Gladwell: 10,000 hours to success

November 16th, 2008

The Guardian has an extract, A gift or hard graft?, from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success, due out later this month. The piece introduces the idea that a key to becoming extraordinarily successful in a field is achieving early expertise and that to become an expert in a discipline requires on the order of 10,000 hours of practice. The 10K figure comes from the research of Anders Ericsson who in the early 1990s studied violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music.

“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.”

The extract focuses on some of the most successful people in the computer industry — Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others — and argues that another part of their success was being born at the right time, in 1954 or 1955. This made them about 20 years old when the first person computers became available.

I’m going to seize on this as yet another personal excuse — I was born a half decade too early.