By Tim D. Potts
You may have heard of the 10,000-hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. The rule asserted that the world’s top talents–the Michael Jordans, Yo-Yo Ma’s, Nobel Prize laureates of the world–achieved their success after 10 thousand hours of deliberate practice. The takeaway: you too can achieve world-class talent, so long as you put in the hours. Dreamers and parents everywhere now had a simple, concrete target. They just had to want it badly enough. Over the last decade “the 10,000-hour rule” has been purported, expounded upon, and cited by enough well-respected authors and journalists that it has grown from self-help parlance to nearly part of the vernacular. Yet within the past few years, research–including a formidable meta-analysis–have pretty much debunked the rule. Just last month a replication of the study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science which revealed that it did not replicate. Furthermore, Malcolm Gladwell has admitted he made an “error.” On a panel for the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference, Gladwell explained that he conflated two concepts together: that a large amount of practice is necessary, which he still believes, with the idea that you must specialize.
So now what? Is talent simply something you are born with? How does one go from good to great?
When Gladwell admitted his error at the MIT SSCA Conference, he was conversing with David Epstein, an investigative reporter at ProPublica and author of the new book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.” As the title of the book indicates, Epstein argues that it is the generalist, that is the person who has dabbled in a variety of areas, who often has the advantage over the specialist.
Epstein claims that the commonly cited case studies and examples that support the superiority of specialization such as Tiger Woods or chess grandmasters have been based on models that do not mimic most life experiences. Epstein explained that chess and golf would fit into the confines of what psychologist Robert Hogarth calls a “kind learning environment.” The kind learning environment can be defined as consistent and predictable. Since the rules and patterns in this environment do not change, the feedback is immediate and accurate. Yet most areas of life fall within the opposite environment, what Hogarth calls the “wicked learning environment” where the rules are not stable, and feedback is delayed or even incorrect. In these environments, specialty may interfere with one’s success. According to Epstein, what is needed to thrive in a wicked environment is a breadth of experience.
Take for instance a study of British boarding school students by music psychologist John Sloboda. In his book, Epstein writes about how Sloboda discovered that every student who attended structured music lessons of a single instrument from an early age in their development had been categorized as “average.” By contrast, the students categorized as “exceptional” had tried three instruments. Yo-Yo Ma fits this pattern. Perceived as one of the greatest cellists of all time, Ma played the piano and violin as a child before switching to the cello because he didn’t like the other two.
Epstein mentioned a bevy of other examples to support the generalist. There was the finding that the most successful comic book writers had experience in multiple genres or the fact that Nobel Laureates are 22 times more likely to amateur in something, but he never argued that specialization should be avoided altogether. I mean, who would want to have heart surgery by a general practitioner? Instead, Epstein emphasized that before picking a specialization, it is ok to go through a period of experimentation to find what you truly want to pursue. As for the 10,000 hour rule? No one ever said that a large amount of practice wasn’t important, but first find what you can do well and not hate your life doing it.