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3 things I dislike about the Gladwell 10,000-hour Law

I don’t follow many people on Facebook, but I often check in on Tama J. Kieves, author of This Time I Dance!

She recently wrote about Malcolm Gladwell and his widely cited claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something.

Here’s what she wrote:

In class, a woman found it upsetting that Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours of practice—to break thru to genius or success. I asked, what if you had 10,000 past lives in it? What if your heart melted and the Universe just careened through you? There is no precedent for becoming yourself. Obey your own authority.

And here is what Tama later wrote in response to a comment she received:

Yes, I believe in practice and devotion as well. I do not believe in limitation though. I do not believe in hard and fast rules that tell people what they can and cannot have. I think everyone is so unique and spirit-infused that we cannot know what they will accomplish or how. Besides, I think that any advice that cripples others, is simply untrue.

I find this discussion exciting and inspirational because for someone my age, the Gladwell Law is a bummer.

Here are three reasons why:

First, if you take the Gladwell Law literally, I’m probably too old to master anything new. If mastery takes 10,000 hours, that means 250 weeks full-time if I work at it 40 hours a week. That’s about five years if you allow a little time off for vacation and sick leave.

But for me, 40 hours a week of practicing a single skill is not realistic. Though I don’t plan to ever retire, the fact is that I would be way past many people’s idea of retirement before I achieve 10,000 hours toward mastery.

On first reading, the rule sounds all well and good, but when I think about it, it’s totally discouraging. Maybe this level of mastery isn’t necessary to contribute to the world and make a living. I hear the tick-tock of Father Time and Gladwell is like the amps.

Second, the Law favors only the young. Gladwell writes about how Bill Gates got an early start on his 10,000 hours by having ready access to a computer in high school. The Beatles did their 10,000 playing clubs in Germany at the beginning of their careers. The Law works well for those who determine their life paths when they are young and have enough time to achieve but not for me.

Third, it implies that the talents that are worth mastering are discrete abilities so that the hour-count begins fresh with each skill. In real life, piano mastery can build on guitar mastery because they both include knowledge of music theory and finger dexterity. Just as becoming a master pastry chef builds on cooking skills.

And this concept is even more relevant to qualities that are less sharply defined and less walled off from other disciplines. For instance, I’d hope that for someone mastering leadership, the hours spent in following and implementing contribute to the growth curve.

So there, Malcolm.

Originally posted 4-10-11

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