By Trey McKinney, Staff Writer

In his 2008 bestseller Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell took a long, hard, and thorough look at the makings of highly successful individuals. What were the features unique to the lives of those attaining rare degrees of excellence in activities from sport, to business, to health?

Hard work vs. Natural talent

The answer, in Gladwell’s view, was a distinctive blend of talent, timing, circumstance, and effort. The latter of these was particularly distinctive, both for its ubiquity and its necessity. Effort -time spent - was fundamentally important in the lives of the most successful people. These people went through hours, days, years, and even decades of rigorous training to cultivate the skills that would ultimately help them transcend the ordinary levels of accomplishment.

The work ethic of successful people is an interesting subject. As Americans, we live in society pervaded with ideas of the merits of hard work. Yet, paradoxically, we also frequently adhere to notions of innate talent and ability. Tales of the self-made man are just as much a part of our lore as those of the natural-born prodigy, those precocious children that everyone just knew were going to be successful. This is a striking juxtaposition. 

On the one hand we acknowledge, and even glorify, ourselves in accordance with the notion of the American Dream-- we feel secure thinking that so long as one puts in the proper effort, with good faith and a little luck, achievement is attainable. Yet we also resign ourselves to the notion that there are limits to our ability in areas of natural aptitude or deficiency.

While there is truth on both sides, one might be inclined to wonder, to which side should we err? Which has more influence on the trajectory of our lives? And can we, with effort, overcome our areas of weakness, to the point of exceptional performance?

These are convoluted questions, with implications on both personality and context. For example, Gladwell profiles technology magnate Bill Gates in his book. In Gates, Gladwell finds a subject rich with interest in and enthusiasm for computers, even at an early age. What he does not find is someone who became proficient in complex computer code after only a brief introduction to the subject. But what does this tell us? That talent isn’t the only indicator for success.

Watch as author and journalist Joshua Foer talks about deliberate practice and why we should study ourselves failing.

The 10,000 Hour Rule

In Outliers, Gladwell coined what became an oft-cited rule of thumb in literature on self-improvement: the 10,000 Hour rule. Essentially, this idea is the amount of time (namely, 10,000 hours) put into a craft will result in "expert level" performance. Quoting neurologist Daniel Levitin, Gladwell writes that “the emerging picture from [studies] is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.” However, while such an idea may be enticing, the truth is a bit more complex than that.

For a long time it was generally accepted that we all have certain levels of ability in given fields. We might be able to improve, but eventually there would come a stage at which additional effort would yield no appreciable improvement. This was because, according to this way of thinking, our ability in most areas of life is innately determined, meaning we have natural limits on our aptitude. This was the prevailing view until the early 1990s, when research done by now Florida State Professor of Psychology Dr. K. Anders Ericsson changed the conversation.

Ericsson posited a different conception of ability, one built exclusively on experience and effort. In his 1994 paper Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition, Ericsson attributed the high level performance exclusively to learned and cultivated traits, saying that “expert performance reflects extreme adaptations, accomplished through life-long effort, to demands in restricted, well defined domains.” Thus, excellence in a particular field could be understood as the product of long-term, focused effort toward improvement in a specific field. To quote a piece that Ericsson co-wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.”

Ericsson’s conclusion was not narrowly confined to academia. Rather, experts in a variety of domains, from sports, to chess, to music, all exhibited advantages derived primarily from practice. In fact, psychometric tests designed to measure experts’ seemingly superior speed, memory and intelligence all demonstrated no natural, inherent superiority. Further, the cognitive skills required to perform at such a high level were not transferrable—for instance, great chess players were not particularly gifted in areas not directly related to playing chess. Aside from advantages derived physical traits like height and body size, ability seemed to be determined almost exclusively through acquired skills.

Gladwell’s conception of the 10,000 hour rule was based on Ericsson’s research. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Ericsson took issue with Gladwell’s conclusions. While Gladwell posited 10,000 hours as a sort of separating point, by which one reaches distinctly and notably different levels of ability, Ericsson notes that this was only the average amount of time spent on the craft by the most accomplished performers; some spent notably less time than that.

He also noted Gladwell’s utter lack of attention on deliberate practice. It is not simply the time spent doing something, but the time spent actively trying to improve that matters. Indeed, Paul McCartney, whose Beatles were profiled in Outliers took similar issue, saying:

“I mean, there were an awful lot of bands that were out in Hamburg who put in 10,000 hours and didn't make it, so it's not a cast-iron theory. I think, however, when you look at a group who has been successful... I think you always will find that amount of work in the background. But I don't think it's a rule that if you do that amount of work, you're going to be as successful as the Beatles.”

As McCartney highlights, 10,000 hours guarantees nothing. It is not a threshold, but a baseline.

Malcolm Gladwell on meaningful work

For Millennials

So why does this matter?

Well, that depends on your goals. For Millennials, we often stress the importance of flexibility, openness to new experience, quick learning, and adaptation. This is because we live in a world with much more rapid change than generations prior. Our identity, and frequently our livelihoods, are tied to our abilities to improvise, to roll with the punches, and to make things work in new or innovative ways. These can be very positive traits, demonstrating a level of self-awareness and willingness to try new things that is commendable. 

Further, the knowledge that we are not necessarily limited to our talents or interests can be incredibly liberating. We can understand that even weaknesses can be worked through, so we may be less inclined to restrain ourselves and our ambitions, and be less willing to stop when facing obstacles or skills that seem beyond our reach.

We must balance this, however, with the understanding that achieving excellence in any field requires commitment. Major commitment.

This means hours upon hours of concentrated practice in narrowly defined areas, oftentimes requiring professional guidance. To put this concisely, being a jack of all trades will keep you employed, but it is not likely to leave you particularly successful or fulfilled. So while we should make efforts to diversify our skill sets and make ourselves as dynamic as possible, it is also important to develop an expertise, a domain in which we have deep and significant knowledge. It is likely to be these areas that ultimately yield the greatest rewards.

In Practice

With this information at our disposal, there are some practical ideas to keep in mind that may help us reach our goals:

1.) Deliberate Practice:

Mindlessly going through the motions accomplishes nothing. There are numerous skills, like reading and typing, that we exercise on a regular basis with no improvement. This is because sheer repetition does not help us to become more efficient or to avoid mistakes. To make real improvement we must engage in deliberate practice—that is, practice directed specifically toward our areas of weakness, eliminating common errors, and the cultivation of skills that are underdeveloped or nonexistent.

2.) Seek Instruction:

Among those people who perform at the highest levels, supervised instruction is almost always involved at some level. Seek out the experience and guidance of people already proficient in a field to help identify more efficient ways of performing your task, to identify errors in your methods, and to provide the necessary encouragement. Ultimately, you may learn enough to critically evaluate yourself, but this is likely to come only after some formal instruction.

3.) Embrace the Process:

Becoming truly good at anything takes time, and a lot of it. Acceptance of this fact can help prevent rushing in the early stages and allow you to build a solid foundation in your area of interest. It is a good idea to go into the process early on knowing that—regardless of what you are undertaking—there will be a long road with some likely pitfalls. Allow yourself the time necessary to accomplish your goals.

Stanford professor Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset

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AuthorThornton McKinney