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.

A scientist replies to people who say “I knew it all along”

Pick the one that best applies:

1. No you didn’t. The answer sounds plausible and you are a reasonably smart person so you quickly absorbed it as the correct one. So quickly, in fact, that in hindsight it now feels like you knew it all along. It is hard to have a memory of not knowing something, because way back when you did not know, you did not know that you did not know. So now you think you knew it all along, because you know it now and you don’t have a distinct memory of not knowing.

2. No you didn’t. You have previously wondered, or maybe just heard conventional wisdom that sounds like the answer you know now. Now that you know the right answer, the one you have just heard, you can search your memory and discover that you’ve thought or heard something vaguely resembling the answer before. But in fact, if you really thought about it, you could probably dig up a memory or some conventional wisdom that supports a completely different answer. Consider also that you never took a public stand, you never made it real, you never made yourself accountable for the answer you’re now claiming you knew all along. Which means that if the right answer had turned out to be completely different, it would be just as easy to say you knew that one all along instead.

3. No you didn’t. You thought it all along, but you didn’t know it all along. Your beliefs were based in your ideology or your worldview, not on any objective evidence. If you ever encountered somebody who believed differently because they had a different ideology or worldview, then at most the two of you stood there talking past each other, offering zero enlightenment to anybody approaching the issue without prejudice. Those people needed hard evidence, and you only had arguments. You didn’t know, you just thought you knew.

4. No you didn’t. You made a lucky guess. You are mentally engaged with the world, and so like all mentally engaged humans you form lots of guesses and speculations and opinions about lots of things. If you guess enough times about enough things, some of those guesses will eventually turn out to be right. That doesn’t mean you knew it all along.

5. No you didn’t. You knew the superficial version that everybody knew and that, to the scientists, was beside the point. The story you just heard or the press article you just read has omitted the scientifically interesting part. The scientists weren’t interested in the simple descriptive fact, the one that they, you, and everybody else knew all along. They were interested in how it worked or why it was the way it was.

6. Yes you did. Congratulations. You are hereby authorized to say things like, “Still no cure for cancer,” or “My tax dollars went to this?!?” Have at it.