Your genes don’t fit: why 10,000 hours of practice won’t make you an expert
Posted by Dean Holden at June 17th, 2013
by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, 29 May 2013
In particular, the 10,000-hour rule seems to have captured the public imagination.
New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell didn’t invent the rule, but he did popularize it through his best-selling book Outliers. The principle actually dates to a 1993 study, though in that paper the authors called it the 10-year rule.
Whatever name it goes under, the rule essentially says that in order to become an expert in any field, you need to work for at least x amount of time. I don’t know what all the fuss was about. But I guess a big round number brings the equation to life or makes a formula for success sound scientific in a way that simply saying “Practice, practice, practice” doesn’t. Still, that interpretation of the rule seems reasonable to me. Talent plus ten thousand hours of work equals success? Talent plus ten years of work equals success? Sure!
But that’s not how the rule often gets interpreted.
Consider this article about the 10,000-hour rule that opens with the example of Warren Buffett, one of the wealthiest people in the world: “As Buffett told Fortune not long ago, he was ‘wired at birth to allocate capital.’ … Well, folks, it’s not so simple. For one thing, you do not possess a natural gift for a certain job, because targeted natural gifts don’t exist. (Sorry, Warren.)” Maybe the issue here was the word targeted.
Was Warren Buffett born to be a CEO specifically? Was he born to run a behemoth corporation like Berkshire Hathaway rather than, say, to work as a day trader? No. But was he born with a brain for business — a brain that would lend itself to number-crunching and risk-taking and opportunity-identifying and all the other skills that go into becoming the leading investor of his generation? I say yes. Certainly Buffett put in his ten thousand hours or ten years of work. He bought his first shares of stock at the age of eleven, founded a successful pinball-machine business with a friend at the age of fifteen, and before he graduated high school, he was wealthy enough to buy a farm.
This is not the career trajectory of someone who’s interested in business and is putting in his ten thousand hours. This is the career trajectory of someone who lives to do business. You might say it’s the path of someone who was born to do business. You might even say it’s the path of someone who was wired for business at birth.
By putting such an emphasis on practice, practice, practice at the expense of natural gifts, the popular interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule does a tremendous disservice to the naturally gifted.
But wait. It gets worse.
Some interpretations of the 10,000-hour rule leave talent out of the equation altogether — like this description of the 10,000-hour rule on Squidoo (like Wikipedia, it allows users to create brief entries on popular topics): “If you want to become an expert in your field, be that art, sport or business — you can. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always innate genius or talent that will make you a success, it’s the hours that you put in, which means that ANYONE can do it.”
Well, no. Not everyone can do it. Let’s go to Gladwell’s example of Bill Gates. In the late 1960s, when Gates was still in high school, he had access to a Teletype terminal, and his math teacher excused him from class so that he could write code. Computer code became something of an obsession with Gates, and ten thousand hours later — well, you know the story.
Now let me tell you the other side of that story. In the late 1960s, when I was a student at Franklin Pierce College, I had access to the same terminal as Gates — the exact same Teletype terminal. The school’s computer system tapped into the University of New Hampshire’s mainframe. So I had as much access as I wanted, and I had as much firepower as I wanted, and it was all free. And you’d better believe I wanted to spend as much time as possible on that computer. I love that sort of stuff; I love to see how new technology works. The computer was called Rax, so when I turned on the computer, a message would type out on paper: Rax says hello. Please sign in. And I would eagerly sign in.
And that was it. I could do that much — but that was all. I was hopeless. My brain simply doesn’t work in a way that allows me to write code. So saying that if I’d spent ten thousand hours talking to Rax, I would be a successful computer programmer, because anyone can be a successful computer programmer, is crazy.
I say: Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nature + nurture = Success.
Others say: 10,000 hours of work = Success. Or to put it another way: Nurture = Success.
Stated so baldly, this interpretation of the 10,000-hour rule looks ridiculous. It does an injustice to the naturally gifted.
But it also does a tremendous disservice to the naturally ungifted. It raises hopes to an unrealistic level. All the hard work in the world won’t overcome a brain-based deficit.
I’m certainly not saying we should lose sight of the need to work on deficits. But the focus on deficits is so intense and so automatic that people lose sight of the strengths.
If even the experts can’t stop thinking about what’s wrong instead of what could be better, how can anyone expect the families who are dealing with autism on a daily basis to think any differently? I’m concerned when ten-year-olds introduce themselves to me and all they want to talk about is “my Asperger’s” or “my autism.” I’d rather hear about “my science project” or “my history book” or “what I want to be when I grow up.” I want to hear about their interests, their strengths, their hopes. For me, autism is secondary. My primary identity is as an expert on livestock — a professor, a scientist, a consultant.
Autism is certainly part of who I am, but I won’t allow it to define me. The same is true of all the undiagnosed Asperger’s cases in Silicon Valley. Being on the spectrum isn’t what defines them. Their jobs define them. (That’s why I call them Happy Aspies.)
Neuroanatomy isn’t destiny. Neither is genetics. They don’t define who you will be. But they do define who you might be. They define who you can be.
<Does ‘naturally gifted’ mean the same as passionate? – DH>
Adapted and excerpted from The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum.
Temple Grandin & Richard Panek
One of the world’s most well-known adults with autism, Temple Grandin has a Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois and is a professor at Colorado State University. She was most recently named one of Time Magazine‘s 100 most influential people of the year, and has an HBO movie based on her life that starred Claire Danes and received seven Emmy Awards. Dr. Grandin is a past member of the board of directors of the Autism Society of America. She is the author of four previous books.
A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Science Writing, Richard Panek has written frequently for The New York Times as well as Smithsonian, Natural History, Discover, Esquire, Outside, and numerous other publications. He is the author of three previous books.