the problem with malcolm gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”

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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.”

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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.

Writes Johansson:

“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.

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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

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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.

Sep 17, 2012
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14 comments · Add Yours

I always love your writing and how you explore gender and how it pertains to artistic expression and success. This piece really resonated with me. I especially like how “intersectionality” is offered as a process for exploring opportunities. since similar intersectional thinking is used in feminist theory for understanding different experiences. Thanks for this post!

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It’s a tricky time problem for women. Some reproductive technology can help to give that 10 or 20 years extra time.
http://www.metanexus.net/essay/reproductive-choices-promising-landscape-assisted-reproductive-technology

Plus all of these suggestions to bypass the 10,000 hour rule. Thanks Justine.

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Hi–

There are some 10,000 fields that aren’t just a matter of practice or a fixed system, like ice skating. Kristi Yamaguchi used to practice 10,000 hours between olympics. (4 years x 8-12 hours per day x 300+ days per year)

I’d guess that top notch sports players actually spend more time than 10,000 hours.

Classical musicians … well, it may be a somewhat fixed system, but there’s lot of stuff on top of performance that makes a good classical musician, including ability to deal with crappy conductors, ability to follow, music theory (harmony, composition, etc.) At least if we just stick with “classical musicians” as baroque and classical genres. Romantic, post-romantic, 20th century and contemporary music is much harder to call a “fixed system.” Some instruments are much more flexible than others.

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I used to feel weird and guilty about having so many interests. And for a long time, I felt alone—as if I was the only person in the world who wanted to study everything under the sun (writing brings these subjects together nicely, I think.) Thanks for posting this, Justine. Now I know it’s part of my nature.

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Another problem, of course, is that it’s not really his rule, but Anders Ericsson’s:-)

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Interesting perspective on this phenomenon and thanks for the book recommendation as I hadn’t heard of it.
The click moments and the examples of Branson, Hastings et al don’t rely on mastery of a particular skill over time. Yes, you’re right, the rules of disciplines like tennis, chess and classical music are likely to remain unchanged so a practitioner knows exactly what they need to focus on to achieve mastery. Excellence in this context takes time and can’t be short-cut. The genius of someone like Branson is in the flash of inspiration, the divergent, expansive thinking which I agree will be more suited to the fluid and dynamic contexts we are living through. However, it should be noted that it’s taken Branson many years of diligence and deliberate practice to develop the business mastery that maintains his success.

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@Christine I agree, if anything 10,000 hours is a bare minimum — often it’s 15,000 or 20,000. Thanks for your remarks re: classical music.

@Greg Satell (@Digitaltonto) Malcolm Gladwell gets credit for popularizing it, certainly not for inventing it.

@Vincent Driscoll The book is new, by the same guy who wrote THE MEDICI EFFECT, one of the best business/innovation books to come out in recent years. He’s not saying that one precludes the other (mastery precludes the click moment) — rather that, as Christine pointed out above, some combination of both is likely needed — and the looser the system, the more vulnerable to change, the more you need that insight to set you apart.

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There are also men who like to have a broad interest and experience. :) Our current societal challenges require men and women who have a holistic view as well as multi-disciplinary experience.

We have created a group to promote and stimulate this kind of curiosity -http://creativegeneralist.org

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It’d be nice to make a more clear distinction between a rule and a heuristic. There’s no rule (whether you call it a rule or not) that says you can’t achieve success unless you put in 10,000 hours; nor is there a rule that says that if you’re successful, it must be because you’ve put in 10,000 hours. Instead, there’s a rule of thumb or a guideline or a notion that suggests that mastery tends to take something on the order of five years of full-time work, and that other factors (diligence, luck, community, mentoring, tools of the trade, generality vs. specialism) may also play a role. That’s Gladwell’s thesis, if anyone bothers to read the whole book instead of fixating on a single point.

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@Michael Bolton Oh, Michael Bolton (did you ever suffer for having that name?), call me a wild optimist but I think a lot of people actually do manage to read the whole book. “10,000 Hour Heuristic” doesn’t have the same ring to it. Of course people fixate on it; it makes success seem predictable and within your control if you’re willing to do the work (unlike, say, being born in the right month in the right year in the right place) and it upends some deeply ingrained notions of what talent is and how it develops. In any case, what I think people tend to forget was that Gladwell wasn’t talking about being merely successful but being an outlier, a phenom, truly world-class, a master, and he takes the ‘rule’ from K Anders Ericsson’s study which was precisely that — a study of mastery, of elite and world-class performance (in which 10,000 hours is recognized as a a bare minimum of what’s required, more often 15,000 or 20,000). Gladwell transfers that to a picture of what goes into the creation of extreme success (you can master something without necessarily being recognized as ‘successful’ at it). Johansson is taking one of those ‘other factors’ that you refer to — luck — and unpacking it, examining when and where it’s important (it’s more important in some fields than others) and how you can maximize the odds of getting lucky. So to speak.

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Her name is actually spelled StephEnie Meyer. She was named after her father Stephen or something. Just thought you’d like to know. Toodles!

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thank you! shall correct. :)

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Heuristic. Sounds like someone has been reading “Thinking, Fast & Slow”. Or perhaps we all should?

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You have spun your review of two books into an incorrect conclusion about gender differences. Without that conclusion, it would just be two book reviews.

I feel that women are more likely to adhere to the 10000 hour rule, which in non-creative pursuits accepts a prescribed curriculum. (Do this and you will be successful)

Men are more likely to seek alternate paths, shortcuts, enhancements, derivatives, etc in their quest to be BETTER. This is why men are responsible for the majority of the world’s creative output. The difference can easily be shown by how men, when lost, are less likely to ask for directions than women. Once invested in a problem, a man is not likely to let go, he will bring all his faculties to bear on the problem, including his ego. Women will more quickly ask for directions.

There is a creative integrity that is a masculine trait, akin to trying to get somewhere without asking for directions. It has nothing to do with following a prescribed 10000 hours, in fact it seeks to do the same work in 5000 hours or less.

The danger for men is going too far off the beaten path and NOT logging the 10000 hours.

To the author, you have your conclusion mixed up. Women are more likely to follow the prescription, men are constantly seeking ways to improve and do things their own way. From the outside it may seem like a lazer beam, but it involves harnessing many alternate energies and approaches into a solution.

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