So, as I have watched a few of the events from the Olympics, and I’ve been thinking about the 10,000 hour rule. And I am ready to state the obvious: putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing.
First, a refresher. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, described the 10,000 hour rule. To summarize, it takes 10,000 hours to get really world-class good at anything. (Gladwell got the idea/concept from Anders Ericsson).
And then, in the book Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, we learn that just any old 10,000 hours is not good enough. You need to put in “deliberate practice” — lots and lots of deliberate practice – in order to get better and better. In other words, you practice with the intent to get better. This kind of practice is exhausting, and almost always needs a very knowledgeable coach, with terrific motivational skills. (A coach who “can correct with creating resentment.” John Wooden).
Now, back to the point of this post: I am ready to state the obvious: putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing. Here’s what I mean.
As we watch the Olympics, we see pretty clearly that some athletes have developed a work ethic superior to others. But there are plenty of athletes who put in pretty much the same kind of time, had the same high level work ethic, as the “winners” who beat them when the starter pistol went off.
So, putting in 10,000 hours guarantees nothing. In sports, you need the 10,000 hours, plus the right coach, plus a little luck, plus maybe the right genetic makeup, plus…
Plus, plus, plus…
The more we learn, the more we learn how critical the next “plus” might be.
Now, let me back up. If we were not so fixated on winning the gold, we might come closer to admitting that the 10,000 hour rule does in fact guarantee success. Even making an Olympic Team; or, even being good enough to compete in an Olympics Trials Qualifying Event to try to make the team, takes massive skill. So, why is that not “success?” It certainly should be.
And we do know that in many cases, coming in second is every bit a “win.” Did you see the depth of emotion on the faces of Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston after they won the Silver Medal in Synchronized Diving? They may not have won the Gold, but, it was the first diving medal at all for the USA since 2000, and the first ever medal for the USA in this particular event. Yes, the Chinese duo were better. Noticeably better. But these two young women were the second best in the world, and their 10,000 hours paid off.
Maybe we could say this: maybe 10,000 guarantees nothing. But a failure to put in 10,000 hours does guarantee something – you won’t make it to the top without putting in those 10,000 hours.
Now – the other challenge. One reality about this kind of world-class accomplishment is that these athletes show up, every day, with a coach watching and “coaching” every moment. Wouldn’t all of us get better at our jobs if we had that kind of individual coaching, motivating, “pushing us to the limit” daily encounter? I think so.
Work ethic, plus coaching, plus deliberate practice, plus constant feedback, plus measurable goals, plus… The road to true success really is a challenging road.
It has been a while since a book has sparked such interest, such controversy, such applause and disdain, and almost furor, as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Professor, and mother, Amy Chua (currently #5 on the overall list of bestsellers on Amazon). If you haven’t heard about it, you really must be living in a cave… Here’s a paragraph from the review by Janet Maslin from the New York Times:
Ms. Chua was not about to raise prizeless slackers. She wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. It describes seemingly endless piano and violin sessions that Ms. Chua supervised. (Her own schedule of teaching, traveling, writing and dealing with her students goes mostly unmentioned — and would require her to put in a 50-hour workday.) And it enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than all the yelling suggests: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”
Amy Chua, and discussions of her book, have been everywhere – I’ve heard her on NPR, read about her in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, yesterday in Points in the Dallas Morning News.
I’ve got three observations/reflections about this whole discussion.
#1 – I think I probably (ok, make that definitely) could have been more disciplined – make that, demanded more discipline – in raising our two sons.
#2 – After all the angst and disagreement and argument over her specific approach, I think she is simply saying this – it takes time, lots and lots of time, to get good at anything, and to get children to put in that kind of time, the parent has to put in that kind of time. I think she is saying that to learn to master anything can develop the ability to master other things in life.
I thought of a woman I know. She heard me present my synopsis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and she was intrigued by the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, world-class good at anything (Gladwell did not “develop/discover” it – he is always the great popularizer. Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is apparently the one who came up with the concept, after his extensive study of expertise). This woman earned her Ph.D. in some field of Business, and teaches at the graduate level. But in her “first life,” she was an accomplished pianist, playing at the top level. She told me that she did a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation after my presentation, and figured out that she put in well over 10,000 hours on the piano, and now puts in the same kind of time in her business research and writing.
In other words, the discipline of discipline, once learned and mastered, carries over into additional endeavors.
#3 – I remembered a story from a book by David Halberstam. The book, The Reckoning, tells of the rise and fall of Ford, and the rise of Nissan (up to the point the book was written – it came out in 1986). It is a terrific read. In the book (my apology, my copy is in storage – so this is from memory), he described a conversation he had with a man in Japan who worked at Nissan. He described how in America, life had gotten “easy,” and the people had lost the hunger that drives the discipline needed to be the best. He observed that this hunger (almost a sense of desperation) led to Nissan’s ascendancy. But, then a warning – he had already seen this hunger begin to lessen in Japan, and he saw it “transferring” over to Korea. The formula – hunger leads to discipline leads to success – is one that I remember vividly. I think this Tiger Mother may have captured a piece of that.
I have not yet read the book. But I think that it points us to a fear – a fear that we simply lack the discipline needed to get good at anything, and then later to get good at other things. And I suspect that a whole lot of people are reading this book feeling just a little bit scared.
Yes, I did read David Brooks column, Amy Chua is a Wimp. I think it’s cute. I really like Brooks, but in this case, I think he may be off-target. There are a whole lot of people who excel at sleepovers who never excelled, and may never excel, at much of anything else…