Monday, July 11, 2011

10,000 Hours?

A recent book by Malcolm Gladwell makes use of the idea (originally from the expertise expert K. Anders Ericsson) that it takes 10,000 hours of work to become really good at something. Wikipedia:
A common theme that appears throughout Outliers is the "10,000-Hour Rule", based on a study by Anders Ericsson. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous time, using the source of The Beatles' musical talents and Gates' computer savvy as examples. The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time, therefore meeting the 10,000-Hour Rule. Gladwell asserts that all of the time The Beatles spent performing shaped their talent, "so by the time they returned to England from Hamburg, Germany, 'they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them." Gates met the 10,000-Hour Rule when he gained access to a high school computer in 1968 at the age of 13, and spent 10,000 hours programming on it.
 On one level this is all good information and one can see why the book debuted at number one on the best-sellers lists. To the obvious objections that it takes a lot more than just putting in the hours, he cites some telling anecdotes of brilliant people who led lives of obscurity because they lacked the social and cultural capital to make use of their talents. But on another level this book, like so many, many others, promises insights that it doesn't really deliver. We probably already know that if you are smart and work a long time in a disciplined way you are likely to achieve success if you have the right contacts. This is not a secret. But by folding in some supposedly novel elements like the precise number of hours required--10,000--and by using a semi-clever statistical concept--outliers--and by mixing in a little autobiography, Mr. Gladwell sold a lot of books. But while he may have re-stated some of the factors underlying success, I think he left the more interesting questions untouched. Take the Beatles, for example. Sure, they became a high-energy, well-coordinated band during those years in the trenches in Hamburg. But there were dozens and dozens of other bands that probably worked just as hard. The Beatles had a certain sound, but so did the Stones and the Yardbirds and others. What the Beatles also had were their own songs--it was songwriting that put them over the top. I doubt anyone has answers to the question where did "Love Me Do" come from, or "I Want to Hold Your Hand" let alone "Strawberry Fields Forever".

What I hate about books like this is that they purport to demystify something. Someone reads the book and as they put it down they muse to themselves, "ah yes, now I understand how some people become successful". Sure, they have been walked through some simple ideas and some anecdotes, but I doubt very much if they have any actual insights into anything. The truth lies in the details. Take that 10,000 hours. I'm pretty sure that if you put 10,000 hours into something you will make some progress. But I think the very number itself is designed to benumb your mind. "Wow" you say, "what a lot of hours". But it is really a meaningless number. There are things that you will not master even in 10,000 hours and others that will come to you in 10 hours. It is more in how you approach the problem than in the sheer amount of time. From many years of teaching guitar I know that most practice time is simply wasted doing the wrong thing in the wrong way.

The main thing wrong with books like this is that genius lies in the details, not the generalities.


Christine Lacroix said...

I used to become a convert after every book I read! That was a long time ago. My approach now is more to ask myself what would this mean if it were true?Let's play around with this, use this lense for a while and see what happens. You asked me 'What are the big truths in NLP?' I don't believe in 'big truths' so you won't get any out of me. However in NLP there are a lot of models for human behavior and functioning, some of which have turned out for me to be useful, some nonsensical. And yes it has provided insights. You asked me if I'd studied philosophy and I wondered what it was that gave you that impression. I realized that in NLP we studied something called the 'metamodel'. Here is a quote from Wikipedia: In NLP the Meta-model is a set of specifying questions or language patterns designed to challenge and expand the limits to a person's model or 'map' of the world. When a person speaks about a problem or situation, their choice of words, (or ‘indicators’), will distort, generalize, and delete portions of their experience.' Studying that has probably shaped the way I think. I hope it hasn't caused any serious damage.

By the way I pointed out that the 'I'm not a robot' box isn't a requirement. However if you don't click on the 'Email follow-up comments to....' box the first time you make a comment in a thread you may never realize your comment was answered. Usually. but not always, once you've clicked on it for that particular thread you don't need to click again. It took me a while to notice this and maybe some of your commenters never realize that you've answered them. Don't know what you could do about that.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, young people haven't learned to evaluate what they read, so everything is a revelation.

NLP seems to be about how language shapes our perception of reality?

There are certainly some Big Truths! Here are a couple in the form of quotes:

"The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel." Horace Walpole in a letter.

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." Aristotle, first sentence in the Nichomachean Ethics

"Things are not good because we desire them; we desire them because they are good." Aristotle, somewhere in the Metaphysics, I think, but I can never seem to find it.

I get notifications about comments in my Dashboard, so I don't use that feature. Thanks for the heads up!

Christine Lacroix said...

The metamodel which is part of NLP is about how language shapes our perception of reality but also about how far away from our deep experience of reality our choice of language is. This part of NLP I found interesting and useful. But there are other aspects and that go too far in their claims. In Wikipedia I found this quote:

The balance of scientific evidence reveals NLP to be a largely discredited pseudoscience. Scientific reviews show it contains numerous factual errors,[14][16] and fails to produce the results asserted by Bandler & Grinder. I agree with this, but there are parts which have been demonstrated to be true through 'scientific evidence'.

Thanks for your Big Truths. I'll have to think about them!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I will have a look at that Wikipedia article.

A friend of mine thinks that all genuine wisdom is boring, but I'm not so sure. I am pretty sure that most wisdom we are pretty much aware of and it has been stated in pretty simple terms such as "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." And I also suspect that most bullshit is gussied up in fancy language so we don't notice!

Christine Lacroix said...

Entirely possible. Another thing I disliked in NLP was they seemed to choose abstruse terminology for simple concepts. Even the name Neuro Linguistic Programming seems an attempt to impress.

Christine Lacroix said...

You'll get a bit more information about NLP in this article: