Malcolm Gladwell Responds to Critics of the 10,000-Hour Rule

Malcolm Gladwell came into mainstream prominence with his explanation of the 10,000 hour rule. While Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the rule, he instantly popularized it via his best-selling book Outliers. The principle actually dates to a 1993 study (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”; PDF link), though in that paper the authors called it the 10-year rule.

In the latest piece for The New Yorker, Gladwell is back in the spotlight, but this time he is on the defensive. Here, he eviscerates the simplification of the 10,000 hour rule:

No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

Malcolm Gladwell goes on to reference David Epstein’s new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance:

I think that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain. For instance, Epstein uses as his main counterexample the high jumper Donald Thomas, who reached world-class level after no more than a few months of the most rudimentary practice. He then quotes academic papers making similar observations about other sports—like one that showed that people could make the Australian winter Olympic team in skeleton after no more than a few hundred practice runs. Skeleton, in case you are curious, is a sport in which a person pushes a sled as fast as she can along a track, jumps on, and then steers the sled down a hill. Some of the other domains that Epstein says do not fit the ten-thousand-hour model are darts, wrestling, and sprinting. “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys,” Epstein quotes one South African researcher as saying, “and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast.

It appears Gladwell is accepting of the challengers:

It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly [than 10,000 hours]

Malcolm Gladwell’s elaboration is important: it’s not just about taking in the time to practice, it’s also the efficacy of practice that matters. Preparation beats innate talent, but there is a limit.

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Further reading:

1) “Your Genes Don’t Fit: Why 10,000 Hours of Practice Won’t Make You an Expert”

2) “The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

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