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.
Discipline is hard – harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto
The list of posts on this blog referring to the 10,000 hour rule, the need for deliberate practice, the books Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, is long. We have chronicled the ascendancy of, the centrality of — call it what you will – “work ethic,” “it take s10,000 hours to master anything…” thinking.
The quote that indicts me personally, in a way that I cannot escape, is the one from Gawande: “We can’t even keep from snacking between meals.”
With the exception of our military, we are a flabby lot, and I’m not just talking about girth. We are merely disgusting in that department. I’m talking about our self-discipline, our individual will, our self-respect, our voluntary order.
Note the operative words: self, individual and voluntary.
We don’t need bureaucrats and politicians to dictate how to behave; how to spend (or save); what and how to eat. We need to be the people we were meant to be: strong, resilient, disciplined, entrepreneurial, focused, wise, playful, humorous, humble, thoughtful and, please, self-deprecating. We have all the tools and opportunities a planet can confer.
We are a flabby lot. And it shows – not in a good way. We’ve read all about 10,000 hours, but how many of us actually put in the work?
As always, we are back to the “knowing-doing gap.” We know, we just don’t do…
Take inventory. Be honest with yourself. Are you flabby, undisciplined, unfocused? If so, you’ve got your work cut out for you (as do I). Let’s get to it.
a : a large usually closed four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage having doors in the sides and an elevated seat in front for the driver
a : a private tutor
b : one who instructs or trains <an acting coach>; especially : one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a competitive sport and directs team strategy <a football coach>
So, the other day at Take Your Brain to Lunch, I am in mid-presentation, and I say something like this: “the purpose of a coach is to tell me what I am doing wrong.” I referred to athletic coaches, people hired by the likes of Martina Navritilova and other “individual” stars. I am convinced that such an athlete cannot watch himself/herself, and thus needs a coach to watch, find the flaws, and correct. I used to play tennis (back in the days when rackets were made of wood, tennis balls were white, and the tiebreaker had not yet been adopted), and I know that’s what my coaches did for me. They saw my flaws, pointed them out, and drilled correction into me.
And I got better. (I would have gotten much, much better if I had practiced they way my coach told me to. But that’s another story).
Anyway, Cheryl Jensen, my blogging team member and the leader of Take Your Brain to Lunch, who is a personal coach, tells me I’m wrong. She says that a coach should not look for areas to correct, but instead should… well, let her tell you.
By the way, I disagree with Cheryl. Thus, this dialogue…
Cheryl, your turn.
As much as I try to avoid ever correcting people in public for fear of embarrassing them or damaging a relationship, I did indeed disagree publicly with Randy last week. When we traded time at the microphone, I offered a very different perspective. Randy is correct in that I am a professionally trained coach by The Coaches Training Institute (CTI) and the International Coach Federation (ICF), the governing body of professional coaching. Our official definition of coaching is “Coaching is a partnership with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
Another cornerstone idea from our CTI training is “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” This means coaching is not about fixing what’s broken. It is about helping the client look and find what’s already within and then directing that talent, energy, and focus towards their goals. There are 3 main reasons I coach: to facilitate learning, create movement towards client goals so they can improve their performance and enjoyment from life which of course includes work. So the whole idea of looking for what’s broken and then offering advice is totally counter culture from professional coaching to me. Rather than offer answers, we offer questions for the client to explore their areas of interest. Rather than offer advice, we ask questions to create options the client wants to implement. Rather than assign responsibility, we offer opportunities that will facilitate additional learning and new insights.
I’m a little fuzzy on “the point” of this article in Slate.com. But I know this, she is right about the popularity of Outliers, and the overall subject.
Here’s the article: Give It a Rest, Genius — What the new success books don’t tell you about superachievement by Ann Hulbert. Of the books discussed in the article, I have presented synopses of two: Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
She describes the (relatively) new-found fixation on the 10,000 hour rule. She is right to say that Colvin’s Talent is Overrated is more specific, more “demanding” than Outliers. Here are a couple of paragraphs from her article:
In their calculus of success, these books endorse perspiration over inspiration as the key to extraordinary performance. The prevailing term is “deliberate practice,” introduced by K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist cited in every one of these books for research that has led to the “10,000-hour rule.” That’s how much intensely focused training it takes to reach the expert level, in any field. Coyle’s more New Age coinage is “deep practice.”
Higher expectations can indeed work wonders for anyone, but truly relentless drive is a rarity. Amid all the recycled material in Bounce, Syed offers a sobering firsthand reminder from the sports front: The necessary fanatical commitment to mastery is most commonly inspired by competition, which has a way of winnowing ruthlessly. But in an era when plenty of American workers feel we’re running in place and just barely keeping up, the mixed message of this genre is one we’re understandably more eager to hear: Maybe we don’t have to become magnitudes more frenetic than we already are—just a whole lot more focused—and we, too, stand a chance of zooming ahead.
I remember this thought from Lewis’ Moneyball. By the time a baseball player is a young adult, it is simply too late to teach him not to swing at a ball. Here’s the quote:
What most scouts thought of as a learned skill of secondary importance (the ability to take a lot of pitches) the A’s management had come, through hard experience, to view virtually as a genetic trait, and the one most likely to lead to baseball success.
The A’s acknowledged that it probably could be taught – if you could begin at about age 5…
So, what does all of this say to us as adults in the actual pursuit of current and future success. I think two things:
1. You may not ever be world class, but you can get better with deliberate practice. For example, do you speak, and is speaking a key part of your path to success? Then watch yourself on video, hire a speech coach, scrutinize every part of your speaking, from content, to delivery, to gestures, to eye contact. Extrapolate this principle into any work you actually do. Watch yourself do it. Hire a coach to catch your flaws (you’ll probably not be able to see them – and, I hate to tell you – you do have some!). You have to work hard at developing the talent needed to excel.
2. Every job requires this kind of attention to get better. You know that line “this call might be monitored.” I wonder if anybody who monitors such calls is doing so to help the people on the calls get better, or are they just trying to catch them doing something wrong?
Help yourself, and others, get better – day in and day out — by focusing on getting better. That may be the take-away message of these books!
You can purchase my synopses of both Outliers and Talent is Overrated, with audio + handouts, at our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
After this Friday, I will have presented synopses of well over 200 books over the last twelve years. This includes books presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis, the Urban Engagement Book Club, and quite a few “special commission” presentations. For a number of years, I said that The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharpe was the best book/my favorite book. Then, I shifted that assessment to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
My reasons for such a personal ranking are obviously quite subjective. One reason is this – after reading those books, I kept thinking about them, a lot. I remembered their stories, and I pondered their implications. Both of them became part of my thinking, and I “built” on such thinking with other books – notably, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin as the logical follow-up to Outliers (the 10,000 hours requires very serious practice discipline/”deliberate practice” to maximize those hours), and a number of books on innovation that seemed to make more sense when preceded by the thoughts in The Creative Habit.
I think the more deeply I delved into The Checklist Manifesto, the more aware I became of just how big a challenge modern day complexity really presents. The title of the book may be misleading: “The Checklist Manifesto” makes it sound like a simple book – just create and use a checklist to get things done. But it is born of a deeper issue – complexity. For example, in the book Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, a “Master Builder” would oversee all of the big building projects. Today, with our 80 + story high-rises, there is no “Master Builder” who could possibly know enough to get such a building built as the Lone-Ranger type expert.
Here’s a revealing excerpt:
Every day there is more and more to manage and get right and learn. And defeat under conditions of complexity occurs far more often despite great effort rather than from a lack of it.
It is not clear how we could produce substantially more expertise than we already have. Yet our failures remain frequent. They persist despite remarkable individual ability.
(our) know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields – from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure…
In other words, it is not the solution of the checklist that has most intrigued me about this book, although I think I am a true convert to his solution. His case is absolutely compelling. But it is his diagnosis that makes it so valuable. And, this is no surprise – Gawande is a surgeon, and proper diagnosis is sort of critical in the process of successful surgery.
Recently, I mentioned a book entitled How to Read Slowly. Let me recommend that you put The Checklist Manifesto on your reading list – and carve out a time to read it slowly. I think it is that valuable.
I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle. Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too). But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle. And he is really, really important. But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others. And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound. For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.
From Aristotle, for example: to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer). And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…). Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point. A person writes a book. Others read it. And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books. And it helps us understand.
I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis? The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg. (from Slate.com and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).
Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration. Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:
But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.
I think the article is worth reading. I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations. And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.
But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read. None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read. But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice. That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.
I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books. In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better. I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.
These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months. Are these books worth reading in their entirety? Absolutely. But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.