Sunday, January 11, 2009

Let's Discuss Outliers: On 10k hours to mastery

Am reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and finding it extremely intriguing. Getting stuck 3/4 way through as he seems to be meandering. There are a few very interesting notions he put across though: The 10000-hour rule is one of them.

He says that 10000 hours is the magic number for greatness: a study "couldn't find any "naturals", musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of 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."

"The people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder."

In another part of his book, Gladwell argues that you need a certain level of competency/IQ, but beyond that it is this 10000-hour rule that determines great achievements. This works out to daily practice of about 3 hours for 10 years.

My friend May whose son plays piano beautifully, tells me he has been practising daily for hours since he was about 3. He's now 12, and he wins competitions even when pitted against Russian children who attend music school every day. She doesn't think he is exceptionally gifted, she attributes his success to plain, hard work. Even on holidays, she brings along a keyboard for the boys to practise on. Daily, without fail, all year long, practise, practise, practise. They miss school pretty regularly to take part in competitions and to perform at concerts. The school isn't too happy about this, but May is focused! Piano comes first!

I also know that my friend's son, a math prodigy, works extremely hard at Math(and enjoys it) for hours each day. He wins competitions aimed at kids much older than he is. I think he would have gone further in Math had it not been for other distractions such as PSLE preparations. Thankfully, his mom is a great advocate for him and he has been able to thrive while working within the Singapore education system.

Some of us have been talking about why Singapore is able to produce "great" world-class results when it comes to test-taking amongst children, yet there are precious few "greats" when it comes to the real world. Could it be that Singapore kids are spending their 10000 hours working on scoring at tests? In the real world, there aren't tests to be taken. How many musical, chess, sport talents have chosen to practise that few hours less each day, just to focus on mock test-papers during exam period. Didn't one of last year's high PSLE scorers say she stopped piano practise/lessons for the few months before PSLE?

IF Gladwell's theory is right (and I'm not saying it is); IF it is, Singapore is training its kids to be great test-takers, assessment book writers, and exam paper setters. Discuss!


monlim said...

Again, it proves the point that hard work gets you further than just smarts, although if you have both, you're likely to be able to go very far.

In music, we always compared Haydn and Mozart, both classical composers within the same period. Mozart was the prodigy, Haydn was the slogger. (He was talented but not prodigious like Mozart). But Haydn worked on his art, eventually he churned out a massive library of compositions - over 100 symphonies, 68 string quartets among others, one of the most (if not the most) of any composer. And they're pretty great too. I suspect it's due to sheer doggedness and practice.

A good ear in learning music is important, but if you practise 10,000 hours, I'm pretty sure you'll be damn good too!

Lilian said...

On Mozart and the 10000 hour rule, from P40 of the book.

This is true even of people we think of as prodigies. Mozart, for example, famously started writing music at six. But, writes the psychologist Michael Howe in his book Genius Explained,

by the standards of mature composers, Mozart's early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang's childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos for piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other composers. Of those concertos that only contain music original to Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No9, K271), was not composed until he was twenty-one: by that time, Mozart had already been composing concertos for ten years.

The music critic Harold Schonberg goes further: Mozart, he argues, actually "developed late," since he didn't produce his greatest work until he had been composing for more than twenty years.

monlim said...

Actually, I heard that part about Mozart's early compositions being written by his father, that has NOT been proven. It sounds to me like certain quarters trying to turn a point to suit their own arguments. People in Mozart's time didn't believe it either, so Mozart was actually confined in a room without his father... and he produced compositions. Perhaps not the greatest works but significant enough to be more than just musical doodles. And some of Mozart's greatest works, which he wrote at 20+ could never be paralleled even by other great composers.

Not to say that the 10k hours didn't apply to Mozart, but just like there are people who try to claim that smarts are everything, there's also the extreme who try to claim that smarts is nothing. IMO, both are untrue.

Lilian said...

As they say, "Lies, damned lies, and statistics!" Everyone is guilty of using the "right" statistics/anecdotes to support their argument.

You're right, and the book doesn't say smarts isn't important, it says smarts alone isn't enough. The part I'm more skeptical with is the bit where the author claims no one who has put in 10000 hours hasn't achieved greatness. Cos I know even with 10000 hours of hard work, I wouldn't become a great pianist, or a chess grandmaster, or math whiz.

But the important point is made; someone with innate talent will still need to put in hours to achieve greatness, eg your example of Bobby Fischer in your latest blogpost. Actually, this book on P41 cited Bobby Fischer as the only one who got to elite level in less than 10 years (the estimated equivalent of 10000 hours), it took him 9 years.

monlim said...

Yah lor, I practise 10k hours also cannot become world-class pianist lah! Trust me, I know this cos at one point I was considering music as a career. I reached a point where the more I practised, in fact the worse I got. I realised that for me at least, there's such a thing as over-practise. So I think there is a plateau where one can reach within your potential.

But we all agree that all smarts and no practise will get you squat. God is fair that way, I guess!

Anonymous said...

Yeah I read this book recently too! I recommended it to my brother (an Oxford U. Prof who also chairs the admissions committee..) as the ONE book I'd recommend for 2008..

I first knew about this book when I watched Gladwell interviewed on The Colbert Show, sometime before the X'mas holidays. Then I found this book in our local supermarket at 40% off Canadian cover price. A couple of weeks later it was sold out!

Have you gone on to the chapter towards the end which tries to find an answer to why Asians are so good at math? He's got some interesting points there.

Also the chapter which talks about an experimental school-program which turns inner-city ghetto kids into Ivy League contenders.


Anonymous said...

'10 years' is not actually the 'magic figure'. It's more the 10K hours.

In the book, Bill Joy, the guy who wrote Java, achieved 'world-class' level programming in about 3 years because he spent between 8 to 12 hours EVERY day--all thru the year--programming in those years. By that 3 yrs, as an undergraduate, he wrote programs that are still in use some 30yrs later--now that's 'world-class'. While speaking of those times, he mentioned spontaneously that he probably took about 10K hours to achieve that level.

Gladwell also made the point that OPPORTUNITY is also a factor. For instance, if not for fortuitous opportunities (the right physical conditions present at the right time & place), neither Bill Joy nor Bill Gates could have been able to achieve those 10K hours even if they had the passion to do so.

I think 'talent' & 'passion' are so intertwined that they can become confused with one another. Without that passion there would not be that 10K hours. Without that initial spark of 'talent' (that initial high the child experienced in doing that task, perhaps from the perception or feedback that he's uniquely good at it..) there probably wouldn't be the passion that would subsequently fuel those 10K hours. With passion comes practice which would further ingrain the perception that he has 'talent'.


Lilian said...

Yes, it's 10000 hours, not 10 years.

He writes about luck and timing and opportunity; leading to that magic 10000 hours. But like you said, without talent, would there be passion? The talent has got to be there, and then the passion is ignited, and then the 10000 hours come in. All must be in place.

That's why I think in exam-oriented societies, there is a higher chance of young talents never fulfilling initial promise to become true greats.

Alcovelet said...

Hi Lilian, I have the book sitting on my shelf and haven't gotten around to reading it yet, largely because it smells so much like a pot boiler. Yeah yeah, I totally agree - no practice equals no high level performance in anything. Like Mon, I was a high scorer for music- distinction every year and I skipped grades some more (no biggie esp for music). But I don't have to search too deeply within myself to know I just had no talent. I can play the tune reasonably well, but that's it - no extra spark - just adequate skills for exam taking! I met people who were so musical, they could play any of those popular mandarin songs by ear - not me!

In my mind, some professions require more than hard work. Hadyn might have the output numbers, but I still prefer Mozart's pieces anytime. I echo Lilian's sentiments- try making a mathematician out of me, haha!

And as for running, Gladwell's original example, well! If you don't have the physique for it, it's an uphill task! The fact that his friend even showed up for the "gifted running" training already point to some innate ability that is recognizeable by experts.

So yeah, we've got to give a lot of factors their due, like luck, opportunity, and hard work. But methinks he belabours his point overmuch on non-talent.

Pot boiler lor!

Lilian said...

Ay, don't forget while you were practising your music, you were also working hard in school, studying for exams, doing homework. So chances are you never did manage that 10000 hours, so can't really disprove Gladwell's theory in your case could have been the er, Vanessa Mae of piano leh. Btw, are there any great female composers? As you can tell, I'm really musically-challenged, never even heard of Haydn till Mon talked about him.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, was also a composer but never made it so big like the well-known composers. Also due to women traditionally known as child-bearers, she toned down her talent even though she bore no kids. Anyway, I am no musician myself but forced to learn because of my child so I know most of the famous musicians' history and out of which Mozart's a sad case. I totally agree with first the talent, then the 10k hrs of hardwork to produce outstanding results. That is not to downplay people without the talent....but without the inherent talent, it will perhaps be 15-20 hours and for those who cannot persevere will be frustrated to death by then. Not discrediting YY in her music training, but I tend to agree that distinction can be scored if one works hard to master pieces like NAFA students but if beyond exams, one cannot play any other pieces of music by listening, then music inclination is really not strong, hence the 15-20k hrs may be required.

On the other hand, if there is one who has all the abilities to play music on his own and pick up all tunes easily but yet refuses to refine the hearing system as well as the musicality of the music dept in the brain, it is also end of story for the talent.

As for tests in real life, I feel completely the other way. Everyday to me is a test.....we are being assessed most times if not all the time. It's just that the tests in real life are more challenging than those prepared tests in exams. If you mean the prepared tests, then I agree, in real life, many things are not tested under prepared conditions.

And for SG kids being exam setters, that is a funny insight, makes me break into a smile :) I can feel the frustration in the comment. Based on today's questions in kids' tests, many are testing such constant working on challenging questions develops the brain. Similarly in music theory tests, children need to be drilled. The sportsman are drilled in stretching their body instead of the mind...but the concept is similar. Some will be musicians, some artists, some sportsman but we still need a pool of brain talent. Also, I have a hypothesis, for people with clearly identified talent they can directly start training in those faculties....whereas for those still uncertain where the talent lies, easier would be to train the brain, the control centre, and figure out later where it works best....Hence at the later part, doctors, lawyers, accountants... get identified by this "delay" process. Unlike music, art and sports, we cannot see the vision of a doctor, dentist, lawyer in our children until we have gone through the series of rigorious exams and tests to figure it out.


monlim said...

Like Ad said, talent cannot be underestimated. For all his perspiration, many would not consider Haydn's music as "great" as Mozart's even though he definitely spent over 10,000 hours.

Her point about the running thing I can identify with. I cannot run, full stop. Even after going for high impact classes regularly twice a week for 6 years, I still have a very low limit on stamina. Sometimes, aunties who haven't exercised in years come for the class and keep up better than me. Malu only...

Lilian said...

QX, yes, was talking about prepared tests. The challenges we face in working life usually test our adaptability, creativity, ability to work with others; if the answer is already out there (which is the case in exams), one would usually be able to google it.

Your hypothesis is very interesting, "for those still uncertain where the talent lies, easier would be to train the brain, the control centre, and figure out later where it works best" and I definitely agree with you; I'm pretty sure rigorous testing trains the brain, I'm just not sure if it's entirely necessary to have so much of it during the primary years.

There is also the question of whether all that testing, while training the brain a certain way, also drains it of its creativity and adaptibility.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree with the intensity of such rigorous testing which has become progressively worse over the years. If there is no time to smell the roses, no time to do nothing...creativity gets jammed in the mind. The willingness to adapt also dips cos life is so hard!! That is why when creative people like musicians, artists are forced to produce work commercially on a regular basis due to demand and bosses who want to make $$, the value of creativity drops.... Honestly, things have gone out of hand at this point, guess who can stop it or slow it down?


Anonymous said...

I am surprised the 10,000 hrs get so much publicity out of the book when it was already mentioned in a kids' book "What makes me Me" which was published in 2004 (brought to my attention by my DS when I told him abt the 10,000 hrs. He told me he already knew that!) I somewhat agree that if u do something (u love) for 10,000hrs, u will be very good at it. Take Michael Phleps. He has the perfect swimmer's body. He trains for 12-14km daily to get to where he is now. There is no short cut even for talented people.

Lilian said...

Gladwell has a gift for turning information we already know or suspect to be true into something that sounds totally new with the Eureka Wow factor. That's why can be best-selling writer.