Since its publication in 2008, many of us have read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, OUTLIERS: The Story of Success (Little Brown and Company). Gladwell gets a lot of criticism for being something of a pop psychologist who is selective with his research but I always find him to interesting and fun to read.
When OUTLIERS had been on the bestseller list for many weeks, an aggressive young salesperson visited me. He asked me if I had read the book and I said yes. We discussed it for a few minutes and he then said, “I will know as much about media as you do in another four years.” I smiled and said maybe you are right. Annoyed, he replied, “No, I will. I have been in the business a year working 40 hours per week so that makes 2,000 hours. When I have five years under my belt, I will have my 10,000 hours in and be an expert just as Gladwell said.” I tried very hard not to laugh and responded, “I think that you are taking Gladwell a bit too literally. You get stuck in meetings and sales calls daily where you do not learn anything new. Also, you drive to a few appointments a day in Atlanta traffic. Those 2,000 hours per year are not all solid gold in terms of learning the business.” He was clearly not happy with me.
In my life, there were two examples that illustrated my point that I tried to articulate to the young lad but he failed to accept. The first happened in college. I was interested in a young woman and she told me that she saw that famous pianist Van Cliburn was performing the following Sunday. The problem was that he was performing in Providence. I said no problem, I had a car, I was from Rhode Island, and I knew the venue well. Off we went and I must say I enjoyed being with her more than the recital. After the performance, she asked “Don, can we go backstage and meet him?” I said sure thing but was a bit nervous.
About a dozen people were there and I asked him to sign the program and he was most gracious and my young lady friend was thrilled. Then, a stage mother pushed a nervous 10-11 year girl up to the great man. She said, “Van, my daughter practices four hours per day."
Van Cliburn gave a pained smile and said “When I was young my mother was working so I would come home from school alone and work on my music. Sometimes, she was late coming back from work. She never asked me how long I played. Always, she asked what did you do? Learning to play well is all about focus. The only valuable time is when you are totally in to what you are doing. Very often, it does not take as long as you think some days.” That really impressed me.
Some 35 years later, I was playing in a golf junket at Pebble Beach with my brother. Two time PGA champion Dave Stockton did a clinic for us before the tournament. He echoed Van Cliburn by asking us how often we practiced at the driving range and how many balls we hit when we did. He stressed that we should never stand in the practice area and hit one ball after another. Rather, we should watch the flight of each ball hit, especially the bad ones and try to access what went wrong. The number hit was not nearly as important as trying to discern what went right or wrong with your most recent swing.
Over the years, I have unknowingly practiced the 10,000 hour drill. There is a particular topic about which I have read 700 books. Literally. I do not consider myself an expert but I know more than most. In recent years, I have devoted with few exceptions an hour a day to another topic. Before I die, I hope to be near expert level in that discipline as well.
Interestingly, Gladwell gets some criticism from the originator of the 10,000 hour theory. He was Professor Anders Anderson of the University of Colorado. The concept was developed in a paper he wrote entitled, “THE ROLE OF DELIBERATE PRACTICE IN THE ACQUISITION OF EXPERT PERFORMANCE.” Unlike Gladwell, he stressed that the QUALITY of practice was important. So, both Van Cliburn and Dave Stockton were saying the same thing to me before OUTLIERS was published.
The morale? Be wary. Just because someone has been in a business for 10, 20 even 30 years does not guarantee that they are a true expert nor does it mean that they have kept current with what is going on. This is especially true in today’s world of media and marketing.
I have played golf since 1958. An invitation to play in next year’s Masters Golf Tournament is not in the cards despite my extensive practice!
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