Was Gladwell Wrong About Outliers? The Latest on Practice and the 10,000 Hour Rule

Kris Dunn Audacious Ideas, Coaching, Learning and Development, Talent Management

If you’re a high-end, progressive HR, recruiting or talent pro, you know about the 10,000 hour rule, a research area made popular by the Malcolm Gladwell book Outliers.

The seed for the 10,000-hour rule was a 1993 study of violinists and pianists which found that accumulated practice time rose with musical prowess. On average, top-ranked violinists had clocked up 10,000 hours of practice by the age of 20, though many had actually put in fewer hours. In the study, the authors rejected an important role for natural talent and argued that differences in ability, even among top musicians, were largely down to how much they practiced.

Gladwell seized on the round number to explain the success of notables from Bill Gates to the Beatles. Outliers was born, as well as the less known but equally compelling book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin of Fortune Magazine.

We lapped it up and loved it as talent professionals. But wait! A new study is being bandied about by academics in a way that’s meat to call into question everything we know about the impact of practice in becoming world-class in anything. More from the Guardian:

With blatant disregard for the public benefits of motivational idioms, researchers have concluded that practice does not, necessarily, make perfect.

A study of violinists found that merely good players practised as much as, if not more than, better players, leaving other factors such as quality of tuition, learning skills and perhaps natural talent to account for the difference.

The work is the latest blow to the 10,000-hour rule, the idea promoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, which has been taken to mean that enough practice will make an expert of anyone. In the book, Gladwell states that “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness”.

“The idea has become really entrenched in our culture, but it’s an oversimplification,” said Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “When it comes to human skill, a complex combination of environmental factors, genetic factors and their interactions explains the performance differences across people.”

OK! That must mean that there’s a bunch of rigor in the new research, right? uhhh…

Macnamara and her colleague Megha Maitra set out to repeat part of the 1993 study to see whether they reached the same conclusions. They interviewed three groups of 13 violinists rated as best, good, or less accomplished about their practice habits, before having them complete daily diaries of their activities over a week.

While the less skillful violinists clocked up an average of about 6,000 hours of practice by the age of 20, there was little to separate the good from the best musicians, with each logging an average of about 11,000 hours. In all, the number of hours spent practising accounted for about a quarter of the skills difference across the three groups, according to the study published in Royal Society Open Science.

What a non-event from a research perspective. Don’t ask for a refund for your Outliers membership just yet. Observe:

1–Nobody said life was fair. Some people are bigger and faster (sports example), some people have behavioral profile advantages (high assertiveness in fields where that is necessary, etc) and some people are smarter (applies to everything, including your office).

2–Practice still matters and migration to the next level up in any profession is really what practice and work is all about. Can the good violinist still earn a living? Probably. Will more practice move them to the “best” level? Maybe or maybe not.

3–One of my favorite parts of the Outliers story was the presence of a qualified coach/mentor to provide immediate feedback to the subject as they practiced. Coaching in all walks of life still matters, and I believe it accelerates performance over time when people are working to get better.

Nobody ever claimed you were going to be Bobby Axelrod or play in the NBA because you committed to the concept of hard work and deliberate practice.

All we said was it’s probably going to move you up a minimum of a couple of slots in the world.

There’s value in that. Even if you’re not an “Outlier

PS – the violinists tagged as “good” in the study are still really, really ####ing good. Probably good enough to tour with a band like the Foo Fighters, which sounds more fun than the normal life of an elite violinist – who I really want to call a cellist (because it sounds more elite) or a fiddler (because it sounds country and my take is that would upset the researchers cited).