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.


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

Should Chess Be Taught in Elementary Schools?

A great story from Al-Jazeera on how Armenia has made taking chess a requirement for second, third, and fourth-graders.

A team of Armenian psychologists headed by Ruben Aghuzumstyan has been researching the impact of chess on young minds since last year.

Aghuzumstyan said preliminary results show that children who play chess score better in certain personality traits such as individuality, creative thinking, reflexes and comparative analysis.

I don’t have visions of chess reaching extremes in America (as described below), but I do think at least offering chess as elective courses in elementary school would be advantageous:

Yerevan Chess House, located in the heart of Armenia’s capital, bears testimony to the country’s chess mania. Every day dozens of chess players, young and old, spend hours here battling it out on their boards. Magazines, newspapers, books and DVDs about chess are on sale at the chess house’s newsstand.

Chess 64” is a popular TV show hosted by Gagik Hovhannisian that has been running since 1972. Earlier this year, the government introduced another programme, “Chess World“, hosted by 22-year-old Aghasi Inants, to attract youngsters to the sport.

My parents taught me to play chess at a young age, around five or six. I do think the game sharpens the mind and teaches you how to think.

The Bug in Deep Blue and Its Effect on Garry Kasparov

Nate Silver’s anticipated book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’tcomes out today. The Washington Post has a great excerpt from Silver’s book about the bug in Deep Blue that made Kasparov consider the machine super intelligent:

Nevertheless, there were some bugs in Deep Blue’s inventory: not many, but a few. Toward the end of my interview with him, [Murray] Campbell somewhat mischievously referred to an incident that had occurred toward the end of the first game in their 1997 match with Kasparov.

“A bug occurred in the game and it may have made Kasparov misunderstand the capabilities of Deep Blue,” Campbell told me. “He didn’t come up with the theory that the move it played was a bug.”

The bug had arisen on the forty-fourth move of their first game against Kasparov; unable to select a move, the program had defaulted to a last-resort fail-safe in which it picked a play completely at random. The bug had been inconsequential, coming late in the game in a position that had already been lost; Campbell and team repaired it the next day. “We had seen it once before, in a test game played earlier in 1997, and thought that it was fixed,” he told me. “Unfortunately there was one case that we had missed.”

In fact, the bug was anything but unfortunate for Deep Blue: it was likely what allowed the computer to beat Kasparov. In the popular recounting of Kasparov’s match against Deep Blue, it was the second game in which his problems originated—when he had made the almost unprecedented error of forfeiting a position that he could probably have drawn. But what had inspired Kasparov to commit this mistake? His anxiety over Deep Blue’s forty-fourth move in the first game—the move in which the computer had moved its rook for no apparent purpose. Kasparov had concluded that the counterintuitive play must be a sign of superior intelligence. He had never considered that it was simply a bug.

I’ve ordered the book on Amazon.

A Chess Game at Zuccotti Park

I enjoyed this short McSweeney’s piece about a chess game at Zuccotti Park:

Despite my hustle alert level being on high, I still agreed to play James for five dollars. I wasn’t in any mood to quit playing, especially if quitting meant I had to join the debate that was going on near the chess table between some “end the fed” guys and a couple of central-casting Bard students over whether or not Obama was to blame for the economic crisis.

The game was uneventful except that neither of us was in the mood to let the other one take moves back anymore. We stayed friendly and jocular over the board, but on the board it was all business. I opened with the Queen’s Gambit, he declined. “A little rusty” my ass. We played a fairly even game and ended in a draw. He seemed disappointed. One of the Bard students asked if we were done and if he could get next.

“We are playing best-of-three.” James looked at me and winked.

Now my hustle alert level was at severe. I figure James just got me for ten dollars. I briefly contemplated just paying him the money right then and there, I was so sure I didn’t stand a chance. We set the pieces up and played on. The Bard student returned to help his comrades win their political debate against the Ron Paul guys.

There are all kinds of seemingly divergent viewpoints here in Zuccotti Park waiting to be arrested. There are libertarians and there are socialists; there are 9-11 “truther” idiots and there are World Trade Center first responders; there are Democrats and there are Republicans; there are anarchists who hate the state and there are public sector unionists who work for it.

My favorite part is the analogy of zugzwang (pronounced ˈtsuːktsvaŋ), a chess term, to life in America and the Occupy protesters:

But the current position doesn’t look good for me. I’m ahead in material, but all of my pieces are committed to defending my king. I’m in zugzwang.

Zugzwang is a term used in chess to refer to a position where every move you have is a bad one. Once you’re in zugzwang, things like having more pieces than your opponent doesn’t matter anymore. If you can’t use them to attack you may as well not have them at all. Often players who find themselves in zugzwang simply resign.

A growing number of people in America know what it feels like to be in zugzwang. For some of them their whole life has been one long zugzwang, they can’t remember ever having any good options. Without catching a lucky break, a lifetime of hard work for most people results in just that—a lifetime of hard work. For others they maybe once thought they had it all—a good job with a pension, a nice house with a payment they could afford, set for life. Then in an instant it all disappeared. House is underwater, ARM is popping on the loan, pension fund bought a bunch of mortgage-backed securities. All that’s left is utter, hopeless zugzwang.

How does it end?

Readings: Honey Bees, Magnus Carlsen, Masculine Mystique, CNN

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read recently.

(1) “Yellow, Black, and Blues” [Seed Magazine] – a fascinating recap on the agricultural history of honey bees. Honey bees began disappearing in 2006, and this article proposes some explanations. There isn’t a single factor attributing to the honey bees’ demise:

By June 2009 a report issued by the USDA had accepted—not without a hint of resignation—that “it now seems clear that no single factor alone is responsible for the malady.” Stopping honey bee colonies from collapsing wouldn’t be as easy as banning a pesticide or killing a new pathogen. Instead it appeared an interaction of different factors must underpin CCD—for instance, a pesticide might have weakened the bees’ immune systems enough so that a new virus proved lethal.

(2) “Magnus Carlsen on his Chess Career” [Chessbase] – Germany’s Der Spiegel conducted an interview with Magnus Carlsen, the number one chess player in the world. It’s a really interesting interview, where Magnus explains that he is a “totally normal guy” who enjoys traveling:

We travelled by car to Austria, Montenegro, Greece, Italy and Hungary. The countries in the East are poorer than I thought, by the way. In Rome I visited St. Peter’s Basilica and saw a football match at the Olympic Stadium. Wonderful. When we were in Moscow, my mother and my sisters went to the Bolshoi Theatre, I didn’t.

The most interesting part is the exchange between Der Spiegel and Carlsen regarding Kasparov:

SPIEGEL: For a year now you have been working with Garry Kasparov, who is probably the best chess player of all time. What form does your cooperation take? Kasparov is the teacher, you the pupil?

Carlsen: No. In terms of our playing skills we are not that far apart. There are many things I am better at than he is. And vice versa. Kasparov can calculate more alternatives, whereas my intuition is better. I immediately know how to rate a situation and what plan is necessary. I am clearly superior to him in that respect.

So Carlsen’s response is ambivalent: on the one hand, he respects Garry Kasparov; on the other hand, he can’t restrain stroking his ego during the interview (“I am clearly superior to him”). Also of note: Kasparov’s piece in the New York Review of Books. [via]

(3) “The Masculine Mystique” [Wall Street Journal] – new research suggests that women from countries with healthier populations prefer more feminine-looking men. The research methodology seems a bit suspicious, but it’s still an interesting read.

(4) “CNN Fails to Stop Fall in Rating” [New York Times] – who better to report on this topic than the New York Times?

Link of the Day (01/25/10)

There is one article I want to highlight for today. It is so interesting that it deserves to stand on its own as the link of the day.

(1) “The Chess Master and the Computer” [New York Review of Books] – an incredibly well-written and thought-provoking piece by Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. In the article, Garry Kasparov discusses his play against computers, from the 1980s to the showdown with Deep Blue in 1997 to playing against modern computer chess programs.

Most intriguing to me are Mr. Kasparov’s thoughts on the possibility of solving chess. Imagine this scenario: you make a move in chess, and the computer would be able to calculate the best move under the circumstances and predict the likelihood of achieving mate (and in how many moves it will occur). The concept of solving chess is something I have been thinking about for over ten years, so it’s refreshing to read a Grandmaster’s opinion:

Another group postulated that the game would be solved, i.e., a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start would be found. (Or perhaps it would prove that a game of chess played in the best possible way always ends in a draw.) Perhaps a real version of HAL 9000 would simply announce move 1.e4, with checkmate in, say, 38,484 moves. These gloomy predictions have not come true, nor will they ever come to pass. Chess is far too complex to be definitively solved with any technology we can conceive of today.

So Mr. Kasparov is not excluding the possibility of chess being solved one day; he simply argues that it is inconceivable to solve the game of chess with the hardware we have today. Mr. Kasparov goes on to explain:

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game.

If you are at all interested in chess, computer science, or algorithms, I highly encourage you to read the entire article.