Sunday, November 16, 2008

10, 000 hours

I am obsessed with talent, intelligence, achievement, and success.

Not, you must understand, in the sense that I am talented, or that I strive daily to succeed, but rather in the sense that I am obsessed with the lives, opinions, and achievements of those who are talented, intelligent, and successful.

I'm a sucker for books like How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis; I love reading the entrepreneur profiles in The FT; I know the top ten of the Sunday Times Rich List off by heart.

I am, in fact, a wealth nerd. I have an unhealthy obsession with the rich and filthy rich.

This isn't an aspect of my personality I'm particularly proud of - but it's there and it isn't going away.

In a broader sense I am interested in those who are successful in all areas, like science fiction writing or economics.

But my main concern is money: what is it about these people that allows them to acquire so much more of the stuff than everyone else?

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book Outliers: The Story of Success sets out to answer that question. I enjoyed Gladwell's previous book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking; but I did feel that it felt more like a collection of essays with a common theme than a cohesive argument (viz people analyse facts and make decisions very, very quickly - in the blink of an eye).

The Guardian has published an excerpt from Outliers that I advise you all go and read:

What we think of as talent is actually a complicated combination of ability, opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.


(((of a study by K Anders Ericsson of three groups of violin students)))

By the age of 20, the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000 hours.

The curious thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals" - musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn't have what it takes to break into the top ranks.

Their research suggested that once you have enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. What's more, the people at the very top don't just work much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

This, to me, is an interesting and crucial observation. Gladwell isn't necessarily saying "everyone can do it" but rather only those capable (either by genetic predisposition, the manner in which they are raised, or the circumstances of their lives) of practicing the requisite 10, 000 hours in order to become an expert.

I look forward to reading the complete book, and of finding out if this is a universal component of success.

One of my bugbears is my mathematical ability. I have several friends who are simply better that I at maths (solving differential equations, set theory, number theory, discrete maths, integral equations, geometry etc).

However if I were to spend 10, 000 hours doing differential equations would I becomean expert? Probably. Would I ever achieve the intuitive brilliance of Newton or Einstein?

I doubt it.

No comments: