What did Malcolm Gladwell actually say about the 10,000 hour rule?

A new paper out in Intelligence, from a group of authors led by David Hambrick, is getting a lot of press coverage for having “debunked” the 10,000-hour rule discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The 10,000-hour rule is — well, actually, that’s the point of this post: Just what, exactly, is the 10,000-hour rule?

The debate in Intelligence is between Hambrick et al. and researcher K. Anders Ericsson, who studies deliberate practice and expert performance (and wrote a rejoinder to Hambrick et al. in the journal). But Malcolm Gladwell interpreted Ericsson’s work in a popular book and popularized the phrase “the 10,000-hour rule.” And most of the press coverage mentions Gladwell.

Moreover, Gladwell has been the subject of a lot of discussion lately about how he interprets research and presents his conclusions. The 10,000-hour rule has become a runaway meme — there’s even a Macklemore song about it. And if you google it, you’ll find a lot of people talking about it and trying to apply it to their lives. The interpretations aren’t always the same, suggesting there’s been some interpretive drift in what people think the 10,000-hour rule really is. I read Outliers shortly after it came out, but my memory of it has probably been shaped by all of that conversation that has happened since. So I decided it would be interesting to go back to the source and take another look at what Gladwell actually said.

“The 10,000-Hour Rule” is the title of a chapter in Outliers. It weaves together a bunch of stories of how people became wildly successful. The pivotal moment where Gladwell lays out his thesis, the nut graf if you will, is this:

“For almost a generation, psychologists around the world have been engaged in a spirited debate over a question that most of us would consider to have been settled years ago. The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do—the innately talented ones. Achievement is tal­ent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” (pp. 37-38)

This is classic Gladwell style — setting up the conventional wisdom and then knock it down. You might think X, but I’m going to show you it’s really not-X. In this case, what is the X that you might think? That there is such a thing as talent and that it matters for success. And Gladwell is promising to challenge that view. Zoom in and it’s laid bare:

“Achievement is tal­ent plus preparation. The problem with this view…”

Some Gladwell defenders have claimed he was just saying that talent isn’t enough by itself and preparation matters too. But that would be a pretty weak assertion for a bestselling book. I mean, who doesn’t think that violin prodigies or hockey players need to practice? And it is clear Gladwell is going for something more extreme than that. “Achievement is talent plus preparation” is not Gladwell’s thesis. To the contrary, that is the conventional wisdom that Gladwell is promising to overturn.

Gladwell then goes on to tell a bunch of stories of successful people who practiced a lot lot lot before they became successful. But that line of argument can only get you so far. Preparation and talent are not mutually exclusive. So saying “preparation matters” over and over really tells you nothing about whether talent matters too. And the difficulty for Gladwell is that, try as he might, he cannot avoid acknowledging a place for talent too. To deny that talent exists and matters would be absurd in the face of both common sense and hard data. And Gladwell can’t go that far:

“If we put the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates together, I think we get a more com­plete picture of the path to success. Joy and Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCart­ney had a musical gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation, and Bill Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he was able to make up a complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe. That much is obvious.” (p. 55)

So “a more complete picture of the path to success” says that talent exists and it matters — a lot. It is actually a big deal if you have a “gift of the sort that comes along once in a generation.” So we are actually back to the conventional wisdom again: Achievement is talent plus preparation. Sure, Gladwell emphasizes the preparation piece in his storytelling. But that difference in emphasis tells us more about what is easier to narrate (nobody is ever going to make an 80’s-style montage about ACE models) than about which is actually the stronger cause. So after all the stories, it looks an awful lot like the 10,000-hour rule is just the conventional wisdom after all.

But wait! In the very next paragraph…

“But what truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary oppor­tunities.” (p. 55)

“Opportunities” doesn’t sound like talent *or* preparation. What’s that about?

This, I think, has been missing from a lot of the popular discussion about the 10,000-hour rule. Narrowly, the 10,000-hour rule is about talent and preparation. But that overlooks the emphasis in Outliers on randomness and luck — being in the right place and the right time. So you might expand the formula: “Achievement is talent plus preparation plus luck.”

Only Gladwell wants his conclusion to be simpler than the conventional wisdom, not more complicated. So he tries to equate luck with preparation, or more precisely with the opportunity to prepare. Be born in the right era, live in the right place, and maybe you’ll get a chance to spend 10,000 hours getting good at something.

The problem with simplifying the formula rather than complicating it is that you miss important things. Gladwell’s point is that you need opportunities to prepare — you can’t become a computer whiz unless you have access to a computer to tinker with (10,000 hours worth of access, to be precise). He notes that a lot of wealthy and famous computer innovators, like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Jobs, were born in 1954 or 1955. So when personal computing took off they were just the right age to get to mess around with computers: old enough to start businesses, young enough and unattached enough to have the time to sink into something new and uncertain. Gladwell concludes that the timing of your birth is a sort of cosmically random factor that affects whether you’ll be successful.

But not all opportunities are purely random — in many domains, opportunities are more likely to come to people who are talented or prepared or both. If you show some early potential and dedication to hockey or music, people are more likely to give you a hockey stick or a violin. Sure, you have to live in a time and place where hockey sticks or violins exist, but there’s more to it than that.

And let us not forget one of the most important ways that people end up in the right place at the right time: privilege (turns out Macklemore has a song about that too). The year that Gates, Allen, and Jobs were all born in 1954-55 may be random in some cosmic sense. But the fact that they are all white dudes from America suggests some sort of pattern, at least to me. Gladwell tells a story about how Bill Hewlett gave a young Steve Jobs spare computer parts to tinker with. The story is told like it’s a lucky opportunity for Jobs, and in a sense it is. But I wonder what would have happened if a poor kid from East Palo Alto had asked Hewlett for the same thing.

So now we are up to 4 things: talent, preparation, luck, and privilege. They all matter, they all affect each other, and I am sure we could add to the list. And you could go even deeper and start questioning the foundations of how we have carved up our list of variables (just what do we mean by “innate talent” anyway, and is it the same thing — innate in the same way — for everybody?). That would be an even more complete picture of the path to success. Not an easy story to tell, I know, but maybe a better one.

36 thoughts on “What did Malcolm Gladwell actually say about the 10,000 hour rule?

  1. Thanks for that informative post. Yeah, under inspection, Gladwell often seems to have said very little, but gets talked about so very much. People want these massive, paradigm-shifting conclusions out of his books, but one can’t legitimately make huge shifts on the types of interesting topics he chooses to write about. And he doesn’t… readers do.

    My memory of reading The Tipping Point is that he spent almost none of the book discussing any tipping points, yet the term became practically a must-say for any try-to-sound-smart person for years of conversation and “analysis.”

  2. Gladwell is good at encapsulating interesting ideas into short phrases. He’s a headline writer. “The Tipping Point” is a good example: it’s nothing that Gleick’s “Chaos” didn’t cover, but Gleick wrote like a journalist telling the story of a few mathematicians.

    Also, I have yet to see any evidence that talent exists above and beyond what one might just as well call opportunity or privilege. It seems like “talent” is just an encapsulated “begging the question.”

  3. It’s real simple, folks: we are all different. Some learn certain things faster than others. but no matter who you are, if you’re stimulated positively to acquire a skill (i.e. it’s fun) your neuroplastic brain will lay down new connections faster than Comcast in a housing boom.

    A lot of what people call “talent” is really just Greek for “the final destination of a fun ride.” Talk to Csikszentmihalyi about his flow. Anybody who tells you it can only be done a certain way is merely revealing their own limitations…of imagination.

    Yeah, practice usually works. But it works at nuclear levels when you actually WANT to do it, when you are hungry for the very thing you are practicing. Then, it’s myelination nation, baby. And wouldn’t you rather actually have FUN becoming god’s gift to whatever?

  4. Well written –opportunities, meaning being there at right time, place and also opportunities to connect to the right people. Then on top of all this is recognizing a situation is an opportunity in the first place.

  5. Regarding The Beatles, I think another factor in their massive success was the cultural influence of other artists at the time. The Beatles were heavily inspired by artists such as The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. This was an awesome post!

  6. I just read David and Goliath, and it was kind of a weird read. There was a lot of good stuff in it, but I’d have to say he fails in trying to cram it into a premise. I almost didn’t make it past the opening chapter because his retelling of the title story still had huge flaws, even with his rather reasonable explanation of the event. (He makes a good explanation of the battle, but doesn’t address how the players in the story don’t seem to understand it either.)
    After the first chapter, I thought Gladwell must be a moron, but after the book, I can’t say that. It’s just a weird, incomplete sort of project – and I’m a little pissed that with those huge logical and structural holes in his books, he gets published. I guess once you’re selling, no-one gets to tell you to take more care with your books.

  7. Enjoyed this very much (especially the two Macklemore references), thanks. Particularly the addition of the heavy role of privilege Gladwell frequently implies and describes but doesn’t identify by name. I’ve never quite understood the mass of Gladwell’s fame. In my opinion, his books are about 4 times too long, he doesn’t seem to add much to (or explain better) the ideas he introduces in his first 50 pages or so. If I’m going to question conventional wisdom I much prefer the hypothetical “what if” games of Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics.

    • Thanks! I actually wasn’t aware of either Macklemore song before I began working on this post. I’m more of a Kendrick Lamar fan myself.

      • I’m getting my master’s in social work, so Macklemore (and his songs about white, male and straight privilege) is pretty popular in my circles. I also feel like he emanates a child-like joy about him, if you ever need to smile I recommend “And We Danced” it’s one of the silliest videos I’ve ever seen.

  8. You and Gladwell mention the Beatles which makes sense for the 10,000 hour rule. The problem is that with a lot of other successful bands, it was just the opposite. Their first or second album was their best (before they had reached 10,000 hours), and the albums after that weren’t as good (when they had practiced together for 10,000 hours). So I’m not sure I buy into this rule as much as some people do.
    dailyquizquestion.wordpress.com

    • Interesting point. Two reactions. One, in Ericsson’s theory it’s not just the amount of practice, the quality of practice matters too. That didn’t really make its way into Gladwell’s popularization. Two, with bands the “sophomore slump” is probably regression to the mean, which will be working in the opposite direction of any practice effects. Depending on the band, one effect could be stronger than the other.

    • for a lot of bands, the thing is, their whole life goes into the first record, and the next ones are written during short periods – if it’s the writing that makes the difference.
      I’ve never stopped listening to the Beatles, and I’m not sure any other popular bands grew so much in so few years. The difference in maturity between the first records and the last few is absolutely amazing.

  9. I have only skimmed Gladwell’s books in the 2nd hand store. He doesn’t appear to be a genius at logic. I’m sure he has many other gifts that are genuine but those gifts do not make him so much money? My point would be that his definition of success – famous, lots of money, is not mine. Is John Belushi successful or do we have to cross him off the list because of his drug use? I bet there are people who are smarter than Bill Gates but just don’t want all the hassle. Many of us value our sanity more than fame and fortune. Sorry, this has all been said before but at least you didn’t have to pay for it! :)

  10. I’ve read Gladwell’s books, and I think you’re right that they’re too easily broken down into really short soundbites. I have a B.A. in Psychology, and while it doesn’t make me an expert on these topics by any means, I can say that what I’ve studied agrees with what Gladwell says. He’s very skilled at taking a complex topic and simplifying so that it’s more easily understood.

    The more I think about Gladwell’s works, and the idea of talent in general, the more I begin to hate the word talent. If you really want to be able to do something well, put in the time to practice. By attributing someone’s ability to do something to “innate talent” we excuse ourselves from having to do the work, because we’ve already decided that we can’t do it. The more I think about it, I greatly prefer the word skill. Very few people use the word skill, but I think it works a lot better to really describe what you’ve acquired over years and years of practice.

    Yes, privilege is a factor, timing is a factor, luck is a factor*, but if you’re willing to put in the time to get better at something, you can and will get better at anything that want to work on.

    *(While privilege and timing are difficult to control, luck is something that you can improve. Richard Wiseman – a Psychologist from England – has a book titled The Luck Factor where he talks about research that he has done over the years studying luck and how it can be improved.)

    • “Talent” certainly is a fuzzy word. There are people who are smart and in tune with their bodies and are generally better than some other people at practically everything. Is that “talent?” At one end of the definition, I guess you could say it’s just the difference between skill levels if the amount and quality of practice were equal . . .

  11. I think Gladwell is a talented writer who probably prepared well enough. He was in luck, his works were reached and admired by the privileged. Thus his success. So I guess you’re right.

  12. I finished reading Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” recently. It had the same formula of his other books: flashy headers and stats, but ultimately it is common sense that isn’t too profound. As a counselor, I like to use indicators like the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory before having someone choose a vocation, and then apply the 10k hour rule. Rather than Achievement=Talent + Preparation it should be Achievement = f(Aptitude and Interest) + Experience.

  13. Harper Lee said, “People in their right mind never take pride in their talents.” I think she meant that our skills are gifts from above, and not merely of ourselves. Develop them, seek to put them to good use, and God will prosper and guide your work.

  14. Companies are widely adopting the 10,000 hour rule as part of corporate culture and training. So, I think it’s probably about time someone reminded everybody that it’s preparation, innate talent (so your genes), luck (sheer happy accident) and privilege (cronyism or nepotism really).

  15. I appreciated your nuanced take on Gladwell. We don’t often consider factors like opportunity, social class, race and gender that make the playing field far from level. Just read a piece today in the NY Times Book Review on how 85 percent of the nudes in the Met are women, but only 15 percent, I believe it was, are artists. Talent and practice are vital, but you are right to observe that it takes more than that.

  16. We humans are a species apart from the animal kingdom. We study ourselves. (and hopefully learn from that) BUT we also forget far too much, that we already know (Or knew)

    We men and women have specific role related talents based on our chromosomes and hormones – (Ask anyone in Brain Surgery about the differences in the Corpus Callosum between men and women – apologies if I’ve misspelt that) But of course the sociologists refuse for political ends to acknowledge that.

    Our age, genes, chromosomes, hormones, home life, schooling, luck, parental wealth, skin-colour, gender, practice and innate natural talents all conspire to make us who we are.

    BUT our sex (and the sexual stamping of our Brains) is perhaps the biggest influence and Malcolm Gladwell be damned, almost no-one has even considered that in the above response texts.

    Men’s Brains have larger areas devoted to Visual Spatial reasoning (the logic, creative and design skills) and Women’s Brains have more brain area devoted to linguistic reasoning (and are more in tune with their emotions because their Corpus Callosum is bigger, and allows the two halves of the brain to communicate faster with their emotional centres, thus enabling them to deduce more quickly why their child is cranky, or when intuitively, they feel that someone isn’t telling the whole truth.

    Read “Sex and the Brain” by Jo Durden-Smith and Diane De Simone (about 1983)

    Our political systems have been influenced by a vociferous minority, who seek to amend societal rules, for their own advantage. The sexual biases of the 19th century are less pronounced these days partly for societal reasons, and partly for biological reasons – many of us live in a more stressful environment these days, and stress hormones influence the foetus in more subtle ways than we can imagine. – Those hormones masculinize females, and feminize the males, lead to lower sperm counts, smaller penis sizes in men as competition is lowered, more gays and more lesbians in the population as a whole

    In alligators a difference of about 2degrees celcius in the nest determines whether the egg is born male or female. Why is there not similar research going on in humans?

    Politics, and a vociferous minority.

    BUT 10,000hrs of practice will advance any knowledge or ability, and being interested in the subject, will make it that much easier to do the 10,000 hours.

    I’ve spent a damn sight more than 10,000 hours studying the opposite sex, I can assure you – more like 100,000 hours.

    “Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus.” – Dr John Gray – read 4 times (and 7 others on the same subject)
    Why Men Don’t Iron – Husband and Wife team
    Two wives,
    30-40 “girl-friends” or partners
    Sister,
    Lesbian Mother and her partner.
    Grandmother and five Aunts
    “Everything you wanted to know about Sex, but were afraid to Ask” – (circa 1968)
    “The Joy of Sex” – (circa 1973)
    “The Karma Sutra” – film and book
    “Helga” an education film, (circa 1969/70)
    Numerous – ahem – educational films of an erotic nature.
    And that vociferous minority… too many to mention.

    I also helped my first wife in her studies as a Medical Secretary and heard first-hand from her time in a Women’s Hospital.

    ;¬)

    W.

    (http://moneymatterstoo.wordpress.com) .

  17. I haven’t read Outliers, but I have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. And I thought it was simple enough. When we were small, we were told that practice was more important than talent. And I believe that was to make sure the talented ones didn’t get arrogant and the not-so-talented ones didn’t get discouraged. It creates a sort of level playing field – which may partially explain why the rule is so popular. We all would love to believe that we too can succeed. Which leads me to another trait that successful people share – self belief.

    But then there really cannot be a fixed formula for success; or even a definite description of what success is! In any case, I find your post very interesting :)

  18. [“Achievement is talent plus preparation plus luck.”/ talent, preparation, luck, and privilege] and without follow through you won’t get any Achievement.

  19. Really appreciated this – a great friend raved about the revolution that was Outliers and I felt bad giving it back with a shrug. As another poster commented, work hard brings its own rewards was something we learned in school. Primary school. I can readily believe that really hard work + extraordinary opportunity + privilege = “success”. So I did not understand how dude became a household name with a book on hyper-common sense. Interesting to learn that there is proper science behind him. Though there’s part of me that says, okay, now tell me something I couldn’t possibly have guessed.

  20. Great article, and some interesting comments. As someone who has dedicated a chunk of his adult life to martial arts, I agree that the environment around you has a significant role to play. Sure, your probability of making it to the NBA is better if you are 6’9. But for sports that don’t have a bias towards rewarding certain body types, things are more interesting. Wrestling is a great example. For one thing, it has weight classes, which tend to minimize the impact of innate differences. So in this environment, who you train with matters. I have trained on and off with world champions, and I see first hand the difference that quality training means for your ability to reach your potential. The culture in the team you train with is also a significant factor – long-term success usually requires an effective team culture. Finally, you’ll see that small factors are usually the difference between gold and 5th place. At this level, you train high-percentage moves only, have a game plan that is unique and honed, you need to be mentally sharp, and your timing is impeccable. I believe this analogy applies to whatever profession you choose – IF you continue to push yourself and your team to excellence.

  21. Interesting. I’ve heard much about the “10,0000 Rule” yet have never read the source book. I take it to mean that practice and mastery of craft (or sport) matters. I agree with you that talent, opportunity, privilege all matter, too. But we can do little about most of that stuff. What we can control is our focus, determination, grit, practice, learning, development of talent, seeking out and seizing opportunities, and networking with others whose position, prestige or power can help us achieve our dreams.

  22. Paul McCartney is also noted as saying that there were PLENTY of bands in Hamburg and Liverpool who practiced and performed for 10,000 hours, and they were crap.. So… What’s the point here? The point is that Gladwell doesn’t really have a point. There’s Kenneth Branagh – and there’s James Earl Jones. There’s Elvis – and Chuck Berry. Mstislav Rostropovich – and Yo-Yo Ma — please… Just practice correctly and deliberately and you’ll get there… “Innate talent” is just another term for “we don’t know how he got that good”. ::))

  23. I would like to address where talent derives. Talent in and of itself is not absolute. Specific parts of the brain are in charge of certain operations. That doesn’t mean that specific parts of the brain are exclusive to certain operations. My point is, someone could easily have a variety of potential talents, but only specific talents are manifested, based on environmental factors that nurture those potentialities. For example, you are a psychologist, and evidently a master in your field. However, quite possibly, these same innate skills, if nurtured in a particular fashion, could have manifested into an extraordinary public speaking career, or CEO of a company, both of which require exceptional social skills. So although success = talent + opportunity + work, each variable defined here have their own formula that they are derived from. Therefore, it becomes even more complex than the argument for or against the 10,000 rule.

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