William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

You Too Can Be A Genius After 10,000 Hours

No, you cannot. That title is a lie, and, judging by a recent spate of books on the subject, a popular one.

Ann Hulbert of Slate has compiled a list of books which preach the Gospel of Success (HT A&LD).

Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success was not, appropriately enough, a bolt of original genius when it appeared in November 2008. Geoffrey Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else had come out a month earlier. The following spring brought Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. …This spring David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong has gotten several raves. Hot on its heels arrives Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed, a former Olympic ping-pong player turned journalist.

Gladwell and his followers are rotten statisticians. They look upon their sample of the successful and say, “Hark! These shiny examples have all worked hard; their dedicated efforts brought them to the top. So too can elbow grease alight you on the pinnacle.”

Diligence is key! After reaching a certain level of practice, anybody can reach the height of their professions. Talent is a nicety, not a necessity.

These are obviously false, beliefs based on bad sampling. It is fine to catalog the habits of the successful, but it is a mistake to conclude that those habits are what are solely responsible for achievement. Why? Because this neglects the vastly larger–and hidden—pool of people who have adopted the same habits but who were not successful.

It’s true that mere talent is rarely sufficient to propel one to the top, but without it, one will not go far. Pete Rose had hustle, but he also had talent. Edison was right: genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. The error comes with believing that one-hundred percent perspiration can make up for the lack of one percent inspiration.

We can trace the error back to Enlightenment—particularly Locke and his tabula rasa. If everybody was a blank slate, then all were equal, all could achieve the same. Yet we observe differences; therefore, those differences must have arisen because of disparities in education and culture. Remove the disparities and—voilà!—equality is restored.

This unsound argument—its premises so earnestly desired—was seized by intellectuals, who to this day unquestioningly claim it as an obvious truth. They pet it lovingly; it is their precious. It lies to them. It tells them that they are great, too, but unrecognized. Paradoxically, it tells them that there were no great men, there was only circumstance, prejudice, effort, and luck. Anybody could be a Newton had they only had the proper upbringing.

How did such a ridiculous belief spread? David Stove said, “a twentieth-century professor of history can hardly be a hero himself, and he naturally finds it comfortable to believe that no one else can either.” Well, envy is, after all, one of the seven deadly sins.

Now, I am 6’2″ and 200 pounds, but I will never, no matter my willpower, no matter how many hours I put in, become a successful jockey. Nor will I ever be found on the offense line of the Detroit Lions, sad as that team is. Equally, successful jockeys, even if they expend 20,000 hours of “deliberate” practice, will never become successful NBA players.

These kinds of statements are never (well, rarely) controversial. Because why? Because physical differences are readily observed: even academics can appreciate that short people do not make great basketball players.

But differences in mental ability are not easily observed. The science of phrenology having falling into disrepute, one cannot, at a glance, tell a mundane brain from an excellent one. Therefore, the reasoning goes, since I cannot see a difference, it does not exist.

Our culture suffers dreadfully from the natural corollaries of this specious argument: all can be educated and should go to college, all can learn calculus and evolutionary theory, all are talented and deserve a ribbon, your business will succeed if you press these buttons, it’s what’s inside that matters, learn to love yourself, everybody is good at something, it’s not your fault.

The worst is that if only more money were spent, then circumstances could be fashioned so that all students will be above average. Dollars per-student is ever-increasing, rising faster than inflation, yet performance stagnates. The solution? Spend more.

33 Comments

  1. I’m not certain, and I’m going to put my head in the noose w/o checking 1st, but I think it was Rousseau who pushed the idea of “tabula rasa”.

  2. The authors you linked to all advocate a steady pace of continuous learning. They warn against expecting to excel at any one thing immediately. They all want to dispel the get rich quick mentality that modern pop culture has instilled in our collective mind. Your only answer to that is “not everyone is a genius so why try”? If differences in mental ability are not easily observed, why not spend money to educate everyone? Man, what crawled up your ass?

  3. costanza,

    Actually, we can see discussion of the concept of the blank slate going as far back as Aristotle. However, the concept as we commonly use it today was largely formed by Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

    Matt,

    First off, a funny typo: “Remove the disparities and—violà!—equality is restored.” Seems to me that we should leave the red-headed stepchildren of the violin family out of this. Pick on the stately cello if you must, but the poor viola suffers enough as it is.

    Secondly, I think it goes deeper than the Enlightenment. I think we can trace the concept of Western equality as far back as the Stoics and the early Christian church, which had some interest in equality. In many ways, I think it’s noteworthy that the early Christians were heavily invested in some notion of equality, probably as a contrast to the rather segmented Jewish society of the time.

  4. red,

    I hesitate to utter this banality around here, but let’s start with, “Correlation is not causation.” The authors claim to have found a correlation between genius and hard work. So what?

    The authors’ motivations may or may not be to dispel us of get rich quick dreams, but that doesn’t mean that their arguments are correct. And they fly into the face of common sense, which is one reason to be skeptical.

    There is plenty of empirical evidence as to the effects of putting more people through more education, including some previous posts on this blog. In any case, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent.

    This post is a nice follow up to the Sowell review on PJM, giving another example of an “Intellectual” love affair with an idea.

  5. I seem to remember that several such claims attempted to validate themselves by playing fast and loose with the meaning of the word ‘genius’?
    For large sections of academia and the po faced PC, it is very important that tabulas be rasa, else they must needs mimic Violet Elizabeth Bott.

  6. Briggs

    17 May 2010 at 9:55 am

    red,

    Ten dollars cash to you if you can identify where I said anything remotely ilke “not everyone is a genuis so why try?”

    Not everybody can be educated to the same high level, whether they are taught continuously or otherwise. There is no point in trying to teach everybody, say, string theory. It would be a waste of time and money.

    You cannot even teach everybody to play the viola, right, Ari?

    costanza,

    Well, the idea didn’t originate with Locke. But he was a noted proponent of it, and the person most associated with the concept. Rousseau pushed the idea that man had an built-in “natural” state, one at harmony with the world. Not a blank slate, but one pre-inked with noble savage recipes.

  7. Matt,

    You couldn’t even teach me to play the recorder. I’m that musically inept.

  8. 10,000 hours is (usually) necessary but (seldom) sufficient.

    “But differences in mental ability are not easily observed.”
    I believe that most teachers of first and second grade students can reliably pick out the ones that have the greatest “mental ability.” The difficulty is in doing it objectively with a standard test in order to be “fair” and keep everyone out of court.

  9. Is there a correlary? If you have put in your 10,000 hours and haven’t found success, then pehaps you lack the tallent to comete at the highest level?

  10. I agree with Briggs here. Talent is important, and hard work + more talent generally beats even harder hard work + less talent. Dumb luck matters too, in all areas of life. As does the propensity to work hard at any given thing. Variation in outcomes is a given.

    From a certain ideological perspective, this variation is intolerable, and must be eliminated. So we establish quasi-governmental institutions to eliminate variation in outcomes, and we call them “systems”. “Educational system”, “health care system” – and don’t forget the newly coined “economic system”.

    “System” is a manufacturing metaphor. It means that we’ll treat people as raw materials, and the ideal is to ensure that they come out as a standard product, with prospects for pretty much the same outcomes as everyone else. (Except for the people heading the system, of course. They get perks.)

    So we have the absurdity of 50% drop-out rates from school districts that spend $11,000 per student per year (in low cost areas – much more elsewhere). And of the 50% that do graduate, 50% can’t read as well as a sizable chunk of *first graders*. For each of these students we paid $143,000, and kept the student from doing anything else for 13 years, in an attempt to shoehorn them into the opportunity-equalizing mold. Then we gave them a diploma declaring they’d been successfully molded, even though they hadn’t really mastered the skills the diploma represents. And then we pretended that this whole thing was a good idea, a good investment, and had enhanced the 18-year old illiterate’s life chances more than working an apprenticeship at the body shop would have done. Because now he can go to college. With his diploma.

    Some of them actually do go to college. Years ago, I taught a few students who literally could not construct a comprehensible sentence – and believe me, this is not a high standard. Because by “comprehensible” I don’t mean “grammatically perfect”, or even “syntactically unobjectionable”. I merely mean that it would be possible to discern more-or-less what the writer intended on the basis of the words as written. These students ultimately flunked out – though one made it past Freshman year. I have no idea how.

    Are these students really best served by mandatory education? Are they best served by being prepared (as best they can be) for college? Is there some other path that might serve them better?

    I don’t mind subsidizing education for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. I do mind paying for something that obviously isn’t working for a particular student, year after year after year. I especially mind being told that the reason it isn’t working is that I’m not paying enough, that this has been determined by my betters to be the case, and that I have no choice in the matter – indeed, I lack even the standing to object.

  11. The newspaper, Investors Business Daily, used to have a series of articles on great/wealthy/successful people, cataloging their habits and successes. The editors of IBD advocated that anybody could be successful by imitating these people.

    I was always put-off by these stories from the viewpoint that, yes, I could emulate Bill Gates, but I am no Bill Gates in intelligence or talents.

    My belief is that these successful people worked their butts off while on the constant lookout for opportunities. When opportunities arose, their experience, intelligence, and talents helped them make the right decisions.

    Intelligence, talent, and effort make up a winning combination, but there are no guarantees.

  12. Does this mean I’ll never sing solo at the royal Albert? I’m dashed, hopeless. Whatever will I do now on a Wednesday.

  13. I haven’t checked in the last year or two, but last time I looked, 50% of the elite of the Forbes rich list did not have a college education. If you include only those that are “self- made”, the numbers had even fewer college graduates.

    Following the IBD rationale, if you want to be super-rich would you be better off skipping college?

  14. tabula rasa was Locke’s idea.

  15. I could have been a genius, but perspiration was never my thing.

  16. When I started college in 1960 the freshmen (freshwomen?) were assembled and addressed by the university president. He told us to shake hands with the people around us and become acquainted now, because half of us would be gone by the end of the semester. He wasn’t joking. I can’t imagine that happening today.

    I still remember (with horror) the mechanics course taught by Dr Miller, AKA Dr. Death. 36 of us started the course, 6 of us finished. What was funny was that Dr. Miller tried to talk us survivors into taking statistical mechanics next year. He said we would find the course easy. We didn’t believe him and he didn’t get a single volunteer. The story on campus was that if you survived Dr. Miller, you could survive anything. Then college courses were taught by Dr. Death and today they are taught by Dr Remedial Instruction.

  17. I read Gladwell’s book a while ago, but if I remember his thesis correctly, he said that you needed to be intelligent enough or tall enough, or whatever quality you need, in enough amount. Once you have enough of what is needed, then you can aspire to be great at what you do if you put in the hours. Sorry to say this, but your argumentation relies on a strawman. If you want to go against Gladwell, you have to argue why many hours of work, once you have enough of the quality needed to do something, will not make you great.

  18. To know whether it makes us great we should perhaps ask Rainer Maria Rilke about trees.

  19. Briggs

    17 May 2010 at 3:31 pm

    David,

    If so, then Gladwell was knocking on open doors. Whoever said that talent was everything and practice nothing? It is his contention that effort can make up for talent; perhaps not wholly, but at least substantially. Common knowledge tells us that hustle can make up for a portion of talent, but not very much.

    And all those other authors are nuts: they toss around the word “genius” like men do hot dogs at a baseball game.

  20. David:

    …..you have to argue why many hours of work, once you have enough of the quality needed to do something, will not make you great.

    I have a friend with a degree and an IQ of 120 who drives a front-load garbage truck. He can slide his forks into a bin whilst still on the move, pop it up and overturn [dump] it in a flash, drop it back down and slide the forks out while backing up and positioning his truck for the next container – all faster than any other driver in his fleet. He’s practiced this skill for over 15 years. Is that enough to make him great?

  21. Ray’s post reminded me of college. I too had a bad time with my first mechanics course. I had a different Dr. Death, but mine was bad too. I think more than half of us had to repeat the course. I didn’t take another course from that guy. I did go on to take sadistical mechanics, but not from Dr. Death. I took it from Dr. Gaines, who also taught us “Prof Gaines patented no-think physics, the Euler Lagrange equations of motion. I still remember his Atwood’s machine with Yo-Yo problem.

    As far as inspiration vs. perspiration argument of success, I think it leaves out the role of luck. I’ll take dumb luck over skill and cunning everytime.

  22. It’s just the same old “You too can be President/ Mr Universe if you really want to be.”

  23. Another good one is “Aim for the stars and you’ll make it to the tree tops”. (Presumably that’s a good outcome). My answer is, “Rather than invest trillions of dollars and hundreds of years I’ll go and buy a length of rope.” People who espouse this trash will often answer, “The journey is the thing.”

  24. Old age and treachery will overcome youth and exuberance every time!

    Ah, but you were speaking of genius and talent. Well, for those arguing that practice will get you there, then I guess all 3 year olds could, if they practiced hard enough, do this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJG9Tol1a0U

    And, should you think this is just some kid drumming by rote, slide over to about the 3 minute mark and watch to the end.

    I’m with Briggs on this one.

  25. Bruce,

    Wow! That is fabulous. His little face. I nblame the Beatles.
    Then there’s this Parrot singing operatic scales.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWh_2Iit3Ek&feature=related

    (‘whatever’)

  26. Malcolm Gladwell is a popularizer. He summarizes other people’s ideas into a form that the public will pay attention to. Good for him for doing that. Of course, something usually gets lost in the translation.

    There is a very good survey paper by K. Anders Ericcson et al, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. http://projects.ict.usc.edu/itw/gel/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.pdf His thesis* is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expert performance. He also points out that it is very difficult to identify intrinsic talent.

    The rub is that deliberate practice is not the same as mindless repetition. Mindless repetition gets you almost nothing. Deliberate practice takes a lot of effort. Deliberate practice only happens because of motivation. (Whether you feel that it is hard or not depends on whether or not you enjoy the process.)

    What is deliberate practice? Here’s a summary:

    1. a highly motivated student
    2. with good concentration
    3. performs a well-defined task
    4. at an appropriate level of difficulty
    5. receives informative feedback
    6. and is given opportunities for repetition to correct errors and polish the skill before moving to the next task.

    Gladwell probably got the 10,000 hour figure from Ericcson or from one of the papers that Ericcson cites.

    The big problem is motivation. Motivation is what largely separates my doctor’s kids from the kids in the ghetto. The ability to motivate is what separates great teachers from average teachers. Without motivation, the hard work of deliberate practice won’t happen and expert performance will not result.

    *(A proposition that is maintained by argument.)

  27. Ari, Briggs,

    OK – thanks for the illumination.

    See what I get for putting my head in the noose w/o checking 1st.

    Slainte

  28. Doug M wrote:
    17 May 2010 at 11:58 am

    “I haven’t checked in the last year or two, but last time I looked, 50% of the elite of the Forbes rich list did not have a college education. If you include only those that are “self- made”, the numbers had even fewer college graduates.

    Following the IBD rationale, if you want to be super-rich would you be better off skipping college?”

    I suspect that those who have their degrees managed to overcome the disadvantages of their “education”. The Git’s recently deceased friend Bert Farquhar used to giv an example.

    Back when The Git was naught but an unfertilised ovum in an adolescent girl in wartime Britain, the Tasmanian Forestry Commission imported seeds of the Monterey Pine (pinus radiata) from California. Bert managed to obtain some seed and both Forestry and Bert proceeded to plant out many tree seedlings. Most failed to thrive.

    Bert put a teaspoonful of soil from around the few that thrived into the planting hole of a fresh batch of seedlings and lo, the inoculated trees went on to thrive and make a great deal of money for Bert. When informed of this experiment, the Herr Professor Professor Doctor of tree science informed him that what he was doing was mere muck and mystery. The Great Soil Chemist, Justus von Liebig had proved that what Bert had done was completely unscientific and would never work.

    Of course the soil scientists eventually woke up and smelt the coffee. What Bert had done was inoculate his trees with the microorganism mycorrhiza. This little fungus lives half in the plant root and half in the soil. It takes phosphorus from the soil and trades it for carbohydrates from the plant. It’s mycorhhiza that enables The Git to “mine” decades worth of phosphorus from his predecessor’s applications of super supposedly rendered “unavailable” when it reacts with iron.

  29. “In any case, practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent” (from Matt above).

    Back in the 1970′s an ex swimming coach of mine told me the following: “Practice does not make perfect, only practice of perfection makes perfect”.

    Later, after drumming this advice into another generation of junior swimmers that I coached myself, one subsequently went on to become a “world long distance triathalon champion” and a “world cup triathalon champion” (under another coach). That particular athlete had a true killer instinct that was evident right from the start and an intellegence that set her aside from all the others who passed through my care and was also highly motivated. I coached many talented athletes and did my best for all of them. But it is clear to me that the type of genius required to excell at the highest level cannot be instilled in every individual, regardless of how willing they may be.

  30. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

    — W.C. Fields

  31. After skimming thru the comments, reading the blog article, and having read M. Gladwell’s book there seems to be a fundamental fallacy at play here: that Gladwell presented a complete portrayal of what’s required for success. As I read his book his premise was that a LOT of practice & preparation was crucial, but I don’t recall him ever asserting that would inevitably lead to success. After reading his work & examples his point really seems to be that a LOT of preparation will lead to success in areas where a LOT of skill is the primary/dominant factor to achieving success.

    Bottom line, though, is that Gladwell, like the other authors mentioned, piggybacked on some credible but obscure (in specialty journals) research findings & went from there. Theyd didn’t all come up with this insight all at once [coincidentally] — they basically plagarized a basic theme in a manner that isn’t quite “plagarism.” There’s references out there on this point.

    As for the tried & true recipe for success (which isn’t really a recipe so much as fundamental characteristics), they amount to:

    - The demand for what you do
    - Your ability to perform relative to the demand
    - The difficulty of replacing you

    As the ‘demand for what you do’ is intrinsically tied to one’s personality characteristics, the “vote” of others outside of one’s control (but inside one’s influence) remains an inevitable factor.

  32. Speaking of scary professors, I took physical chemistry from a guy with an eye patch, a hook for a hand, and who walked with a limp. Too many chem lab explosions. Gave the students the drive to a) really understand the material, or b) run like hell.

    We all dreaded the lab sections. One day we were making phosgene gas and somebody dumped over their beaker. We had to evacuate the entire building. That was before the Big U had a HazMat team. I’ll bet they do now.

    btw, Darwin had his own definition of genius: successful gene replication. By his scale the randy Irish were the smartest people on the planet, and that bugged the sterile English Victorians no end. Still does, as far as I know.

  33. “I haven’t checked in the last year or two, but last time I looked, 50% of the elite of the Forbes rich list did not have a college education. If you include only those that are “self- made”, the numbers had even fewer college graduates.”

    “Following the IBD rationale, if you want to be super-rich would you be better off skipping college?”

    No, what it means is that whether you go to college or don’t, start early on your goals. Very early. For most of those folks they started early on their primary motivations: money and power. Be it second grade or junior high PE or high school football, they became focused very early and then never let go.

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