Ah, poor Malcolm Gladwell. Apparently research has caught up to one of his proclamations that people needed about 10,000 hours of practice to become an amazing expert in that field. Never mind that he based his proclamation largely on a single study of musicians from 1993.
His Outliers book is full of such nonsense, as I noted in 2008 after the book was published. It’s filled with obvious platitudes… such as the fact that success often takes luck as much as it does practice — and social advantage.
Now, new research has put the final nail into the coffin of Gladwell’s slick and silly 10,000 hour rule. The new research shows, in my opinion, that the 10,000 rule is nothing more than bunk.
You know, this isn’t the first time I (and many others) have called out Malcolm Gladwell for his sloppy generalizations that simply ignored research that doesn’t agree with his philosophy. He is the kind of charismatic personality who tells a good story — much like one of those over-hyped TED talks, but in book form.
I mean, who cares if what he expounds upon isn’t really backed up by the research? Or if he generalizes the research to fit the story — leaving out any findings or data that contradict his perspective??
Well, I for one. I’m still of the old school that if you’re a scientist who is writing pop-sciency stuff, it should still be based upon an objective review of the research. Not something that just supports your particular viewpoint.
When you make a statement, and then start to backpedal on that argument — saying, for example, it only applies to cognitively-demanding fields — it makes one wonder whether the underlying data for that argument were all that generalizable to begin with.
Finally, I believe that new research (Macnamara et al., 2014) puts the matter to rest:
The new paper, the most comprehensive review of relevant research to date, comes to a different conclusion. Compiling results from 88 studies across a wide range of skills, it estimates that practice time explains about 20 percent to 25 percent of the difference in performance in music, sports and games like chess. In academics, the number is much lower — 4 percent — in part because it’s hard to assess the effect of previous knowledge, the authors wrote.
“We found that, yes, practice is important, and of course it’s absolutely necessary to achieve expertise,” said Zach Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University and a co-author of the paper, with Brooke Macnamara, now at Case Western Reserve University, and Frederick Oswald of Rice University. “But it’s not as important as many people have been saying” compared to inborn gifts. […]
One of the studies that the new review paper includes found that chess masters with similar abilities varied widely in the amount of hours they reported practicing, from 3,000 to more than 25,000.
If we taken Malcolm Gladwell’s defense of his 10,000 hour rule at face value — “in cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals” — well, we see otherwise. In academics — a cognitively-demanding field — such practice will net you very little.
And that was always the problem with Gladwell’s broad rule to begin with — it appealed to our American desire to have a nice, neat number to work toward as a goal. “Wow, if only I dedicated myself to this effort, and achieved that minimum 10,000 hours, I could become a success!”
That number was fairly arbitrary to begin with. As the new research demonstrates, it could have been 3,000 hours — or 25,000 hours. It all depends on who you’re measuring and how diverse your sample is.1
What the new research shows is that striving toward a single number isn’t as important as understanding that building toward expertise isn’t simply a matter of practice time. Or genetics.
Instead, additional factors — factors that most research hasn’t accounted for very well to-date — seem to be equally important. The age at which a person starts to learn the skill or area of expertise seems to be important, as well as mixing different kinds of practice.
In other words, it’s complicated.2 And boiling it down to a single number, as Gladwell once suggested, probably isn’t nearly as important as understanding and fully appreciating this complexity.
Yes, practice matters. But so does a bunch of other stuff. You may not need 10,000 hours, so you may be wasting your time trying to achieve this arbitrary — and meaningless — number.
Read the full New York Times article: How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Talent
Macnamara, BN, Hambrick, DZ & Oswald, FL. (2014). Deliberate Practice and Performance in Music, Games, Sports, Education, and Professions: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797614535810.