I’m not the kind of guy who tends to do a victory dance when he finds his point of view vindicated. But I came close the other day when I read about the Princeton University study that put the kibosh on Malcolm Gladwell’s famous—and utterly misleading—assertion that all it takes to be successful in any field is 10,000 hours of practice.
I knew Malcolm Gladwell was wrong the moment I heard his crazy claim. The 10,000-hour nonsense is the central theme, the activating idea, in Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, published in 2008. Gladwell observed that the best NHL players grew up on the ice in Canada; most were skating by age three, and they had something like, umm, 10,000 hours’ practice by the time the NHL scouts came to watch them play. And he noted that Bill Gates grew up in a rare (for that era) environment where he had access to computers from an early age and was able to devote, hmm, 10,000 hours to try his hand at programming these new contraptions and get good at it. The Beatles? You guessed it, 10,000 hours in the basement or in empty or crowded dance halls in Liverpool. It’s not talent, Gladwell kept repeating, it’s simply 10,000 hours.
That was his axiom. And the corollary? You—yes, you!—can be as successful as John Lennon, Bill Gates, or Wayne Gretzky… if you simply commit to 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell specifically claimed that his observation about practice time proved that all that talk about talent was just wrong. Perhaps even more surprising than Gladwell’s allegation was that so many people fell for it, hook, line, and career. Pundits wrote about it, teachers preached it, and young people rearranged their life to fit in 10,000 hours of practice. That’s 5 years of 40-hour practice weeks, if my arithmetic is right. Most didn’t last 10,000 hours. Is that why they’re not gazillionnaires today? Not exactly.