Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.
The problem with having your theory in hand from the beginning is that you have to slough off whatever data don’t fit. There is, in fact, a small-print proviso attached to each of Gladwell’s theoretical constructs: “Except when it doesn’t.” “The Tipping Point”: A small-scale social shift can generate sweeping societal change … except when it doesn’t. “Blink”: Great decision making happens on impulse … except when it doesn’t. (Or, in the case of racial profiling, shouldn’t.)
Academic journals brim with disputes as theories are contested by opponents. Mr. Gladwell revels in the flaws of Lewis Terman’s hoary work on I.Q. — because it argues for innate ability — and he gives voice to Terman’s critics. But he omits discussing objections to the work of the social scientists he chooses to rely upon. As in a magic trick, he wows the audience, using bold claims and exquisite storytelling, but we see no arguments that would detract from his brilliant spectacle.
Given these examples, how should we think about the relationship between great achievement and the 10,000 hour rule?
It’s certainly clear that great achievement is possible without putting in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that it’s perhaps even relatively common among the greatest discoveries within science, and would not be surprised if this were also true in some areas of technology.
I believe it’s a mistake to focus on building up 10,000 hours of deliberate practice as some kind of long-range goal. Instead, pick a set of skills that you believe are broadly important, and that you enjoy working on, a set of skills where deliberate practice gives rapid intrinsic rewards. Work as hard as possible on developing those skills, but also explore in neighbouring areas, and (this is the part many people neglect) gradually move in whatever direction you find most enjoyable and meaningful. The more enjoyable and meaningful, the less difficult it will be to put in the time that leads to genuine mastery.
Still, there’s no way around it—the books sounds foremost like a dissection of privilege. And he shoved it into a space that’s usually hostile to that message, that successful people owe it more to their background than their inherent superiority over people who aren’t as successful, but likely as smart and creative. Unfortunately, according to this review, Gladwell indulges his urge to wank off on pet theories a little too much, using rice paddies to explain why some Asian nations best the rest of the world in math scores. I think the likelier explanation is more mundane, which is that Asia began to rise in the world markets at precisely the time that economies started to be driven more and more by science and technology, and they reacted to that environment by putting the focus on math in schools. Americans, alas, just don’t care as much. But I’m curious to read the book and see if Gladwell makes his case.