Part three in my continuing pedantic slow-as-molasses walk through Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.
SPOILER ALERT: Dude, I can’t talk about the book without giving away what the book is about, so if you don’t want the book’s main ideas to be spoiled, don’t continue reading.
IDIOT ALERT: I’m in no way qualified in most of the fields Gladwell will touch on, so please, a grain of salt, before you start complaining about my ignorance. Yes I’m an idiot, please tell me why!
Having, in the past chapter (hopefully) convinced us that there are factors to success (like the hockey cut-off date) that are not acknowledged, important, and, most importantly constructions of a social or cultural nature (in contrast to being of intrinsic or related to individuals) for determining who is successful, Gladwell, in chapter two delves into another such effect which is important: the 10000 hour rule. Actually this chapter has three main thoughts: the 10000 hour rule, the role of this rule in success, and a final analysis building on this second insight on the influence of success and when you are born.
The 10000 hour rule is roughly: to become a world-class expert in a field you need to spend 10000 hours practicing in this field. Gladwell describes a study by Anders Ericsson for violin students. Three groups of violinists were identified in a music academy: those with the potential to become professional, those merely “good”, and the low batch on the totem pole, those who were destined most likely to become music teachers. These groups were studied for amount of practice time they spent and it was found that the “great” group practice more than the “good” group which practiced more than the “teacher” group. Integrating up to the age of twenty the top group practiced 10000 hours, while the mere good group praticed eight thousand hours. The poor future teachers totaled a mere four thousand hours.
Gladwell then goes on to describe how this 10000 hour rule appears to be fairly ubiquitous. As Gladwell says:
The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, research have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.
He then describes how this is true of (even) Mozart, grand masters in chess, etc. etc.
|10000 hours of practice on the wall, 10000 hours of practice.
Go to U-Dub, steal some computer time, 9999 hours of practice on the wall.
Then, and here is where this idea of 10000 hours of practice ties in with “outliers,” Gladwell notes that 10000 hours is quite a lot of time (its a bit over a year in total time). Thus
…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.
Gladwell illustrates this by two three main examples, Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun, programmer extra-ordinaire, and, more recently, author of Why the future doesn’t need us, a warning against the dangers of technology), Bill Gates (nothing needed here), and the Beatles (who also needs no introduction, being more popular than Jesus.)
All of this points Gladwell to the conclusion that “all the outliers we’ve look at so far were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity” which he then goes to illustrate by a very strange argument concerning when you were born and what this does to impact your chance of being on the list of seventy five most wealthy individuals in history.
Pedantic curmudgeon’s take: First off, the good points about this chapter! Here Gladwell starts to develop his thesis better than in the previous chapters, where he largely used anecdotes to make insinuations (at least in my mind.) For example, I largely didn’t like the hockey chapter because, well, he seemed to me, to be insinuating that this effect was somehow the main effect in determining who is an outlier. I still have this trouble with this chapter, but here at least Gladwell says point blank that there are other factors. But, and here the curmudgeon takes over, it is exactly his dismissal of these “other factors” which I find most disturbing.
But lets back up a bit. What about the 10000 hour rule? A (slightly old) review of the roll of dedicated practice in becoming an expert is The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer (1993). Now, I must say that I find the evidence that 10000 hours is required to become an “expert” to be a very plausible idea, and the studies do seem to bear this out. However, I hate, absolutely hate the violin study. Recall that in this study, violinists were selected into one of three categories. If you read the above paper you’ll find that this was done with a total of 30 students, and further that the “great” category was determined by nomination from the teachers in the school. Ugh, this last part makes me very dubious of the whole study. Teachers, I’m sure, have a good idea about which of the students are the most studious and the most dedicated. In fact, many would even claim that they are overly sensitive to the more studious among the violinist. So does the fact that the group which was deemed “potential for greatness” versus “merely good” have a difference in reported practice times surprise me? No. Isn’t it just as likely to arise from the teacher prejudices about what makes a great student as it does with whether the student is “great?” The study tries to independently verify that these are indeed good violinists, by studying their success in open competitions and by having the violinists estimate how much music they could memorize. But to me, the difference between the “good” and the “great” might be just as much a function of the practice time they spend, as the tracking that these students have received, because they are more studious. Which is all to say, that I don’t like the violin study. But that a large amount of practice to become an expert in many fields seems reasonable.
That said there are still many problems with the 10000 hour rule, as applied to outliers. First of all it is not at all obvious that becoming an expert is the one and only way to becoming an outlier, nor even whether expertise is the prerequisite for success in a given field. Michael Nielsen has a blog post on this that I recommend. I would add to what Michael says in that I believe that the 10000 hour rule is a horrible predictor for discovery, cross-disciplinary serendepidity, and founders fortune. While it is certainly true that large numbers of discoveries have come about from experts working diligently in their fields of expertise, a surprising large number of discoveries seem to have come from people who were by no means 10000 hour experts in the relevant field. Indeed, the examples Michael cites are exactly these cases: Heisenberg’s discovery of quantum matrix mechanics, Chaitin’s independent invention of algorithmic information theory at a young age, etc. I also don’t think many founders of companies who go on to vast fame and fortune necessarily have had 10000 hours to become an expert in their given field. See the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days for numerous few examples.
The second problem I have with the 10000 hour rule is that it is not at all clear to me how one is supposed to calculate this number. I’ll take myself as an example. I think that I’m probably an expert in quantum computing (a loud mouthed good for nothing one, BTW.) Probably I would have counted myself an expert at the time I got my Ph.D. in 2001. At that point I had been studying quantum computing for around only three years. Certainly I was nowhere near 10000 hours in total practice time for the field of quantum computing. On the other hand, if you start to include my entire education, stretching back through my graduation in 1997 at Caltech and reaching back into high school and even grade school, certainly I’ve been practicing for well over 10000 hours. But, for me, and I think for many researchers, becoming an expert was not a 10000 hour event unless you include all the prior education. But should this be included? (Note that it’s estimated that 10000 hours practice requires about ten years, unless you’re spending an extraordinary amount of time on the one chosen subject.) This seems to me to be troublesome: for things where “expert” is not as well defined as “becoming a professional violin player” such as academic experts, it’s not clear that the 10000 hour rule isn’t just a function of the fact that most of us spend a good amount of time being educated. I propose:
Dave’s 10000 hour rule: it takes 10000 hours to become enough of a functioning human being to be entered into the “Outliers!” sweepstake.
|Sorry, not an Outlier. 🙁|
Okay, but enough with the 10000 hour rule. The real curmudgeon in me comes about when Gladwell then gives us the stories of how this ties into becoming an outlier (which, damnit, he still hasn’t properly defined. I’m reminded of the statement: “What is the smallest number which is not unusual?”) The basic idea here is that one needs extraordinary opportunities to log 10000 hours. Here is Gladwell:
If we put the stories of the hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates together, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to sucess. Joy and Gates and the Beattles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney had a musical gift that comes along only once in a generation, and Bill Joy, let us not forget had a mind so quick he was able to make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe. That much is obvious.
But what truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities. The Beatles, for the most random of reasons, got invited to go to Hamburg. Without Hamburg, the Beatles might well have taken a different path. “I was very lucky” Bill Gates said at the begnning of our interview. That doesn’t mean he isn’t brilliant or extraordinary entrepreneur. It just means he understands what incredible fortune it was to be at Lakeside in 1968.
(….sorry Ringo and George, you don’t make the cut for Outliers!)
Okay, well first there is the problem of defining these extraordinary opportunities and separating them out from extraordinary talent. Let’s take Bill Gates. It is certainly true that it was fortuitous that Gates went to Lakeside private school where they had access to a computer starting 1968 (but then again, our real estate agent went to Lakeside and was in advanced math classes with Paul Allen, so it’s hard for me to call this “extraordinary.”) But in order to prove to me that the key to Gates being an outlier was this event, you’d have to show me that Gates not going to Lakeside would have led to Gates not becoming a success. But everything that Gladwell points to following Lakeside indicates to me that Gates was, like most of the brilliant and successful people I’ve known, not just a pawn in a series of “extraordinary” opportunities, but actively engaging in trying to create these opportunities. For instance, we learn that after Gates and buddies drained the money used for the computer at Lakeside, Gates got to work on a computer at a company called C-Cubed. Galdwell is astonished (absolutely astonished!) at this turn of events, resulting from the fact that one of the founders of the firm had a son at Lakeside. But bah, (1) Gates had to distinguish himself and be known to the community in order to get this access (talent), and (2) as Gladwell points out Gates took the bus to their offices and programmed long into the evening: nice an “opportunity” in which most kids of Gates age probably wouldn’t have made the effort to chase. But it gets better, we then learn that after C-Cubed failed (wait, that couldn’t be a negative opportunity could it?) Gates “began hanging around the computer center at the University of Washington.” Yeah, now that’s an extraordinary opportunity, that has nothing to do with Gates driven nature. Most kids, you know, liked to hang around UW computer labs in the 70s. And on and on. What Gladwell seems to have missed in this entire story is that perhaps, just perhaps, that Mr. Bill Gates was a hell of a driven kid who realized that he was good with computers and that computers would change the world. If Gates hadn’t gone to Lakeside, do we really think he wouldn’t have ended up obsessed with computers? I don’t know, and I certainly don’t think Gladwell knows either.
Further, and I think even more damaging, the story Gladwell tells only makes sense in a post selected world. Everyday kids everywhere are given access to different extraordinary opportunities. Some of these opportunities lead down the path to fame and fortune. But others most certainly do not. If one is to make any use out of the idea that extraordinary opportunities are important to becoming an outlier, then one needs to be able to identify in advance which of these opportunities help lead one down the correct path. It is easy to find, in retrospect, exactly the “events” which caused Bill Gates to be worth $50 billion, but would it have been possible to have done this in 1972?
Finally there is the problem with all “just-so” stories: cherry picking what seems relevant. Gladwell doesn’t mention Gates getting speeding tickets. Why aren’t these relevant? If Gates hadn’t gotten a speeding tickets in Albuquerque, would Microsoft be were it is today? They certainly could have changed Bill Gates’ life in different ways, but why don’t these matter? What about moving Microsoft back to Seattle? Event or non-event in making Gates’ and outlier? Gladwell is again using insinuation to imply that the things he picks out as important, are important, while disregarding everything that he deems not important.
|Outlier from an outlying era. Or maybe the beginning of a new era?|
Now, finally lets talk about the Gladwell’s final argument in this chapter, having to do with when you are born and being on the list of the top 75 richest people in history. First of all, can I say that I’m a bit pissed at buying a hard copy book and finding six full pages filled with this list, and one in which the most relevant data for his argument (the dates of their birth) is left off the list. Second of all, I don’t follow Gladwell’s argument at all. Um, the Beatles and Bill Joy aren’t on this list, first of all…and where are the hockey player outliers that appear just just a bit back? This 75 richest people schtick, seems to me to be just some arbitrary list that sounds good. And clearly the 75 richest people list is going to be dominated by some major historical facts, like, for instance, the computer revolution. And yes, you had to be of the right age (and in the right country!) to participate in this list. But the suggestion that this somehow has anything to do with explaining outliers is absurd. Really only the 75 richest people? Why not the 1000 richest people? They’re not outliers? And rich people as the gauge of outliers? Better not tell Alan Turing, Richard Feynman, or Bobby Fisher! I’m pretty certain a careful examination of “outliers” as a function of time won’t show anything resembling the age bunching claimed by Gladwell. But to suggest that most eras don’t have outliers who are vastly wealthy for their age seems to me a bit silly.
Improv’s take: Perhaps, since 10000 hours is the exact requirement for expertise we should simply start timing kids in their chosen profession. 10000 hour diplomas are the standard of excellence! “Sorry son, you’ve only got 8000 hours, no job for you.” That way we can be guaranteed that we end up with perfect experts in fields. Better yet, we should just design artificial adult sized wombs in which people exist practicing their desired skills until they are ready to participate in the real world of experts. “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!” Okay, perhaps this is less improv and more snarkov 🙂