Episode 066 - The 10,000 Hour Fallacy: why Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong, and We'd be Foolish to Believe Him
The Thursday Thesis - 21/09/2017
Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter of his book “Outliers” to the idea that it takes around 10,000 hours of practice to achieve Mastery in a field.
The book sold well and made Gladwell a ton of money, simultaneously propelling him to the status of credible pundit and positioning the journalist as an expert on learning.
But here’s the thing: the 10,000 hour rule was Gladwell’s invention, and it didn’t reflect the essence of the research that he referred to – a 1993 study at the University of Colorado.
So when Gladwell declared 'Researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours', the chief of the research team, Anders Ericsson, was royally pissed-off.
“Gladwell cited our research on expert musicians as a stimulus for his provocative generalisation to a magical number", Ericsson said, then wrote a rebuttal paper entitled “The Danger of Delegating Education to Journalists”.
Nice one, Anders.
Gladwell’s snappy 10,000 hour “Rule” didn’t take much notice of the real conclusions of the researchers: significant variation of time taken to acquire skills, a variety of practice methodologies, and the apparent non-existence of anything that could be identified as “natural talent”.
I get it. I’ve been teaching guitar for 18 years, and I don’t believe in talent, either. There are a pile of books out there discussing Talent with a capital T, but I believe in acquiring the necessary skill – and that means learning from someone else, testing the skill by doing it badly at first, then refining it and making it automatic by consistent repetition. This is exactly like tying your shoelaces or learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle.
When was the last time you had to think about tying your laces?
So the 10,000 hour fallacy entered the canon of conventional wisdom, along with a load of other unhelpful “wisdom”. If you want to know more about how nonsense like this infects people you’ll find plenty in the blog archive and in my book 9 Weird Things Guitarists Do.
You see, I have a problem or six with conventional wisdom, and I have a problem with Gladwell’s assertion of certainty in areas where he is not a practitioner.
The 10,000 Hour Rule is a journalist’s opinion, rather than the conclusions of the guys who did the work.
And, tragically, the 10,000 hour fallacy deters people from pursuing their dreams because it sets up a high barrier to entry to a new activity – such as learning to play the guitar or any other musical instrument.
As my friend and former student, Tom Boddison observed in a recent email questioning Gladwell’s opinion, “10,000 hours is a bloody long time!”
And what about Mastery – did you notice that the idea of an observable standard snook in on the coat-tails of the 10,000 Hour Rule?
There’s a presupposition that one must achieve Mastery, isn’t there?
Mastery is neither or relevant when one is pursuing one’s own pleasure and following one’s own path – as one must when engaged in any of the so-called Arts.
I say we murder the myth of 10,000 hours!
I say we murder the illusion of Talent!
I say we murder the mischief of Mastery!
I say, let’s get these monkeys off our backs and do our own research!
Are we foolish enough to just accept the opinion of a journalist when deciding whether to pursue our heart’s desires?
Get yourself a guitar, flute, sax, or whatever – a football or golf club and start hacking. Play some bum notes, miss the net and hack up a few divots - who cares if you suck?
This is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
Am I making sense, here – am I convincing you?
Get out there and have some fun, make lots of mistakes and enjoy every single minute of it.
Fail gloriously - because only by learning to miss the net can you ever hope to score a winning goal.
© Neil Cowmeadow 2017
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