Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, challenges this notion. He doesn’t dispute the hard work part, but most ‘geniuses’ are, for him, just people who have put 10,000 hours into their craft, and then landed at the right place in the right time.
I heard about this book when it first came out in 2008, because the media covered an early chapter of the book which focused on Canadian hockey players. The key to succeeding in hockey, it turned out, was not simply being the best hockey player, but rather being born in January, February, March, or April. This is not because of astrology writes Gladwell,
“It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year - and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents and enormous difference in physical maturity.” (p. 33 - note that I found a large print book at the library so the pages are off from a regular print volume.)The best of those kids get chosen to play in games two or even three times more often than their younger teammates and get better coaching. And at the end of three years, with all that extra playtime and attention, they actually are better.
A footnote explains this is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy:
" . . .a situation where ‘a false definition, in the beginning . . evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.’ Canadians start with a false definition of who the best nine- and ten-year-old hockey players are. They’re just picking the oldest every year. But the way they treat those ‘all-stars’ ends up making their original false judgment look correct. As [sociologist Robert] Merton puts it: ‘This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.'” (pp. 34-35)I'd heard this example discussed, thought it interesting, but was skeptical about the book because I'd formed a negative opinion (possibly erroneously) about Gladwell from an earlier book, The Tipping Point. It seemed to make one good point repeatedly.
But my book club is reading Outliers now, and so I've been giving Gladwell another look.
So, the secret to success in Canadian hockey is ten thousand hours devoted to improving one's skills which certain boys are more likely to get because they were born in January, February, March, or April. Again, those boys that don't work hard, aren't going to make it. But equally talented boys who work just as hard, will be passed over because when they first qualify, they are competing with kids up to a year older than themselves.
He goes on to look at other 'geniuses' who had to get their ten thousand hours in so that they were ahead of the pack. He writes about Bill Joy who Gladwell says is called the Edison of the Internet and about Bill Gates. He acknowledges both as exceptionally smart and hard working, but also ties their success to having had early access to computers - Joy at the University of Michigan which
"had one of the most advanced computer science programs in the world. . .Joy came to the University of Michigan the year the Computer Center opened. He was sixteen he was tall and very thin, with a mop of unruly hair. . . late in his freshman year, he stumbled across the Computer Center - and he was hooked."(p. 50)What was critical was that he was at a computer center that had time-sharing.
". . .when the programming bug hit him in his freshman year, he found himself - by the happiest of accidents - in one of the few places in the world where a seventeen-year-old could program all he wanted.[I'd note when I took a FORTRAN class in the mid-70s at USC, we used cards. You had to punch each card. Then take them to be put in the machine. Then wait for the printout to come. That could take an hour or more. Then if you had one card punched wrong, it wouldn't work and you had to find the bad card and redo it. So it could take over an hour to find out you missed a comma and another hour to run it again to make sure you caught the error, instead of getting instant feedback and and being able to type in the correction immediately and get instant feedback on your next try.]
"Do you know what the difference is between the computing cards and time-sharing?" Joy says. "It's the difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess." Programming wasn't an exercise in frustration any more. It was fun." (p. 65)
He got a job with a computer science professor and went on to Berkeley.
"There, he buried himself even deeper in the world of computer software. During the oral exams for his PhD, he made up a particularly complicated algorithm on the fly that, as one of his many admirers has written, 'so stunned his examiners [that] one of them later compared the experience to 'Jesus confounding his elders' . . . Working in collaboration with a small group of programmers, Joy took on the task of rewriting UNIX, which was a software system developed by AT&T for mainframe computers. Joy's version was very good. It was so good, in fact, that it became - and remains - the operating system on which literally millions of computers around the world run."(p. 51)What was important for Joy was that he arrived at Michigan when they switched from computer cards to time sharing, one of the first universities to do that. Gates had a similar stroke of luck. The parents at his private school, Lakeside, arranged to buy a computer for a computer club.
It was an "amazing thing," of course, because this was 1968. Most colleges didn't have computer clubs in the 1960s. Even more remarkable was the kind of computer Lakeside bought. The school didn't have its students learn programming by the laborious computer-card system, like virtually everyone else was doing in the 1960's. Instead, Lakeside installed what was called an ASR-33 Teletype, which was a time-sharing terminal with a direct link to a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle. . . Bill Joy got an extraordinary, early opportunity to learn programming on a time-share system as a freshman in college, in 1971. Bill Gates got to do real-time programming as an eight grader in 1968. (p. 74)Gladwell goes on to argue that Joy and Gates, both unquestionably gifted, were able to achieve what they did, because they had very early access to fast and unlimited computer programming before most people. They got their 10,000 hours in before anyone else.
So he's got hockey players and computer geeks getting ahead because of access that gets them their10,000 hours. He cites a study of elite musicians.
The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, sixteen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing - that i purposefully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better - well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours. . .
The striking think about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals," musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any "grinds," people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the think that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. (pp. 55-56)He talks about the Beattles' apprenticing in Hamburg strip clubs where they worked non-stop, and in so doing, got their 10,000 hours.
What Gladwell is saying here is that hard work and talent aren't all you need. Luck plays a big role. You need access to your 10,000 hours - whether it's by being born in the right months to get enough playing time on your hockey team, or having access to a time-share computer before anyone else, or obsessing at your music lessons, or playing in clubs in Hamburg.
I'll end this post here. As the book continues, Gladwell looks at other situations where timing and cultural background and other factors make the difference between people who have talent and work hard and succeed and those who don't.
There's something about the way Gladwell puts all this together that seems a little too neat. Has he gathered the data that supports his argument and left out other data that might raise doubts? I don't know. But in any case, it raises questions about how we know what we know, a topic dear to my heart, and central to this blog. I'm optimistically calling this part 1.
UPDATE: Here are the other two posts on Outliers.