In it he defends the ‘10,000-hour rule’ that he introduced in his best-selling book. ‘Outliers’. This is the idea that to be highly successful in any skill, it’s necessary to practise for around 10,000 hours of your early life. Here’s what he says:
There is a lot of confusion about the 10,000 rule that I talk about in Outliers. It doesn’t apply to sports. And practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest. Unfortunately, sometimes complex ideas get oversimplified in translation.
Critics of Gladwell would find the last sentence disingenuous. If an over-simplification occurred in translation, he is the main translator in this scenario. Simplification is of course vital. We rely on great communicators like him to condense academic knowledge into an accessible, entertaining form. The challenge facing him, and anyone seeking to popularise complex ideas, is how far to go: when does simplification become over-simplification?
In the case of the 10,000 hour ‘rule’, Gladwell may have gone a step too far in his attempt to create simplicity. The number itself – 10,000 – is not specified by the study that Gladwell cites in evidence, which followed students at a music academy. At 18, the violinists in the study had done 7,400 hours. By 20, yes, they’d done 10,000. But they weren’t the finished product by then. To go on and reach the top of their profession, they would have to go way further than the 10,000 milestone. Worse (for Gladwell), the 10,000 figure was an average. Some of the best violinists hadn’t reached that total by the age of 20. So, the 10,000 hour ‘rule’ is not a rule at all. So why was 10,000 chosen by Gladwell as the crucial figure? It was a useful simplification. It just came back to bite him.
Gladwell reminds us in his defence that he never said 10,000 hours of practice was sufficient, only that it was one of the necessary factors. Some people latched on to it and talked as if we can all be good at anything we want if we clock up those hours – as if there was something magic about that number. But he really does have himself to blame. He made it sound as if there was something magic about that number, when there wasn’t.
As a piece of messaging, the 10,000 hour rule is powerful and memorable. It’s a concept that spreads virally; people who haven’t read the book quote it. The problem is that there’s not enough truth in it as a theory. And once you take away the misconceptions and get to the plain truth of it… it’s not very interesting. All it really says is that if you want to perfect a skill you have to practise a lot when you’re young, though that might not be enough without talent, opportunity etc. Well… we kind of all knew that already!
It’s not just popular psychology that faces this problem. Anyone trying to get a message out there faces a similar challenge. It works like this…
If you want your message to spread, it will have to be repeated by people you’ve told, when you’re not in the room. It needs to be memorable, appealing and informative. It needs to tell people what to do. In order to do these things it needs to be polished into a smooth and attractive form. The rough edges of complexity need to be removed, or else they will create ‘drag’, depriving the message of the clarity it needs to travel. So the danger of course is that we step across the line between simplification (which is our goal) and over-simplification (which misleads people).
How do we know where that line is and avoid crossing it? Here are some tips. The first three are ways to boost our message and make it more viral:
- Set a concrete, specific goal. It might be a bit arbitrary; it might not be achieved, but it will be more galvanising that way.
- Make it surprising and challenging. Ask yourself ‘what belief does my audience have that will be challenged by this statement?’.
- What are you telling people that they want to hear?
This second set are more cautionary, ways that might help to prevent the message departing too far from the whole truth:
- Does my statement assume anything? Are my assumptions justified and shared by my audience?
- Am I appearing to guarantee anything? Could that come back and bite me?
- What part of this would an imaginary opponent, rival, or ill-wisher seize on to discredit me?
If you apply these principles to Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hour’ message, you see that he did all of the first three – the things that make the help make the message viral. Let’s look at how:
He has a concrete, specific goal in the 10,000 number; It’s challenging and surprising that excellence can be achieved in such a measurable way; and this is something we want to hear because it makes success seem ultimately attainable, however remote.
He doesn’t really seem to have considered the second set of three – the things that keep it true. There is an assumption that the audience will remember both that the 10,000 number is notional, not factual, and that other factors, such as exceptional natural talent, are essential. Gladwell appears to guarantee that 10,000 hours ‘buys you’ success. He denies saying that but to call the theory a ‘rule’ is to encourage that thought. Critics, some of them quite mean-spirited, have gleefully ‘debunked’ the 10,000 hour rule. Unfortunately for Gladwell, all they need to do is point to the author of the study that he bases this idea on, who claims that his work is misrepresented by Gladwell’s use of it in Outliers. That could have been foreseen.
Given all this, what should Malcom Gladwell have said? Well, perhaps instead of trumpeting a 10,000 hour rule, he could have condensed the concept into something like this:
10,000 hours, by age 20, minimum.
This formulation reintroduces some of the complexity and contingency of the original scientific research. As you can see, it sacrifices some of the easy-to-swallow simplicity. Had the author done this, his concept might not have become so viral. People who hadn’t read the book wouldn’t be quoting it. One could argue that, when trying to attract readers, the frustrations that arise from oversimplifying are a price worth paying if people spread the word and read the book. Maybe more good is done than harm. That’s for Gladwell to decide.
To find out more about how you can apply this to your own professional communication, and to see examples, check out my blog on the London Tube Map and see how less really is more in the messaging game.