I've been traveling a lot lately, attending an alphabet soup of scientific meetings in Washington, D.C., (ACRT, AFMR, CRF) and Chicago (AAP, ASCI, APSA). And in those travels I repeatedly encountered an idea I had not seen before: the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert or genius at something. That idea seems to have entered the zeitgeist, popularized perhaps by Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers."
It's an appealing idea in that it places nurture before nature, giving most of us a shot at becoming very good at something, even if we're not naturally gifted. The idea that talent is in-born--some god-like quality certain rare people possess--at once seems to limit the possibilities of those of us who are not so blessed and to forgive us for our laziness or lack of drive. The new theory: Just practice some 10,000 hours, in the right way, over some period of time and you're good to go, as long as you've got the basic ability. And a lot of people do.
David Brooks writes about these new theories in an op-ed piece in this morning's New York Times. In "Genius: The Modern View," Brooks writes
In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart's early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people's work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today's top child-performers.
What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had--the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there."
According to the modern theory, the key to success, Brooks writes, is "deliberate practice"--with the emphasis on "deliberate." Brooks points readers towards "two enjoyable new books: 'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle; and 'Talent is Overrated' by Geoff Colvin."
To me, one of the most interesting things about the theories--at least as Brooks describes them--is the implication for mentorship. Read this:
If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you'd take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn't have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or shared the same birthday--anything to create a sense of affinity.
The idea is that the shared traits would help the girl to visualize what she could become. Later, Brooks mentions another role a mentor can play: providing detailed feedback and correction. It need not be the same mentor.
The next key ingredient is drive; the girl spends years reading voraciously, for example. Then, let's say she starts to write. The process is "slow, painstaking, and error-focused." The idea is to focus meticulously on technique.
The idea, Brooks says, is to "delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough." You need to resist your mind's sloppiness so that you can internalize "a better pattern of performance."
I remember observing, during my own graduate training, that the the keys to success include drive and endurance. I was partly right, but I missed two other keys: I never found a mentor I could related to--there was never a model of a life I wanted to live in science--and I didn't practice well. Instead of focusing on the fundamentals, meticulously, I rushed things. I raced to start doing real, high-level work. I did OK with that--I published quickly and often--but I lacked the capability to do really penetrating work. Even today, in my work as an editor, I have that tendency, but I've learned to resist it and to focus on fundamentals. Maybe some day I will have put in my 10,000 hours and be a masterful editor.
This may be nothing but the latest pop theory--Gladwell, certainly, is a great popularizer--but I'm reassured by the fact that its message runs counter to most popular self-help recipes. It emphasizes years of dedication and hard work instead of some easily attainable psychological adjustment. Work hard and long, find a model to emulate--or several. And practice well. I think that's good advice, pop theory or not.