the problem with malcolm gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”
Greatness comes at a cost: ten thousand hours.
So goes the “10,000 hour rule”, which – as you probably know, so say it with me boys and girls – Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book OUTLIERS.
To become world-class at anything requires that you put in your ten thousand hours – roughly ten years – of practice.
(It’s actually a bit more complicated than that: it can’t be just coasting-mindlessly-on-autopilot practice, it has to be deliberate practice.)
It seems that men have an edge on women when it comes to accumulating those hours. Psychiatrist Linda Austin writes that from a young age, girls tend to be interested in “learning about the human world” which manifests itself in a passion for human issues and “a broad range of diverse interests”:
“…even women choosing majors in traditionally male fields such as biological sciences, fisheries, forestry, engineering, mathematics and business administration expressed significantly greater interest in the arts and service than males did.”
Boys tend to narrow and focus their interests while still in high school, often to math, science and technical fields. By the time they are in their mid-twenties, they might already be close to achieving those ten thousand hours.
Gifted young women, on the other hand, are likely to major in psychology or anthropology or sociology or political science. They might work for a few years before deciding to go to graduate school. They might take some time out to have children. They might go to work for an agency, institution or foundation, and as they develop skills and lean into strengths they discover the niche in which they want to specialize. Austin points out that because of this more circuitous path, a woman might arrive at her area of specialization
“….relatively late [so] her timetable will be different than her friend’s in engineering. Yet studies have shown that careers that begin at a later age can have the same trajectory of excellence as those started in young adulthood – the peak of achievement is just reached later in life.”
But the world is a shifting and unpredictable place. As Frans Johansson points out in his new book THE CLICK MOMENT, randomness plays a greater role in Being Successful than we’d like to think.
“We can list countless individuals who have become leaders in their fields and industries with little practice or training. Richard Branson launched Virgin Atlantic Airways on a whim, more or less, despite having zero experience running an airline. No 10,000 hours needed….”
Johansson points to Reed Hastings, who founded Netflix despite his lack of media or video experience; Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis, who founded Skype with limited telecommunications experience; Shigeru Miyamoto, who designed and produced Donkey Kong, one of the biggest arcade game hits of all time and exactly Shigeru’s third game; Stephenie Meyer, who hit the big time with a little YA series called TWILIGHT (you might have heard of it) despite her lack of writing practice (which some would say is reflected in Meyer’s less-than-critically-acclaimed writing style, but nevertheless); Diane Von Furstenberg, who created a key staple of almost any woman’s wardrobe – the wrap dress – while still a fashion-business newbie.
The difference between someone like Serena Williams (who racked up her ten thousand hours before she found success) and Richard Branson (who didn’t) has everything to do with their respective domains.
Tennis has rules, standards, specifications and guidelines that were pretty much the same now as when they were written, and are likely to remain the same twenty or fifty years from now.
Tennis, chess, classical music or any other discipline that responds well to the ten thousand hour rule is a
“fixed system that limits creativity and doesn’t allow for exceptions, which means you can get to know it inside out and practice your way to the top. There are strengths and strategies, yes, but you can count these on two hands and two feet.”
When you’re playing the same game over and over again, what worked in the past is likely to work again in the future.
But when the rules of the game change all the time, what worked in the past might not be relevant anymore, either because it no longer applies….or because everybody else is doing the same damn thing. In this world, you might not need ten thousand hours so much as what Johansson calls “the click moment”, the unique insight that changes everything – that turns a skirt and a top into a wrap dress, or an mp3 player into iPod and iTunes, or a dream into a bestselling YA vampire series in which vampires walk around in daylight and fall in love with human girls.
In this game, taking the ‘logical’ approach might not be so logical.
You need to do something magical.
“Unique insights are one of a kind; they are random, unexpected, and serendipitous.”
Unique insights don’t just change the game; they stand the game on its head.
To harness the powers of randomness and increase your odds of stumbling into a click moment of your own, Johansson recommends that you
Take your eyes off the ball.
• explore things not directly related to your immediate goal
• connect with the possibilities around you
• free yourself up to become aware of hidden opportunities
Use “intersectional thinking”
• search for inspiration in fields, industries, cultures different from your own
• surround yourself with different types of people
• attend conferences, lectures, museums outside of your discipline
Follow your curiosity
• curiosity is your intuition telling you that “something interesting is going on”
• curiosity compels you to dig and dig until you can finally connect the pieces
• curiosity clues you in to what’s different and new, unknown, unexplained
• chasing your curiosity allows serendipity to happen
Reject the predictable path
• actively rejecting the predictable insight leaves you nowhere else to go except by
making unpredictable connections
I believe in the pursuit of mastery. Whatever you decide to do, the way to security is to get incredibly great at it – “so good they can’t ignore you” as Cal Newport likes to say.
I believe in the power of click moments. Most of us are not living and working within a world of fixed rules, where the landscape is constant and certain.
We are creators, artists, entrepreneurs, badasses of one type or another; we’re not just living in a world of change, we’re the ones trying to bring change.
Linda Austin compares the narrowed and focused intelligence she considers typical of men to a laserbeam. She compares the wide-ranging intelligence she considers typical of women to a halogen light bulb. The former is fierce, focused, burning through obstacles; the latter is soft, diffusive, illuminating what’s around it.
The female challenge is to find a way to bring her interests together, to discover or create a point of intersection, to gather up the light of her intellect and channel it fiercely in order to blaze a new path.
At the same time, the breadth of her interests helps create the conditions that Johansson explains as necessary for ‘click moments’. In which case, men might want to take that hard focus and diffuse it a bit, to widen their intellectual framework and find some intersections of their own.