Ten thousand hours


Robert Genn

November 28, 2008
Dear Rodney,

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, has some implications for artists. Like his other books, The Tipping Point and Blink, it's a refreshing pop-culture examination of well-worked subject matter. Outliers is about the phenomenon of success--what impedes it, and what delivers it. It seems a lot of the qualities we think are going to produce success, aren't.

Raw talent, for example, is far down the list of Gladwell's succeeding virtues. Being born in the right time and place, to the right parents is more where it's at. He's sorry, but he thinks just too many wannabees are disadvantaged from the get-go and don't really stand a chance. This kind of flies in the face of the self-made-man concept--the guy who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps against terrible odds. Gladwell cites all sorts of really bright, well-educated and naturally talented folks who never made it.

Gladwell really gets on track when he suggests that cognitively complex pursuits require ten thousand hours to get good. Drawing on a supply of examples, the rule seems to go for champion chess players, classical music composers, brain surgeons, top hockey players and fine artists. We're talking fine artists here; those who more or less know what they're doing.

"Success has to do with deliberate practice," says Gladwell. "Practice must be focused, determined, and in an environment where there's feedback." Further, the penchant for study, reflection, application and hard work is often propelled by obsession. While obsessive behavior may be an antisocial plague to societies and communities at large, it's total moxie when lone practitioners catch it.

Natural common sense is a big factor too. "You need to have the ability to gracefully navigate the world," says Gladwell. Apparently you need the ego-force to get what you want. Moreover, no one in any significant profession can do it without the help of others. Even hard-working ten-thousand-hour obsessive-compulsive introverts have to learn to bring agents and enablers into their sphere. For some, this comes naturally, even easily; for others, particularly those in the outlier and self-starting professions, it's a long and dusty road pocked with trial and error.

Best regards,


PS: "We vary greatly in the natural advantages that we've been given. The world's not fair." (Malcolm Gladwell)

Esoterica: According to Gladwell, much of what we wish is beyond our control. Some of us are more blessed than others and have opportunities to see things others can't see. Poverty, particularly at the youth level, is highly restrictive. In education, which is at the root of success, fancy new schools, charismatic principals or new technologies won't fix things, because the fact is poor kids don't have the opportunities at home during the school year, and have scanty chances of stimulating summers.