Gladwell’s 10,000 rule for success and Aristotle’s reply

So a wise guy goes up to Malcolm Gladwell and asks him, “Hey, bub, can you tell me how you get to Carnegie Hall?” Gladwell, seeing that the guy’s probably in his early 60s, doesn’t miss a beat: “Of course. From here, you just take the N/Q/R to 57th St. and then walk a block north. Big brick building on your left. You can’t miss it.”

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The key to Malcolm Gladwell’s popular appeal has been his embrace of quintessentially American questions coupled with his schadenfreude accounts of  the right answers. “How does one become successful?” he asks. “How does one give birth to a new idea?” Like most Americans, he’s fascinated by the exceptional individual, be it the star athlete, the virtuoso pianist, the innovative entrepreneur, or the brilliant scientist. Also like most Americans, he’s riveted by novelty: by how new things are created, distributed, and adopted; by how they change our lives; by what conditions were ripe to make certain innovations possible. His accounts always have that just-right mix of the obvious and the less so, the pleasurable and the painful, the enviable and the venerable, the praiseworthy and the sour grapes. Could we also have been star athletes if only we’d…?

In his 2008 New York Times bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm intends to explain why a few people get invited to Carnegie Hall and why the rest of us have to pay.

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Here comes the obvious: to be great at something, you have to practice, practice, practice. And now the less so: for 10,000 hours. According to Gladwell, the “10,000 hour rule” states that it takes about this long for any performer to become a virtuoso at any endeavor. This claim puts the lie to the Romantic belief that geniuses–math savants and Mozarts–are innately so. Gladwell begs to differ, and he references the Beatles in Hamburg to make his case.

The year is 1960 and the Beatles, a little known band based in Liverpool, is nothing special. A mediocre local curiosity perhaps. A precursor to the hipster Brooklyn night scene. What changed things, Gladwell notes, was the Beatle’s time in Hamburg, Germany. He quotes Lennon:

[During our trips to Hamburg,] We got better and got more confidence. We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at everyone. In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.

And then he cites Phillip Norman, a knowledgeable Beatles biographer:

“They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back,” Norman went on. “They learned not only stamina. They had to learn an enormous amount of numbers – cover versions of everything you can think of, not just rock and roll, a bit of jazz too. They weren’t disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.”

“So practice a lot, practice until you reach the magical quota? That’s the recipe?” Not exactly, Gladwell notes. There’s a bit more to it than that.

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Tell me then: “How much more?” Gladwell concedes that unless you possess the basic talents and capacities (as Lewis Hyde would say, “the gifts”) you can’t hope to become successful in your chosen activity. And this makes sense: no matter how much I play the piano, if I don’t have two hands (I almost said one but then thought of Wittgenstein’s brother…), practice won’t do me any good. Thus, recent criticisms of Gladwell that claim that he fails to account for differences in abilities are uncharitable caricatures of his fuller account. In reality, Gladwell’s starting point is: Given a group of individuals, all of whom possess the basic capacities in X, what explains the differences in outcomes with respect to X?

“So talent and practice?” Well, that’s not all, either. Gladwell again:

The other interesting thing about that ten thousand hours, of course, is that ten thousand hours is an enormous amount of time. It’s all but impossible to reach that number all by yourself by the time you’re a young adult. You have to have parents who encourage and support you. You can’t be poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to help make ends meet, there won’t be time left in the day to practice enough. In fact, most people can reach that number only if they get into some kind of special program-like a hockey all-star squad – or if they get some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put in those hours.

Throughout Outliers, Gladwell puts a great deal of emphasis on the concept of “extraordinary opportunity” or “unusual opportunities.” The term seems to include good social support, the requisite financial support, the right material/social conditions (Hamburg in the Beatles’ case; Greenwich Village, I’d venture, in the case of Jane Jacobs) as well as the right Zeitgeist. For Gladwell, success has a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of this right place/right time judgment. The conditions were just right for a group like the Beatles to come along and take advantage of a Hamburg-like opportunity.

Let’s summarize Gladwell’s account so far. To be successful, you have to

  1. Have the basic talents and capacities;
  2. Be able to rely on the support of others;
  3. Manage to take advantage of your “unusual opportunities”;
  4. And practice your craft for at least 10,000 hours.

Already, the 10,000 hour rule is looking more like a piece of the puzzle than like a full-blooded explanation. Now does my reconstructed Gladwellian account have sufficient explanatory power? Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

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Over the past 10 years, I’ve referred to Shaquille O’Neal’s free-throw shooting woes more times than I can count. (10,000 times?) Throughout his 19-year career in the NBA, O’Neal struggled mightily and consistently with his free-throw shooting–and this despite the years of practice, the “free-throw shooting gurus” he’d hired, the modifications to form and technique, and so on. No matter what he tried, his free-throw shooting percentage hovered around or below 50%. (For those non-basketball readers, that’s pretty sub-par.)

“So what?” you ask. Well, O’Neal is a virtuoso basketball player who also presents us with an explanatory puzzle. How can someone practice more and yet produce as much or, during some years, even less? The puzzle only gets more confusing when we grant that O’Neal seems to have the requisite talents (condition 1), the support of others (condition 2), the extraordinary opportunities (condition 3), and the number of hours (condition 4: probably well over 10,000 hours).

I don’t see how Gladwell can explain the O’Neal anomaly unless he claims that O’Neal lacks the capacities for making free-throws at around 70%. Gladwell might say that O’Neal’s size, body structure, and mechanics simply won’t allow for his making 3 out of 4 free-throws. But this reply seems to me somewhat counterintuitive and heavy-handed. My hunch would be that if we measured the mean free-throw shooting percentages of, say, NBA athletes over 7 feet tall (etc. etc.), we’d find that they were doing much better than O’Neal at putting the ball in the hole.

To explain O’Neal-like cases, we’ll have to turn elsewhere.

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My suggestion will be that we modify Gladwell’s account to include 2 more conditions. The pupil requires the right guidance (condition 5), and the practice has to be done over and over again in the right way (condition 6). Both, I know, seem like no-brainers: to perform well, you need to do something over and over again with the aid of some teacher (real or imagined, alive or dead, present or absent) who sees to it that you’re doing the activity well and you’ve got to do the thing in the right way. I may spend 10,000 learning how to shoot piss poor free-throws by throwing the ball at the rim like a spear. My hypothesis would be that O’Neal’s guides weren’t that great and that, over the course of 10,000+ hours of practice, he was learning just as many bad habits as good ones.

“So manage to get yourself plopped down in the right setting, and then practice lots and also really well and also with someone in the know looking over your shoulder?” Yup, that’s about it. The funny thing is that there’s a much older, better, and less expensive account of human excellence. Only, it’s not Gladwell’s. It’s Aristotle’s.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “On Spiritual Exercise”

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