management and Budget during President Obama’s first term. You might not know, but you will not be surprised to know that he is now a banker at Citi.

Fair enough. But why has he chosen to weigh in on an issue that is largely outside of his area of competence? Why has he decided to present himself as an expert on the “ten-thousand-hour” rule?

Perhaps, it’s because he writes a column for Bloomberg and needed something to fill the space. In any event, yesterday Orszag breathlessly announced that Malcolm Gladwell was wrong about the ten-thousand-hour rule.

In Orszag’s words:

Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise: To become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule — and much of “Outliers” along with it.

In a strange way Orszag has proved Gladwell’s point. Clearly, he has not spent ten-thousand-hours dealing with complex ideas. Thus, he mangles and distorts Gladwell’s idea, reducing it to a shadow of itself.

As it happens, and as Gladwell reminded us yesterday on the New Yorker site, he never, ever said that aptitude did not matter or that genes did not play a role. He never said that anyone could become anything he wanted to become by practicing at it for 10,000 hours.

Saying that you can be what you want to be or that you can make yourself over to become whomever you want has nothing to do with Gladwell’s subjects: people who actualize their exceptional potential through long hours of hard work.

If, Gladwell said, you have two children who possess a prodigious natural talent for music and one practices for 10,000 hours and the other doesn’t practice, the first is vastly more likely to become a great musician. Innate talent gives you the potential for greatness. It does not guarantee success. If you do not practice, all the talent in the world will not make you a great musician.

There is no such thing, Gladwell has been at pains to point out, as the prodigy who has never played a chess and who becomes a grandmaster after watching chess games for three days. Similarly, if you have no talent for music, all the practice in the world is not going to make you into Chopin.

Natural talent is necessary, but not sufficient.

Conceptually, this is not very difficult. Evidently, Orszag has not spent enough time working with ideas to draw these distinctions.

Commenting on the initial study performed by Herbert Simon and William Chase, Gladwell clarifies:

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. 

Need we mention that 10,000 is not a magic number? Some people use their time more efficiently and some less efficiently:

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.

Gladwell is saying, after Simon and Chase, that if you want to attain excellence in a field, if you want to become a world-class competitor you need to spend many long hours working at developing your talent.

It is a point well worth making. After all, how many people really strive for that level of excellence anymore? How many people believe that hard work brings achievement and that great achievement should be valued ahead of, say, well-roundedness?

It seems reasonable that children brought up by Tiger Moms do better in school because the strict regimen that their mothers impose allows them to spend more time developing the talents that they have. This assumes that these Tiger Moms can identify the talent that their children possess. It’s one thing for your child to be talented at music; quite another for him to be talented at baseball.

It’s great fun to consider how many hours of practice it takes to become a grandmaster chess player, but why not ask yourself how many hours of practice it takes to become a truly great executive.

Certainly, executive management and leadership are cognitively complex skills. By Gladwell’s formula, if you take someone who has great natural intellectual endowments, say Barack Obama, and you make him president of the United States before he has had any time to amass 10,000 hours of leadership and management training, there is no way that he will know how to do his job.


Sam L. said...

Indeed, I believe his executive practice hours at inauguration were Zero, Zip, Zilch, Nil, and Nada.

Ari said...

This study seems to make mincemeat of the notion that all you need for world-class performance is 10,000 hours of practice:

Sam L. said...

10000 hours of practice might have made me a better fencer. Starting at 15 years old would have helped me more, and given me a chance to fence that much.

Dennis said...

One can put in 10,000 hours of practice and not accomplish very much. The old saw about making it to Carnegie Hall by practice, practice, practice was never right. It is proper, with well thought out goals, practice that makes the difference. One should know why they are doing something and what the value of doing it has for one's growth.
One needs to develop good habits that will serve them when they are under performance pressure. This is true no matter what one's chosen field of endeavor. Know why you are striving, practicing, et al. Also one of the most important things one can do is know when to stop. It does one no good to beat up your mind, body or muscles. One wants to improve and grow, not destroy themselves in mindless activity. Your body and mind have limits so pay attention to them.

David Foster said...

Indeed, as Dennis says, the KIND of practice matters as much as the amount. For example, the FAA...probably partly in response to congressional pressure..recently increased the experience requirement for an airline copilot to 1500 flight hours:

An experienced airline captain has argued that the hours requirement by itself isn't very helpful, since the majority of those hours may well be spent watching the autopilot fly the airplane in cruise. She believes that it would be wise to allow and to encourage pilots to gain as much as half of that total experience requirement in GLIDERS...all hands-on experience, reinforced understanding of the basics of flight:

Karlene says: "I believe that if the pilots on AF447 and the pilots on Asiana 214 had been experienced glider pilots, the outcomes of both those flights would have been different."