Variables of Success


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of chrisgj6.

Is it possible to condition oneself to become an expert purely by putting in thousands of hours of practice? The 10,000 hour rule, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, suggests that an individual can master the skill of his choice after logging 10,000 hours of practice.

It’s not just any type of practice however that elevates someone to the level of a champion. Merely trying one’s best and putting in a bit of effort doesn’t cut it. For time to count toward a person’s 10,000 hours, deliberate practice is required. Deliberate practice is defined by an individual systematically training with the intention of improving skills and performance.

Deliberate practice emphasizes overcoming weaknesses. The exercise demands that a person hones his skill carefully to raised levels of improvement. If done correctly, deliberate practice should be quite challenging for an individual. Goals need to be outlined, as well as the specific steps necessary for accomplishing them. A person must constantly strive to move past his present state of knowledge and comfort, no matter how grueling the process. Just as bodybuilders need to be conscious of workout regimes, an individual who aims for improvement in a mental capacity–such as playing a game of chess–must remain cognizant of the goals at hand.

In 1993, Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson was the first to study the concept of deliberate practice in correlation to elite levels of expertise. Along with a team of researchers, Ericsson conducted a study to evaluate the effects of deliberate practice on expert performance. The study concluded that optimal levels of performance resulted from approximately a decade or more of practicing this way.

Malcolm Gladwell thus incorporated Ericsson’s research while developing the 10,000 hour rule. In Outliers, Gladwell argues that, in the equation for success, the amount of time an individual devotes to preparation in a chosen field is more significant than the individual’s innate talent. Gladwell contends that the more hours of practice logged, the more likely one is to achieve grandmaster status.

However, reaching such a level of mastery is never guaranteed. The implication of the 10,000 hour rule is that a person will be granted a wider net of opportunities by disciplining himself through deliberate practice.

The 10,000 hour rule does not seem to pertain to sports, as natural ability and a person’s genetic build have a great deal of impact in regards to athletics. The theory is more widely applicable in the realm of knowledge. For example, in mental games such as chess, a player is required to have a sharp, inexhaustible mind.

Gladwell cites strong examples in Outliers to support the 10,000 hour theory. He notes the success of The Beatles, who tallied countless hours playing small shows in Germany before they broke into international fame. Gladwell also cites Bill Gates, who had privileged access to the first do-it-yourself computer kit in 1975, when few other people in the world knew anything about computer technology.

BreakThru Radio (BTR) had the chance to speak with Malcolm Gladwell about Outliers, the 10,000 hour theory, and his suggestions for the formula of success.

BTR: You decided to write this book out of a frustration and how we as a society simplify what it means to be successful.

Malcolm Gladwell (MG): This book was conceived in a moment when there was a real explosion of wealth and innovation and success, particularly in America and the Western economies. I was frustrated with how people accounted for that wealth and power. The stories they told were so focused on themselves. The reasons they gave for how they’d become successful, they began and ended with the word “I.” That struck me as being a very inadequate and wrong way of explaining why people succeed.

BTR: Your research is very extensive on reaching different cultures and demographics to pull out these underlying variables to success. Where did you venture first to find these different factors?

MG: I was so grateful to have started the book on the question of culture because it leads you to all these unexpected directions.

The first problem with the individual-centric view of success is that it slights the contribution of culture, of the communities that we belong to and how those communities fundamentally shape who we are and structure our opportunities.

BTR: In your writing you do a great job of creating a bridging between the world of academia and the general public. How do you go about walking that line?

MG: I’m trying to build a bridge between a highly specialized way of thinking about complicated issues, the way that academics approach them, and the general public–people who aren’t experts in these fields. The trick is, you have to simplify in order to reach the general public, but you cannot simplify too much because then you lose the meaning and the sophistication of the ideas.

BTR: Do you feel like you’ve met the 10,000 hours required to be a successful writer?

MG: Ten thousand hours roughly translates to 10 years of daily activity. I spent exactly 10 years at The Washington Post. When I started at The Washington Post as a journalist, I was terrible. I left after 10 years because I thought I had finally figured out what I was doing. In many ways, I responded to that theory because it seemed to play out so perfectly in my own career.

BTR: What’s your response to recent research that attempts to refute the 10,000 hour theory?

MG: It doesn’t refute it. What’s happened is that people have pointed out instances where it doesn’t apply. It doesn’t apply to sports. What’s more interesting is to look for variations. Are there people who, either because of the way they practice and learn, or because some element of their own ability, can do it in less than 10,000 hours? That’s where I think the research is headed now. What if there was something they were doing that would allow them to learn so much more efficiently than the rest of us?

The 10,000 hour principle is an average. But it shouldn’t stop us from learning from those at either end of the bell curve.

To listen to the full audio version of the interview, tune into BTR’s Third Eye Weekly.