Excitement and Anti-intellectualism in Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen

I cannot imagine a more bracing, dramatic, stern, and triumphant account of Zen practice than Philip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen. The very atmosphere of Zen is “lit up,” the mood is intense and alive and awesome, the figures very human while being supremely committed. I can see why the book, published in 1963, has had a magnetic effect on the practice and popularity of Zen in the West, and I can feel how it seduces me.

On each page, zazen, sesshin, kensho all seem very exciting and full of energy, and the roshis, even in their ordinariness, are these dramatic figures singularly devoted to helping their pupils “get kensho.” Notwithstanding the cold, the sparse food, the vigorous daily schedules, the powerful monks, the monasteries Kapleau describes just seem to crackle with the utmost height of life. The whole book is saturated, just saturated by the feel of those who have finally, ultimately, truly found and lived what they are looking for. I am astonished and touched by the beauty, the care, and the attention Kapleau put into the design.

I note, however, a particular deficit of spirit, a certain miserly prejudice when it comes to what Zen practitioners call “philosophy” and “speculation.” Over and over again, roshis, Kapleau, and pupils denigrate philosophy as only (they would say) reinforcing dualistic thinking: making distinctions between self and Buddha-nature, creating and applying concepts, asking speculative questions that cannot be answered, generally getting wrapped up in one’s own thinking.

This prejudice against philosophy, marring the book, is too bad first because it mistakes the essence of philosophy as logic-chopping, as the adoption and analysis of concepts; second because it fetishizes the peasant whose mind is without such cogitating and therefore is more primed for sartori (is this not already a political assumption about the peasant and leisurely classes?); and third–and this on a deeper political level–because our minds need to make distinctions and often fine-grained discriminations at that in order for us to deliberate in the hope of acting well in political situations that would otherwise confound us. The charge against Zen is that, under certain political conditions, it could let us lean in the direction of fascism: toward acting spontaneously without the requisite, nuanced political considerations, toward what Hannah Arendt might call “thoughtlessness.”

I do not doubt that more subtle Zen apologists will find room for a reply to my quibble, but that does not change the way that Zen has been received in the West and Kapleau has helped to perpetuate this misconception. Zen’s appeal in the West is owing, in large measure, to the death of God, the focus on practice, the pragmatic tendency in the American mind, the anti-intellectualism, and the enigmatic phrasings–and the bias against good, hard thinking is only exacerbated by the cult of the “spontaneous act.”

In my own letters and thoughts, I confess that I am becoming more acquainted than I had ever been before with the limits of the intellect in general and of my intellectualism in particular. I am humbled by this realization. Still, traditions that make room for faith alongside the limited, legitimate powers of the intellect are those that stand still to receive my allegiance. Lumping the intellect in with the “delusional mind,” as happens in The Three Pillars of Zen, is a dangerous move. Believing that philosophy is opposed to practice is another. Anti-intellectualism is as scary a position to hold on the Right as it is on the Left.

Aristotle, Book II, Nicomachean Ethics

In Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the nature of the virtues. I am rereading the book for something like the umpteenth time. Three excerpts left strong impressions on me, but first I would like to make some comments.

On Pleasure and Pain. The appeal of the first excerpt is that Aristotle makes room for pleasure and pain in ethical life. He makes a subtle argument, claiming that pleasure accompanies virtue but is not itself the aim of virtue. Hence, the virtuous man takes pleasure in performing virtuous deeds yet would not say that he is performing these deeds for the sake of pleasure.

By this argument, Aristotle does not fall into hedonism or Kantianism. Hedonists argue that the end of our actions is the maximization of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. Aristotle will have none of this, saying instead that the exercise of courage especially is not “essentially pleasant” (this from Book III, ix.5). In contradistinction, Kantians argue that what we ought to do is only contingently related (at best) to what we want to do. So, if my mother asks me to take out the trash, then doing what I should (fulfilling an obligation) is not doing what I want (playing video games, say).

I am inclined to think that, in the history of Western thought, Kantianism comes into being around the time that ethical life has broken down. To see this, consider a case in your own life in which ought and want are in conflict with each other. My wager is that something deep has already gone amiss with this relationship, this institution, this way of life.

On Practice. Aristotle claims that talking about virtue and being virtuous are analytically distinct. Hence, enrolling in a seminar on ethics (or metaethics) remains separate from exercising the virtue of courage in the face of danger. Aristotle is interested in the latter, as I am also.

On Liberality. We come now to the question of the mean, which is essentially a rule of thumb for action. The mean can be translated longwindedly as “doing the right thing in the right way for the reason for the right end.” Not a law, a rule, a procedure, a number, the mean carries the sense of ‘just right,’ as when someone acts with ‘just the right touch.’ In the case of liberality, it is a question of being generous enough: always a delicate matter to be sussed out in context and by means of good practice.

And now for the three excerpts. Enjoy.

Pleasure and Pain

An index of our dispositions is afforded by the pleasure or pain that accompanies our actions. A man is temperate if he abstains from bodily pleasures and finds this abstinence itself enjoyable, profligate if he feels it irksome; he is brave if he faces danger with pleasure or at all events without pain, cowardly if he does so with pain.

In fact pleasures and pains are the things with which moral virtue is concerned.

For (1) pleasure causes us to do base actions and pain causes us to abstain from doing noble actions. Hence the importance, as Plato points out, of having been definitely trained from childhood to like and dislike the proper things; this is what good education means.


Thus although actions are entitled just and temperate when they are such acts as just and temperate men would do, the agent is just and temperate not when he does these acts merely, but when he does them in the way in which just and temperate men do them. It is correct therefore to say that a man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions; and no one can have the remotest chance of becoming good without doing them. But the mass of mankind, instead of doing virtuous acts, have recourse to discussing virtue, and fancy that they are pursuing philosophy and that this will make them good men.

The Mean of Liberality

In regard to giving and getting money, the observance of the mean is Liberality; the excess and deficiency are Prodigality and Meanness, but the prodigal man and the mean man exceed and fall short in opposite ways to one another: the prodigal exceeds in giving and is deficient in getting, whereas the mean man exceeds in getting and is deficient in giving.

On holding converse with myself and on taking proper care of myself

I have been holding two thoughts in mind for quite a while and I now think it’s high time to bring them together. The first thought appears in Book VI of Diogenes Laertius’s The Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius relates that “When he [one philosopher named Antisthenes] was asked what advantage had accrued to him from philosophy [i.e., from leading a philosophical life], his answer was, ‘The ability to hold converse with myself.'” I have found Antisthenes’s pithy formulation so intriguing and pregnant, such a seeming and slight understatement as to entreat further examination.

The second thought is that most of us do not take proper care of ourselves. I can think of at least a handful of conversation partners I am working with now for which this has too often been the case. What would it mean for them to take proper care of themselves?, I wonder. I think this is a very interesting and important question and I admit it is one for which I have no immediate reply.

The key to one good answer might lie in associations, might lie in the fact that when I think of the ability to hold converse with oneself I am ever reminded of the the need to care properly for oneself. Conversely, when I think of the need to take proper care of oneself, I keep hearing myself speak of the ability to hold converse with oneself. How interesting is this connection I cannot say for sure. In light of this uncertainty, I wonder what would happen if I postulated the identity of one with the other. Could sense be made of this thesis?

For suppose the thesis were to run as follows:

The ability to converse with myself just is the ability to take care of myself.

I want to find out what I mean by this and whether it is true. For if it is true and if philosophy just is the ability to converse with myself, then the surprising conclusion would be that philosophy is (also) the ability to take care of myself. (Knowing thyself is taking care of thyself? Being a philosopher just is the activity of caring for myself? How very strange this would be.)

Let’s examine this identity thesis further to see whether any sense can be made of it.

There may be a difficulty at the outset that could prove to be insurmountable. That difficulty might be found in the simple observation that conversing takes place in words while caring takes place in the world. And how could words and worlds be the same? This does sound rather absurd. For example, a starting pitcher who, after the game, ices his shoulder and elbow could be said to be “taking care of himself,” and this claim would be hard to gainsay. But it would be puzzling if instead of icing his shoulder he spoke for hours with his trainer about icing his shoulder without actually doing so. If this were the case, then it would seem that words are actually getting in the way of his performing actions we would normally associate with taking care of an inflamed shoulder and elbow. And it does seem, in our own everyday experience, that we are quite well versed in the game of speaking about something or other at the same time that we fail to do that something or other about which we are speaking. Perhaps, then, the thesis I posited above is a non-starter from the get go.

Perhaps, however, we can alleviate the apparent difficulty that speaking and acting are two very different kinds of activities by making a few related points about the use to which (some) words can be put. The philosopher of language J.L. Austin suggests rather tellingly that not all linguistic utterances are reportages on reality. There are, he observes, certain kinds of “speech acts” whose point and purpose is to bring something about in the very act of stating. To make this case, he draws our attention to such common speech acts as getting married. When I say “I do” in the appropriate context, I am not reporting on a state of affairs. Rather, I am binding myself to you in the very moment of saying “I do”: the saying just is the binding.

There seems to me no reason to confine performative speech acts to marrying and promise-keeping and to a few other activities besides. It could be that saying, e.g., “I love you,” is not a statement that accompanies the act of loving you, is not simply an expression of some (inner) mental state. Rather, in the appropriate context, the utterance could very well be saying what it does: loving words just are loving deeds. So understood, the meaning of the utterance is the sense of togetherness the words thereby enact.

Before I consider the identity thesis in earnest, I want to consider one other rather mundane case about the “magical” capacity for words to be transformative of lived reality. Lately, I have taken to saying that I am going for a “running meditation.” This compound word could be read as saying that my body is running “in parallel with” my meditating mind. It might then be that one is “traveling alongside” the other, the mind “accompanying” the body, rather like a storm cloud follows Charlie Brown wherever he goes. But I do not think this is so because I do not think mind/body dualism, the view according to which the body is one kind of substance and the mind quite another, is a correct picture of being human.I am slowly coming round to the understanding of a human being as a whole person.

In the case of “running meditation,” it seems at least plausible to insist that I qua whole person am in the midst of a single activity that can then be “expressed” fully qua running or qua meditating. It would not be the case, then, that one is miraculously taking place “in time” or “in step” with the other but rather that my way of being in the world can be “expressed” fully as running or as meditating (whichever suits the purpose of the present inquiry). Accordingly, if an observer who is especially fond of running were to ask, “Now what is Andrew doing?,” he might say, “Well, he is running, of course.” And if a Buddhist monk were to ask, “What is he doing?,” he might answer, “He is meditating, of course. What else?” And if God were to ask himself what Andrew is doing, God might say that Andrew is thinking-acting in the way a philosopher acts.

The point I am trying to make, in my references to Austin and to the spiritual exercise (ascesis) of running meditation, is that we may be better off understanding ourselves as whole beings who are involved in a particular kind of practice than as beings with dual natures for whom mental activity and corporeal activity are two different kinds of practices. If this line of thought is headed in the right direction, then the thesis that conversing well with myself just is caring properly for myself might not turn out to be so absurd or off putting after all. We will have to see.

Now let us examine what it could possibly mean to have the “capacity to hold converse with myself,” since what it means is by no means immediately self-evident. One approach, to begin with, could be to understand more fully what the thought cannot possibly mean.

It cannot possibly mean staring idly and wordlessly into the dark; the inability to talk to myself (recall: capacity to…); speaking around or over something; talking past myself, talking at myself, talking down to myself, talking through myself (in all these formulations, recall: converse with…); going round in circles; beating around the bush; being in such a hurry that the words come too quickly (recall: holding converse); hurling stern words at myself (recall: holding converse); and so on.

Undoubtedly, this list could be extended further to include other forms of talking that do not qualify as holding converse with… What is interesting already is that the list reveals, at the very minimum, the many ways that we use harmful and untruthful words, sentences, and poor reasonings throughout the course of our daily lives. (For someone who has spent much of his 33 yrs. holding regular converse with myself, I find others’ lack of facility with this more than simply saddening. In this post, I do not consider the reasons why many have not learned how to hold converse with themselves. The extent to which this lack of facility is the case with most people living today has not gone unnoticed. The problem abounds.) And so, whatever the capacity to hold converse with myself ends up being it must at least have a great deal to do with learning to talk reasonably with myself, talking and sorting things out, moving in my thinking from one (worse) place to another (a better one), doing so in the light spirit of conversation, and practicing this activity often enough for it to count as being a capacity that I can reasonably say I can exercise well.

I notice something else about this list, and this is that it seems to allude, if not to be an expression of, a number of moral defects. I can make out, e.g., meanness, stubbornness, arrogance, circumlocution, being illogical, lack of compassion, anger, hurriedness, and cruelty. Could it then be said that holding converse with myself either requires or actualizes the contrary virtues such that kindness, compassion, humility, circumspection, being logical, soft-spokenness, and so on would have to intrinsic features of holding converse?

If this is the case, then the capacity to talk reasonably with myself might also draw forth the virtues referenced above, as if to say that speaking well summons forth living well. Or perhaps it is that the virtues would be exercised or actualized entirely in and through talking well. To my mind, either of these views, both bespeaking the close knit relationships of the virtues to holding proper converse with myself, would be interesting, if provisional, conclusions.

For now, let us put off to one side the result of our interpretation of Antithenes’s statement about holding converse, and let us to turn to the other side of the equation: to the question of what it means to take proper care of oneself. To begin with, I can think of what I have heard from and observed in a number of my conversation partners. When they do not take proper care of themselves, they are sacrificing themselves for the sake of another (or others); they are courting hubris (well, I thought I would throw my dear old self into the mix!); they are beating themselves up over something, being too hard on themselves; they are flattering themselves (damn: my old self again!); they are feeling their body disintegrate or lose its basic integrity; they are acting according to the understanding that they do not matter or do not matter enough.

In all these cases, we perceive either the problem of one’s not taking enough care of oneself, the harmful results “showing forth” in many basic aspects of living (e.g., eating, health, demeanor, stance) or the problem of caring too much about oneself, with the consequence that the hubristic one is alienated from meaningful social bonds. We also see that, especially in the case of disintegration, the implicit claim that wholeness in a very broad sense must be a key ingredient in (if not the constituent of) taking care of oneself.

And to care for oneself properly–what, therefore, would this mean? In a word, sitting well, standing well, and dwelling with myself, neither fighting myself nor indulging myself but loving myself fully. To care for myself properly is, it seems, to love myself wholeheartedly.

I think we are now in a position to gather together the results from the two lines of thought. So far, I have examined the thought that philosophy is the capacity to hold converse with myself. Then, I considered the thought about the need to take proper care of myself. I now want to say that philosophy, being the capacity to talk reasonably with myself, which talking draws forth or actualizes the virtues, just is the ongoing activity of dwelling with myself, i.e., the transformative activity of loving myself wholeheartedly. Succinctly put,

To practice speaking with myself is to practice loving all myself.

A Not So Final Thought

When I began this post, I had no idea what exactly I was going to write. I had some clues but no more than a few. For this reason, it is best to read the entry as an example of holding converse with myself before others. I am thinking aloud with the idea of following a line of inquiry wherever it may take me.

Bear in mind that I loved myself enough to begin an inquiry that might have gone nowhere. (And to love myself enough to be OK with that. And to love myself enough to post an inquiry that could very well have fallen into the ditch.) I submitted myself to an inquiry in the hope that I would be able to make sense of things and not just (but also not least) for my own sake but also, and most truly, for the sake of those I care about. By the end, I felt as if I understood myself and my conversation partners better, more clearly, more fittingly. I do not mean to stop the inquiry here for good, only to rest here for now. The key, in any case, is to regard this kind of activity as being but one example of a spiritual exercise (ascesis), a moment in any good day that is filled with spiritual exercises.

Good reasoning is good caring; good reasoning, being good, feels good also.

A picture of a philosophical way of life followed by a medium-length rant

An anecdote: Yesterday, while strolling through the grocery store, I heard a young mother say the following to her young son: “Honey, you just have to be happy with the music they play for you. Bon Jovi’s OK.”

Human Anthropology

1. Human beings are thoroughgoing social animals. I.e., social life is ‘metaphysically prior’ to the life of any individual. (Pace the picture of liberal society where individual is ‘metaphysically prior’ to social life. Recall Margaret Thatcher: “Society does not exist.”)

2. No human being can meet all its basic needs and wants. (NB: If social life “fails” us, then we are on the way to social tragedy.)

3. Human beings are  mutually dependent on each other in order to persist and flourish.

Sociality and Human Development

4. Simplifying to the extreme, social life is comprised–to be sure, of many groups, organizations, etc.–above all of institutions.

5. Good social institutions supply individuals with livable, inhabitable, suitable social roles. E.g., a good father, whatever his particular shape or form, etc., sees to the care, nurturance, and overall philosophical education of the young. E.g., a good host sees to her guests. Etc. (Cf. Ibsen’s middle tragedies like Hedda Gabler, Ghosts, Enemy of the People, and Doll’s House: all social tragedies in which individuals have come “unstuck” from their social roles. There, society is to blame.)

6. Institutions are the “trellises” upon and through which individuals, like vines, can grow, develop, and flourish. I.e., institutions help nurture and guide growth in particular, flourishing-promising directions.

7. Trellises are such, let’s say, as to only permit of certain kinds of growth (hence, not every logical possibility will be actualizable). Human growth, guided by trellises, will fall into a vague “range” of good or good enough answers to what it means to lead a good life.

Final Ends

8. Good institutions also and at the same time supply good final ends. E.g., the final end of the market is to contribute to general welfare, i.e., meeting the basic material needs and basic desires of all.

9. Human beings, qua social animals, engage in practices that are embedded in social institutions.

10. Good practices–which is to say, ongoing activities–are undertaken for the sake of the final ends supplied by good institutions. (An image: that of a dancer, perpetually in graceful motion.)

11. Final ends must, in the final analysis, be “answerable to” some objective dimension beyond the institutions themselves. The old answer, which was also very short, was: God. But this no longer. The new answers I propose: a sense of mystery or blessedness as well as a sense of wholeness (integritas), both of which are discernible in or can be “read off from” radiant lives.

12. Practices consist of virtues (arete) such as courage, judgment, and patience, all of which are actualized through particular spiritual exercises (ascesis). E.g., writing this blog–much to your surprise!–is, for me, a morning exercise in good, whole person thinking-living. E.g., good humor is ascesis, the lightening of human frailty. E.g., manners are “codified” ascesis.

13. Good institutions, conjointly, are aimed at the common good. E.g., family, market, and state all aim at the common good, the life we hold in common.

Yearnings for Reconciliation

14. Each individual must ‘see’ how he/she fits into this picture. (Cf. educare: the lifelong education of the soul)

15. This picture must be made to ‘fit’ each individual. I.e., the unfolding of the philosophical story in a commodious, welcoming way. (Philosophy, as it were, as invitation)

A Medium-Length Rant

In his NYT Stone blog “Philosophy–What’s the Use?” (January 25, 2012), Gary Gutting writes about the “uses” to which professional philosophy can be put.

As ever, what’s unpalatable to me is that someone as intelligent as Gutting can go on to defend philosophy by saying a few choice words about what professional philosophers do and about why that ought to matter to non-philosophers. He’ll then go on to show that logic is important (because we want our basic beliefs to be coherent) and conceptual analysis is important (because we want to use concepts properly).

Points well taken: it would be good if more Americans held coherent beliefs and grasped the contours of the most fundamental concepts (e.g., happiness) they use.  However, both points are also woefully inadequate.

The trouble, first off, is that few laypersons will care much about the inapt and too facile distinction between professional philosophers and non-philosophers. It smacks of pedantry. Indeed, Gutting seems to be missing a very broad range of middle categories: everything from the “philosophically minded” to “philosophical practitioners.” That’s terra cognita, the vast savanna of lived experience, for sure.

Second, he fails to show how there is any genuine ‘vitalist concern’ connected with one’s facility with logic and conceptual analysis. To be sure, there’s a world of difference between giving one’s rational assent to the conclusion of a knockdown argument (ho-hum) and giving one’s (for lack of a better word) whole person assent to the letting go of beliefs that one had hitherto lived by. The first is nothing much, nothing apart from an academic exercise, truly; the second is exceptionally, stunningly, palpably, enormously painful and moving and wondrous. Grrr.

The whole enterprise–the defense of a few feet of professional philosophical astroturf juxtaposed with the stony silence over a very broad, but unremarked upon swath of human experience to which philosophy ought to be answerable–is maddening. Straight up, out and out maddening. Grrr once more.

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”