December 1, 2008 | 20 Comments
The best explanation for Malcom Gladwell’s (Blink, Tipping Point) success is provided by the Annals of Improbable Research in its Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.
The editors of that esteemed journal posit that “The public loves to see and applaud scientists who have luxuriant flowing hair.” The club originated after researchers wondered after Stephen Pinker’s meteoric rise in scientific circles, whose hair had “long been the object of admiration, and envy, and intense study.”
Everybody can immediately bring to mind that greatest of all 20th century scientists, Einstein, whose hair was wildly out of control, a condition which we thus associate with genius. Compare, for example, the locks of Pinker and Gladwell.
The soundness of the theory is obvious.
Gladwell, who has ridiculously poofy hair, is out with another book, this one statistical in name: Outliers: The Story of Success. I often say there are no such things as outliers; and I say it again here. Outliers are data points that are too extreme to fit your preconceptions. Here, outliers are people who do exceptionally well at certain tasks.
Anyway, one of the main—shocking!—findings of Gladwell’s book is that—wait for it—genius takes hard work! Some people might be gifted but they still need a healthy dose of honest toil before they find their fame. After thinking about this deep truth, I have come up with a new joke, which I preview for you today. Tourist: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Me: “Practice!” Ha ha ha! Feel free to pass it along.
No, I dishonor Gladwell. His real contribution comes in putting a number to the time required to reach genius level, a task which nobody thought to attempt before. It’s 10,000 hours. It works like this. Pick an area in which you would like to excel, like ballet. Then practice for 10,000 hours, after which you will be a genius.
Business people love Gladwell because of his obvious talent for finding deep but elusive truths (like the value of hard work) and phrasing the truths in ways simple to understand. Thus, my prediction is that it won’t be long before companies begin issuing genius certificates for those employees who have amassed the requisite time in areas such as “horizontal segmentation analysis.” Since earning 10,000 hours only requires about five years of normal work, we’ll soon be flooded with “geniuses”, or with people who claim that they are.
This won’t be the first time we see such eccentric behavior from business people. We currently have a healthy surplus of “Six Sigma Black Belts” (a term supposing proficiency with a type of statistical analysis), and hip Apple (Computers) has a ready supply of folks to be “Genius Bar” hosts and hostesses (a nicely hollow—but hip—phrase).
If you want to know more about the book, you can visit Gladwell’s own page, where he asks himself a bunch of questions and then answers them as if he is suspicious of his questioner. His announces that the main goal of this book is “to make us think about the world a little differently.”
(To anticipate a criticism: yes, I am jealous. I wish I got one-tenth of what Gladwell gets for a speech. And, yes, Gladwell also goes on and on about what can be termed “luck”, the component necessary to accompany practice and talent to ensure success.)