Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/25/2009

10,000 Hours? Really?

I’ve been resisting the temptation to write about Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers for the past several weeks. But every time I sit down to work on something else, my mind goes back to that book. More specifically, I start thinking about the book’s second chapter, “The 10,000 Hour Rule.” Even more specifically, I come back to the idea that not all hours are created equal.

The book, as you know, is the nation’s #1 nonfiction bestseller at this moment. I think everyone I work with in the fitness business has read it. TC Luoma, editor in chief at T-Nation, wrote about it in his column more than a month ago. Chad Waterbury recommended it to me even before that, and finally sent me a copy as an early birthday present when I mentioned in early January that I still hadn’t gotten around to reading it.

That’s why I didn’t want to write about it — who cares what a mid-list fitness-book author thinks about a bestseller that was published two months ago and already has 275 reviews on Amazon?

But here’s why I just can’t quit Gladwell: I don’t think the 10,000 rule is correct as stated. This is from page 38:

The question is this: is there such a thing as innate talent? The obvious answer is yes. Not every hockey player born in January ends up playing at the professional level. Only some do — the innately talented ones. Achievement is talent plus preparation. The problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.

He goes on to look at specific examples of individuals who rose to the top of their fields for no obvious reason beyond the number of hours they worked, rehearsed, and otherwise prepared for their careers. He cites professional violinists vs. amateurs — the only difference being the number of hours they practiced.

The striking thing about Ericsson’s study is that he and his colleagues couldn’t find any “naturals,” musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction fo the time their peers did. Nor could they find any “grinds,” people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research suggests that once a musician has 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 bit about getting into the top schools is kind of a big caveat, isn’t it? It also fits into the other big theme Gladwell develops in Outliers: individual success depends as much on circumstances (of birthdate, of family connections, of generational opportunity) as it does on talent and determination.

But what gets left out of all his examples is something that I think should carry equal weight: coaching.

Would a talented violinist with a strong work ethic but mediocre to lousy instruction make it as a concert violinist? My guess is no. Same with athletes. Lots of kids with phenomenal skill and gritty determination fail because they weren’t taught the fundamentals at an early enough age. They put in their 10,000 hours on sandlots and playgrounds, but they practiced the wrong skills in the wrong way. Without coaching, they reinforced bad habits, and didn’t incorporate the skills that would’ve allowed them to benefit from their natural talents.

Some of the examples in Outliers, like Bill Gates and the Beatles, leave out the element of coaching altogether. If these outliers truly were self-taught, then I have to think that their innate abilities matter more than their 10,000 hours of practice.

There are lines in the chapter that kinda-sorta address these two problems. This is on page 40:

Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others.

And on page 42 he writes about how it takes a lot of support and encouragement for a young person to put in those 10,000 hours. It requires special programs, as well as some degree of financial sacrifice by the family — your daughter can’t be working at McDonald’s if she’s going to be a world-class violinist.

I see this with local gymnasts in particular. Their parents have to be all-in on the effort. My daughter Meredith’s best friend is an elite gymnast who goes to bed at midnight because she has hours of practice every evening. We discovered this when the girl came over for a sleepover; she couldn’t fall asleep, and her parents had to come pick her up in the middle of the night. (Meredith was out like a light and didn’t realize her friend had left until she woke up the next morning.)

Another reason I can’t get Outliers out of my head is because of something it does extremely well. It explains perfectly why I have the career I have, and why it’s no better or worse than it is.

Toward the end of the 10,000 hours chapter, he lists the birthdates of all the computer geniuses who became fabulously wealthy titans of modern industry and culture. All were born between 1953 and 1956. That was the perfect time for a computer-industry mogul to pop out of the oven.

I was born in 1957, at what I think was the absolute peak of the Baby Boom. No matter what I did, I competed with millions of Boomers trying to do the exact same thing. Journalism was a trendy career to pursue for a few years in the mid-1970s, and without knowing it was trendy, that’s what I went into. (It’s hard to stay on top of these things when you’re in high school in Festus, Missouri, with parents who’re so indifferent to your career that they never once ask about your test scores. To this day, I have no idea if I took the SAT or ACT. I just remember signing up at the last minute, paying for it myself, and catching a ride to the test center with classmates.)

Once I’d decided to be a writer, I went at it as hard as I could. I took creative-writing classes while I was in journalism school (thanks to geographic luck, I could attend a top J-school without paying out-of-state tuition), took jobs where I worked long hours and got lots of opportunities to try my hand at different types of reporting and commentary, wrote comedy sketches and screenplays and fiction in my spare time, and finally attended grad school for creative writing.

By the time I entered my current career track, fitness journalism, in my mid 30s, I’d logged my 10,000 hours in multiple disciplines. I had more than 1,000 articles published, more than 1,000 pages of fiction, more than 1,000 pages of sketches and scripts and screenplays, and who knows how many thousands of pages of journal entries. That’s aside from prolific correspondence, which I believe is a kind of practice — the literary equivalent of pick-up basketball.

All that served to get me to the middle of the publishing industry.

The one thing I did that was vaguely outlier-ish, without really knowing it at the time, was that I got into fitness before it was an actual trend. I can’t tell you the first time I picked up a barbell, but I’m pretty sure I started working out with my older brother’s weight set when I was 13, which would’ve been 1970. And I never stopped for more than a few months here or there. So by the time I got a chance to work for a fitness magazine in 1992, I’d not only put in my 10,000 hours as a writer and editor, but I’d logged thousands of hours in the gym as well.

That gave me one comparative advantage: There weren’t many trained and experienced journalists who wanted to specialize in fitness and exercise. Me, I was happy to specialize, once I realized the specialty existed, and once I saw the expanding opportunities in the field as adults grew interested enough in strength training to buy books on the subject.

Obviously, I’m not an outlier. I’m a mid-list author who’s happily employed and enjoys his work. Lots of books sell better than mine (as I’ve said, I’m just happy and flattered to see mine stay in print). But at least I now understand why my 10,000 hours didn’t make me one.

So that’s my take on Outliers: It’s a terrific book, entertaining and thought-provoking, with lots of lessons for all of us about our own careers and the future careers of our children. My only quibble is that I don’t think it gives enough credit to the importance of coaching for the ones who do rise to the top of their fields.