Monday, September 5, 2011

Numbers that Shock: 10,000

The book jacket blurb for Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers begins:

There is a story that is usually told about extremely successful people, a story that focuses on intelligence and ambition. In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell argues that the true story of success is very different, and that if we want to understand how some people thrive, we should spend more time looking around them — at such things as their family, their birthplace, or even their birth date. The story of success is more complex — and a lot more interesting — than it initially appears.

Except that it isn't complex at all, though I did find it fascinating. It turns out that birthdate and birthplace, family culture, and yes, even intelligence and ambition, have only one function in success: to allow the would-be successful person to reach that magic number.


Gladwell cites a study done in the early 1990's with a group of music students at the elite Academy of Music in Berlin. The school's violinists were divided into groups according to how well they played. The truly elite students had the potential to become world-class soloists. The second group was merely good — Gladwell doesn't say so, but knowing music as I do, these players would go on to become orchestral players and private teachers, much as my daughter aims to do. The third group were students who would likely not have a professional music career, but who would end up teaching in the public school system.

The students were all asked the same question: Over the course of your entire career, how many hours have you practiced?

Most of these students started playing at around five years of age. At that age, they might have practiced fifteen to thirty minutes a day, or two to three hours a week. But by age eight (the same age my daughter decided she was going to be a professional music teacher), differences started to emerge. Some students were practicing more than six hours a week by age nine, eight by age twelve, and by age fourteen, two or more hours a day. By the age of twenty, these top students were practicing, which Gladwell defines as "purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better" for over thirty hours a week. By the age of twenty, these top performers had reached that magic number: 10,000. Ten thousand hours of purposeful practice.

In contrast, the future teachers had totalled a mere four thousand hours, and the good students about eight thousand hours.

The same result was obtained with pianists, and when Gladwell scratched the surface of successful people as diverse as famous musicians, computer geniuses, hockey players, and chess grand masters, he found the same number cropping up. Ten thousand. That's how many hours of purposeful practice it takes to become truly masterful at something. Your age, your gender, the place and era into which you were born, your economic status, your intelligence and your natural passion for an endeavour — all of these things will help you, but only insofar as they gain you the opportunity to put in those ten thousand hours of practice.

The study of music students showed something else that is of enormous interest to me. In the entire study, there were no students who were "naturals" or "geniuses," gaining status and ability without putting in the prerequisite hours of practice.

More importantly, at least for me, there were no "grinds," students who worked harder and put in more hours of practice than their peers, without gaining ability.

10,000 hours is the only thing that's standing between me and my dreams, and I can't really blame any innate lack of ability for not being a better writer/artist/musician/researcher/scientist.

Gladwell says it takes a person about ten years to accomplish this feat. But starting from zero, and working purposefully for five hours a day, the actual time needed is five years, 175 days. (And I'm not starting from zero, at least in math...)

Ten years is a more realistic number, but even then, I realize that at age 51, I'll still only be 61 (and hopefully have lots of good years left in me) by the time I acheive mastery in whatever it is that I want to master. And to be honest, I'm partway there already in anything I'd care to try my hand at.

And a short note to the naysayers: No, I'm not so unrealistic as to think that I could, for example, become a world-class basketball player. My age, my gender, and my height are all against me. But if I wanted to, I could practice and become very good indeed.

Nor am I blind to the fact that the reason many people never acheive excellence is because they're too busy trying to live and survive. I think that one of the major aims of any just world order would be to give everyone that chance, though.

But I cannot any longer avoid the striking reality that if I so choose, I can become truly an expert at something, and that if I end my life being only moderately talented, it's my own damn choice.

I think one of the truly sad things about humanity is our addiction to the ideas of "fate" and "talent." Belief that it takes "talent" to succeed has kept many, many more people from succeeding than lack of opportunity ever did. Perhaps it's just because we've been fed this bs for so long, or perhaps it's human nature to wish to avoid taking responsibility for our lives, or maybe it's just easy to pretend that our lack of will to practice is due to lack of talent and not to the choice we've made not to practice.

Because it is a choice. Not an easy one, I grant you. In talking to my daughter, I realize that the choice she made not to be a top student was indeed conscious, and not due to lack of faith in her abilites as a cellist. She wants to spend time with friends and family, she wants to pursue other interests. So she's chosen NOT to be in the top group at her school

But it was a choice.

In my case, I too have a choice. My kids are grown. I have lots of interests and activities to fill my time, but I do have a burning desire to be really good at a few things, or maybe even only one thing.

My question to myself: What will it be, and am I willing to take the hours to purposefully practice that skill or skills?


Tyson Adams said...

Hi Ruth,
While I like the sentiment behind the 10,000 number (practice long and hard to be great) the actual studies don't support the number and there is no actual science to this. I'm afraid it is arbitrary and doesn't account for a slew of factors, such as concise practice.
This article sums it up nicely:
Cheers, Tyson

Ruth Cooke said...

Thanks for the comment, Tyson. For the record, I did say "purposeful" practice, and the study quoted does say something like "deliberate practice with the intent to improve." Or, as my teachers would say, NOT, "Practice makes perfet," but, "PERFECT practice makes perfect."

And do remember I pointed out that I will, for example, never be a pro basketball player. :)

But having watched my tone-deaf five-year-old daughter develop into a professional musician, and my gifted son bomb out and eventually give up on lessons, I do understand that practice is the main part of what makes great artists great, and that "lack of talent" is almost always a cop-out used by those not motivated to practice.

As for the number 10,000--the study showed this number to be significant for those music students, and Gladwell hypothesizes that it's probably significant in other areas as well.

Even if it's not etirely accurate, the number does something very important--it quantifies a huge undertaking, and enables me to then break the undertaking down into smaller, more acheivable goals. That's an incredibly important motivating factor, and much more concrete to me than just, "Practice a lot and you'll get better."

Well, yeah. I know that! But how much practice, and how much better?

Now I have a goal. It's kind of like those who want to grow up to be millionaires. It doesn't matter to them that a million dollars is more than they'll ever need, or that they can't really conceive at this point how much a million dollars really is.

It's something to shoot for, and a way to keep score.

And that's what the effect of the concept of 10,000 hours has had on me.