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Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour Rule” Gets the Comeuppance It Deserves

10,000_hours_of_hockey_practiceI’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.

The reason they’re not wealthy and famous today is the same reason they quit before they reached the magic 10,000-hour mark. They didn’t have the underlying talents necessary to excel in their chosen field. Gladwell had it only half right. Yes, success requires true commitment, long-term focus, self-sacrifice, and a great many hours of practice—but that’s not all it requires. When Gladwell came to his foolish conclusion that all it takes is 10,000 hours, it was based on his observation that everyone who put in that kind of effort came out a winner. What he failed to note is that those who hated practicing (because practice doesn’t feel good when you don’t have the talent) and who didn’t see steady growth as a result of all those hours invested (because without talent, growth doesn’t happen) simply quit before accumulating 10,000 hours. Those who survived the 10,000-hour gauntlet were the ones with talent. Talent was the determining factor all along. Talent is what made all that practice possible, and what made all that practice effective. Ten thousand hours may be necessary (the amount depends on the field), but it’s never sufficient.

And what a difficult, costly, and heartbreaking way to discover whether or not you have the talent! The real tragedy of Gladwell’s blithe assertion of his “10,000-hour rule” is all the blood, sweat, tears, and self-flagellation so many young people would endure if they blindly followed his mistaken advice. Those believing Gladwell, but seeing little progress and much pain, were forced to conclude that the problem was theirs… that they simply weren’t practicing hard enough or smart enough or something. That’s downright cruel. There are better ways of assessing one’s talent; almost anything would be smarter than wasting 10,000 hours, or even 1,000 hours.

At last, a study that puts an end to the 10,000-hour madness. Scientist Brooke Macnamara of Princeton University, together with colleagues from Michigan State and Rice, published results of a broad-ranging study of the role of practice in success. It makes a 12% difference (yawn!). But it’s not 12% in all endeavors. If the platform on which you’re seeking success is the Scrabble board or the chessboard, it could make a 26% difference. But if the field in which you want to be a winner is something professional, then it makes just a 1% difference. By professions, they don’t mean just medicine or law; in fact, the examples they give are soccer refereeing, computer programming, military aircraft piloting, and insurance sales. Good night, Mr. Gladwell.

A pop-psychology book has been proven nonsense by an actual study. Too bad we had to wait six years. But the debate between the theories of nature and nurture, a debate that goes back a very long time, will likely go on. Are highly successful people born that way—or are they made that way? Neither! The right answer was under Gladwell’s nose the entire time: It takes both. First the person must be born that way (the nature element), and then they must be made that way (the nurture element). And if you were forced to choose between the two, I suggest you bet every time on talent without practice, not on practice without talent.

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Topics: Talent